"Spell 81A" - by Amanda Downum and Elizabeth Bear
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
University of Memphis, TN, August 2009
Someone had left flowers again.
Cassie Martin slowed, her neck prickling under a layer of sweat. She glanced down the corridor, in case her secret admirer was still around. Late for office hours, especially on a Friday--the hall was quiet, all the other doors closed.
Bethany nearly walked into her, boots squeaking on the tile. "What is it?" Paper rustled as she shifted the stack of folders and bag of Chinese take-out in her arms. The smell of lo mein and garlic chicken wafted past the familiar scent of her perfume. She glanced around Cassie and saw the bouquet. "Aww! Wait, it's not your birthday, is it? It's not on my calendar this month--"
"No." Cassie frowned. "This is the third time in the past two months." When she was fifteen she would have thought it romantic. At Bethany's age she would have found it engagingly mysterious. Now the mystery was quickly moving through engaging into annoying. How hard was it to ask a woman out, anyway?
"Somebody has a crush." Bethany winked. "It's Dr. Kirkland, isn't it? He totally stammers around you."
"Stacy stammers around everyone, poor guy. I don't think it's him." It had been wildflowers at first, and then a dozen roses, both so perfectly dried they crumbled if she breathed on them too hard. She knelt to investigate the newest offering.
"What are those?" Bethany asked, leaning over her. "They're pretty."
Sky blue petals had faded milky blue-grey, the yellow center dried to the color of parchment. The leaves scraped softly as Cassie lifted the vase.
"They're lilies," she said. "Egyptian blue lilies. People usually call them lotuses." Where had her admirer found them? All right, maybe it was still a little engaging.
"Fancy. There's a note."
That was new--the other two bouquets hadn't had one. Cassie eased the thick creamy paper from between the stems. Neat printed handwriting covered one side. A whiff of incense teased her as she lifted the card, quickly lost under the smell of grease and spices, of Bethany's expensive perfume oil and Cassie's own sweat.
"I am this pure lotus which went forth into the sunshine," she read aloud, "which is at the nose of Re; I have descended that I may seek it for Horus, for I am the pure one who issued from the fen."
Bethany blinked. "That's pretty too, but what is it?" She wore a silver ankh and Eye of Horus amid the necklaces tangled around her throat, but her interest in Egypt was aesthetic rather than academic.
"The Book of Going Forth by Day, spell 81A. For being transformed into a lotus."
"Wow. Somebody has an educated crush. Orrin can't quote anything older than the Romantics--I clearly need to raise my standards. That's really sweet."
Cassie cradled the vase in the crook of her arm and reached for her keys, casting a last glance down the hall. "That's one word for it."
If you could tell her how you feel, tell her how much she means to you--tell her about Emmie, ask for her help. Dr. Martin could help with everything, if you weren't such a coward--
Someone shouts on the Student Plaza, a man's voice raised in anger. Shoulders tighten, head turning against the memory of a blow, and you turn to find another path when a woman's voice answers, quavering, defiant even at the brink of tears.
Walk away. Run. It's none of your business, none of your concern. Your right arm aches, echoes of long-healed fractures.
In your head, Emmie's voice, soft and brutal: How many people said that about Mom? How many people said that about us?
You want to go home, make dinner and lie down beside Emmie where it's safe. But if you walk away now, just like everyone else, how can you ever deserve safe?
Your neck twists tight as you keep walking, shoulders hunching till you feel like a cartoon vulture. Carrion bird, going to feed on someone else's pain.
Going to stop it, Emmie corrects. Going to help.
A man and a woman stand in the short grass of the plaza. His arms swing wide as he yells. Not hitting, not yet, but you see the force in the motion. The woman turns away, arms folded tight across her chest, holding her bag against her like a shield. On the far side of the lawn people keep their heads resolutely down, lengthening their stride to avoid the scene. How many times did you see your mother stand like that? How many times Emmie? You couldn't save either of them, but this time, this one....
Instead you stand still as stone, still a coward. The man spits out one last parting curse and storms away. As he disappears around the corner of the University Center the woman drops her bag. Tears shine on her cheeks. You bite your lip, taste your own salt. Vulture.
"Are you all right?" you ask, drawing near.
She flinches at your voice and you shrink back, keeping small. Small like Mom and Emmie, fine-boned and fragile--you hated it as a child, but it makes some things easier. The woman is your height and heavier. Round cheeks crease as she tries to smile.
"Yeah," she says, wiping her nose surreptitiously. "I'm okay. Sorry."
The apology twists something inside you, burns like coals under your sternum. "It's not your fault. Did he--"
The question is too stupid to finish: of course he hurt her. But she reads the end anyway and her eyes widen with automatic denial. "No, no. Of course not. Nothing like that. It was just a stupid fight. Stress, you know."
Beneath the swollen lids and waterproof eyeliner her eyes are blue, or maybe grey. Hard to tell in the gloaming light. They narrow as she studies your face.
"I know you, don't I? Dr. Martin's class? You had paintings on display in the Artlab."
Your cheeks burn. "Yeah. That's me."
"They were really nice. I especially liked the one of Isis--she was so beautiful."
Because you gave her Emmie's face. Emmie keeping all your scattered pieces together. The blush creeps into your ears, and you nearly let yourself get distracted. "Thank you. But if you need-- If you want someone to talk to, or coffee, or something--"
She might be the one blushing now, but it's getting too dark to see. The tall sodium lights lining the sidewalks buzz to life, glazing her hair and damp cheeks with shades of cobalt yellow and golden poppy. "Thanks. But that wasn't.... Dan and I are still together. We've had stupid fights like that before."
Of course they had. "I wasn't trying to hit on you," you say in a rush, before she can defend him any more. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Sorry. Then yeah, coffee would be great sometime. After class, maybe."
"Sure." You crouch and grab her fallen bag, keeping an arm's length between you as you hand it back.
"Thanks." She smiles again, still brave, but more honest now. "I should go. I'll see you in class."
You watch her walk away, melting into the twilight, and Emmie whispers again. I like her.
Memphis, TN, August 2009
You make it home an hour before dawn, shaking with hunger and nerves, the smell of salt and incense and death clinging to your skin and clothes. The blue house waits for you, cool and welcoming in the sticky night. Blue is the color of magic, according to one of Emmie's books. Dr. Martin hasn't said anything about that, but the color reassures you all the same. You knew as soon as you saw the brilliant azure siding that this house was yours. You turn all the locks behind you, leaning your forehead on the cool wooden door while the air conditioning dries the sweat on your neck. The memory of the night's work films you worse than salt and moisture, nothing you can wipe away. You want to sink to the floor and cry, but Emmie is waiting for you.
You finish all the leftovers in the fridge, eat standing in the kitchen--you never take food upstairs unless it's for Emmie. It all tastes like salt and resin to you, but your hands stop shaking by the last carton of dry fried rice. The growling in your stomach stills, and you head to the bathroom to scrub away the grime and stink of murder. You won't take that upstairs, either.
It's all right the soft voice that sounds like Emmie croons as you lean against the molded plastic of the shower. It was a good thing.
Tears rinse away under the shower spray, cooler than that water. Death should be peaceful, reverent. What you did tonight was ugly and vengeful. Violent.
Just like Dad. You want to vomit, but your stomach is too greedy for that, too practical to be swayed by tears and weakness.
No, no. You stopped him. He'll never hurt anyone again now. Lisa will be safe.
Clean and dry, you climb the attic stairs. Quiet fills you as you unlock the door at the top of the stairs and the familiar mix of frankincense and linseed oil wafts over you. Silent but for the soft whir of the dehumidifiers. The rest of the house may be yours, but it's just a house. This is yours and Emmie's, a safe place. A sacred place.
Every inch of the low vaulted ceiling is painted. Coat after coat of zinc white and linseed oil to saturate the plaster, each layer smoothed and sanded. Next came the scenes from The Book of Going Forth By Day, painstakingly copied till your eyes crossed and your hands cramped on the brush. Scenes from the papyri of Hunefer and Ani, Anubis weighing hearts while Ammit waits, hungry. The eater of hearts--you feel her inside you, growling and pacing, eternal hunger and restlessness.
The sarcophagi are evenly spaced; draped with silk they look like long, low tables. Rectangular instead of anthropoid--it was the best you could do. You had the money for a normal coffin when they gave Emmie back to you, the last of the money you got when Dad died, but you weren't going to bury Emmie in anything that came from him. Then you learned what had happened to her, and realized you weren't meant to bury her at all.
The coffin is mahogany, stained and sealed and lined with velvet, the panels covered in scenes of things she loved. The top is glass, caulked in place--you can't open it, though sometimes you want to. The man in Belfast had the right idea, but he was clumsy and didn't understand what he was doing. You wrapped Emmie and anointed her and wove all the charms she loved into the bandages, but you can't stand to look at what he did to her face. Instead her funeral mask stares back at you when you lift the silk covering, pale and smooth, as perfect as she is in your head.
You don't bother to check the other two boxes. Emmie's companions--sweet, smart girls who deserved something better than the world out there. You knew the right way to do it by then, knew the oils and incenses and charms. They're in much better shape than Emmie. But neither of them speak, even after you painted tiles with the spell to give the dead a mouth, and slipped them into their wrappings. Neither one was enough to keep Emmie from getting lonely again.
It's all right, she whispers, as you lie down on the cool boards beside her coffin. Here you can rest, warded from bad dreams. You did a good thing tonight. Now tell me about Lisa.
The sun rises beyond the paint-blinded window, safe from the snake for another day. In the shadows of the attic that smells like paint and prayers, you tell your big sister about the girl you met at school.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC, September 2009
They never had cleaned out her office.
Over the sunflower couch in Hafidha Gates's sanctum sanctorum hung a framed poster of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies. Even after she left them for the hallowed halls of Idlewood, Solomon Todd liked to go in and look at it, sometimes.
X is for Xerxes devoured by mice.
Todd would kick off his loafers and prop his feet on the arm of the sofa and stare up at it and wonder what he could have done better, how he could have gotten involved sooner. What he could have said to her to make it right.
He'd bring a stack of casefiles with him and prop a jacket open on his lap, so if anybody wandered in it would look like he was working. Honestly, he usually was working. It's just that between working, he'd stare at the poster some, too.
Eventually, that poster was going to have to come down. Just like the trio on the wall opposite the door: Stephen Hawking, The Truth Is Out There, Robert Smith. The couch would have to be moved out, and something done with it. Eventually, this office was going to either be ceded to Todd, or to a technical analyst, if Reyes found one who met his standards and who was willing to accept the career dead-end that only the ACTF could provide.
C is for Clara who wasted away.
Todd happened to know that, sans Hafidha's salary, Reyes had the budget for another field agent--two, actually--but then Stephen Reyes was picky about who he worked with and the sixth WTF cube had been empty for as long as there had been an ACTF. And honestly, it wasn't like anybody they brought in was going to be able to fill Hafidha Gates's size eight-and-half leopard-spot pumps anyway.
They'd get by with Chaz and Falkner--and Todd himself--indefinitely.
Todd was just contemplating poor Neville (about to die of ennui, as his tiny dark eyes peering out of a window embrasure clearly indicated) when he was drawn from his reverie by the sound of Daniel Brady--at his desk out in the bullpen--carpet-bombing with the F-word.
Todd rocked upright, case jackets slipping off his abdomen and thighs to splash on the floor, and lunged for the door and the hallway. He rounded the corner in sock-feet just in time to see the entire team gravitating to Brady's desk. Brady himself was half out of his chair and leaning forward, massive shoulders blocking the monitor that Chaz, Lau, and Worth were all craning to see.
Todd paused in the doorway, aware of Falkner and Reyes doing exactly the same thing on the side wall of the room. Reyes strode between half-height cubes, heels clicking. "What it is?"
Wordlessly, Brady spun his monitor. Whatever so troubled him must have been in the headline, because Reyes scanned it quickly and took a step back, arms folded in an unconscious defensive gesture as frown lines drew themselves between his eyebrows.
It was Lau who took pity on Todd and Falkner, and read aloud: "Police Baffled By Memphis Mummy."
"We got him," Worth said, as betrayed as any nine-year old who's just caught her mom playing Tooth Fairy. "We got the son of a bitch."
"It's two hundred miles from Belfast to Memphis," Falkner said.
"Two hundred thirty-one," Chaz corrected.
Falkner gave him an amused look. "How sure are we that this is a new killing?"
"Pretty sure," Brady said. "The victim was registered for and attending classes over the summer term. So, last month."
"Fuck," Worth said, sounding--for a moment--more like Brady than like herself. "Did we kill the wrong guy?"
Reyes watched her steadily across the desk for a moment. She was a blade of a woman, unimpeachable and invincible. He could have used a gross.
He leaned forward, stabbed the speaker button and an extension code on his phone with his forefinger, and waited two rings. Out in the bullpen, Todd picked up. Reyes didn't wait for the formalities. "Come in here."
"Your will," Todd said, and stood even as he was hanging up the phone. Reyes watched through the blinds as he crossed the bullpen and Villette, Worth, Brady, and Lau pretended not to notice. The door opened, and Falkner stepped aside to allow Todd into the room.
Never one to miss a social cue, Todd shut the door behind him. His eyebrows went up. Reyes didn't bother to exposit: he had a lot of faith in Todd's ability to pick up a story in media res.
"I know I do," Reyes said. "We're running short-staffed, and when Sol retires next year, we're going to be even shorter. But there's a problem."
He held the budget memo towards Falkner. She scanned it, eyebrows rising, and handed it to Todd without a word.
Todd read fast. "Twenty-five percent?" he said. "They can do that?"
Falkner's outrage was a thing of beauty. "After what we did in North Dakota--"
"That's all that's saving us." Reyes lowered his voice, fingertips drumming on his blotter. "That, and the fact that Pauley lied for us. Celentano or his bosses want Villette off the street. I'm not going to let that happen. But when your budget doesn't officially exist--"
"He's trying to starve us out because of Chaz?"
"I try to think the worst of people." Reyes felt his shoulders rise in what could have been a shrug, if they had not been too stiff to fall again. "I'm also getting a lot of reminders about how expensive Idlewood is. And how many consultants we employ."
"What about the plane?" Falkner asked.
"We share it with the critical incident, anti-terrorism, and hostage response teams," Reyes said. "Technically, we're saving money by keeping an asset in use."
Todd cleared his throat. "I can take my retirement any time--"
Reyes said dryly, "The fact that the budget is being cut suggests it would be difficult for me to hire three people to do the work in your place. Since they'll probably just eliminate your position when you go, I intend to hold on to you to the bloody end."
"All right then." Todd's chin tucked, the reaction Reyes wanted. Todd's inner fox might also have some badger blood. "Hand me the entrenching tool. We will fight them on the beaches, etcetera."
Reyes nodded, and let him have the smile for four seconds before he turned it on Falkner. "Esther, Memphis is yours. Lau and Villette are working on finding us a way in--invite or jurisdictional. Something will come up. Pick your away team and be ready to go."
He saw her moment of contemplation, and then the frown. Reyes assigned who went and who stayed.
It wasn't that Falkner needed the leadership practice, but Todd's impending retirement and the Hope Mitchell incident combined to remind Reyes that his days in the FBI were numbered. One way, or the other. He leaned back in his creaky leather chair, steepled his fingers, and put on his best John Forsythe. "Someday, my child. All this will be yours."
Sometimes, it was all Daphne Worth could do to remember that the ACTF had only been a part of her life for two and a half years. It was like being married. Still new, still fresh. Except from the inside of her skin, so much a part of her that she couldn't imagine herself without it.
There were other things she could not imagine herself without, and--other than Tricia--it seemed like every single one of them came with the job. Chaz Villette: her partner, her best friend. Nikki Lau: ally, essential element, vulnerable as a lily under her Kevlar skin. Esther Falkner: mother-warrior. Hafidha Gates--
May, June, July. August. September. Four months and a lifetime since Hafidha got sick, and it hadn't changed. They were adapting, finding ways to maneuver around the hole she'd left in the structure of the team. But the hole wasn't healed--it wasn't even scabbed over--and Daphne was starting to wonder if it ever could be.
Some blows you recovered from.
Some never healed. You just learned to accommodate.
She had a file open on her computer, and her hand occasionally made scrolling gestures with the mouse, but she wasn't reading. Her eyes scanned over the words and figures without passing them along to her brain. Her brain spun a hamster-wheel of distress.
It was Todd who'd actually pulled the trigger on the Belfast gamma. Daphne had been just a year on the job then, just wearing into her new role. She hadn't yet really internalized that Todd was more than a wacky, soft-spoken paper pusher when he'd looked at Reyes, and Reyes had looked back, and Todd had left the rest of the team behind to clamber with a rifle into the loft of the barn where Thomas Payne had gone to ground with the pair of high school girls he was holding hostage. She could still hear--she couldn't help but hear--his voice over her headset, soft and assured: "I have the solution," before Reyes gave the order to fire.
That word was FBI euphemism. The solution was a lethal one; it meant he had the gamma in his rifle sights. It hadn't saved the last two victims' lives, and nothing Daphne could do had prevented their rapid dehydration and death. By the time she got an IV in either of them, the organ damage was irreversible. And Payne had been right there.
How could they have killed the wrong guy?
It was Todd who had pulled the trigger. But it had been Brady and Lau who had followed the evidence to Payne's house, obtained the search warrant, and found the forty-one girls and young women dissected, preserved, and entombed in his basement. All the evidence indicated that Payne had been getting away with it for years, not hunting close to home until recently, when the pressure of increasing infirmity constricted his range.
Did we kill the wrong guy? Todd might not be wondering--or he might, because who knew what went on behind that Zen-master facade? But Lau and Brady sure were, and the rest of the team was right there behind them.
Now Falkner emerged from her office, swept her gaze over Lau (on the phone), Brady, Worth, Chaz, and Duke, and jerked her chin at the briefing closet. "Five minutes," she said, and made a U-turn to pass the Cowboy's desk and vanish into Reyes's office. The door shut behind her, and Daphne turned over the back of her chair to catch Chaz's eye. He Spocked her back and stuffed a Peppermint Pattie into his mouth.
She grinned and opened the top drawer, groping for her BlackBerry. Three minutes later, and she was in the back-to-the-wall chair in the briefing closet, settling in, Chaz on her right hand and Nikki on the left.
By the time Falkner came in, everybody was in their places. There were enough seats to go around now, and it hurt Daphne's heart not to be crowded into a corner by the press of too many bodies and not enough chairs. Not to have to remember to save the last seat and the last corner of table for Hafidha and her global extensible brain.
Things fall apart, Daphne quoted to herself. The centre cannot hold.
"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," Brady answered. Daphne's head jerked back as she realized she had spoken aloud.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," Reyes finished, jumping ahead in the poem. "I always thought that bit was better taken out of context." He turned his attention to Falkner, standing by the door--a little less painfully than she would have, two and a half years before, a little more ease in the arc of her spine. "Esther?"
Sometimes, Daphne thought, things do get better.
"Lau and Todd have done the groundwork," Falkner said, moving away from the doorframe she had been unobtrusively leaning against, "and Nikki's gotten us an invite from the University of Memphis PD. Lau?"
"It turns out that there's an interstate element to the case. Which gives us jurisdiction. I contacted the U of M chief of police and explained the situation to him, then offered our cooperation with his department. And it turns out the U of M has a real police department," Lau said, shuffling papers. "Thirty-odd sworn officers, with a reciprocal arrangement with the Memphis municipal police department. We're not dealing with rentacops here, but they're a small enough department to jump at the offer of FBI assistance with a creepy-ass case. Especially when--well."
"Wait," Chaz said. "Interstate element?"
Lau looked over to where Todd was ripping the sealing plastic off a bottle of water with his incisors. "Duke?"
He spat it into his hand and took a quick gulp of water. "Remember, children. Your teeth are not for use as tools."
Todd must have arranged to sit on the outside of the table, because he stood up with barely a whisk of wheels on nylon carpet and lifted the remote from the shelf by the outmoded laptop. He had apparently been working on his PowerPoint skills, as one thumbclick of the remote summoned an image of a white man in his mid to late twenties, unshaven and Bohemian-chic, to the whiteboard that also served as a projection screen. The second click added the image of a dessicated corpse, hands crossed neatly over its chest. Bogman, Daphne thought, remembering where she'd seen that leathery brown complexion before.
"The victim," Todd said. "Daniel Goodrich. Located in his apartment when his girlfriend insisted the super unlock the door. All indications are that this was the primary crime scene."
He clicked. The two photos were replaced by a left-justified, smiling image of a green-eyed suicide blonde in her mid-twenties, her roots showing dark. "Minerva Carter."
Another click, another face joined the first, centered on the projection. Also white, this one brown-haired and plump. "Lisa Quattrochi."
Daphne perceived a sinking feeling. By now, she had learned to embrace it.
One more click. One more girl, so they were three abreast. This one also a brunette, pale-faced against startling dark hair. "Cerise Gale," Todd said. He set the remote aside, crossed to the whiteboard--breaking the projection so the faces of three young women flickered across his shoulders and the balding back of his head. He lifted a blue pen and wrote each girl's name under her image. "Now, you might ask, what do these three young women have in common?"
"White," Brady volunteered. "Twenties. Look like student-Bohemian types. And let me guess from context: they all live in Memphis?"
"One gown, two town," Todd said. "Quattrochi is an anthropology grad student at U of M, same institution as the male victim, Goodrich. Gale and Carter are locals, but Gale works in food service and Carter has a job at the library. And Carter lives in West Memphis. Or rather, she lives in West Memphis. Arkansas. Our case."
"Are," Daphne said. Todd was careful about his verb tenses. "Lives."
"All three," Todd said, "have gone missing in the last two months. Two before the mummification and one after. Quattrochi was last seen two nights ago." He paused, an air of satisfaction surrounding him.
"But wait." Brady was spindling a piece of notebook paper between his hands until it came apart in shreds. "There's more?"
Todd nodded. "Quattrochi was dating Goodrich. He was seen by a neighbor only two days before the body was discovered--"
"Which gives us a timeline on the mummification," Lau interjected. "It can't take more than forty-eight hours."
Todd continued, "The local cops questioned her extensively in the case, but despite being the chief suspect she was well-alibied. Her disappearance is currently presumed to be flight to avoid prosecution, and I was initially operating under the possibility that she might be our gamma, and she might be in the wind. But a little investigation was enough to turn up two similar missing persons. We need to consider the possibility that she might be alive and a victim."
Reyes's intake of breath was enough to send the hairs on Daphne's spine prickling. Reyes's hunches weren't hunches: they were the distilled result of experience, judgment, and years of study--not to mention the innate knowledge that could pass for mindreading, if you let yourself get superstitious about it.
It made Daphne feel a little better about her sense that something was up.
Todd capped the marker and laid it down in the tray. "Now, I don't know that these three disappearances are related to Goodrich's rather lurid death--"
"I bet a lot of girls go missing in Memphis in any given year," Lau said, but it wasn't an argument. Daphne glanced over at her, and saw the specter of those forty-three dead Tennessee youths in the creases on her brow.
Brady nodded. "Consistent victimology."
"We can't rule it out," Falkner said. "Right. Away team is Reyes, Brady, Worth, Lau. Be ready to roll out in twenty-five. Todd, Chaz, you're the anchor team. I'm sorry, but this one looks to involve a little too much data for just one."
"It's good," Chaz said. He settled back in his chair, and Daphne marveled at the difference between this and the young man she'd once met who had been ready to do anything for a trip into the field. But his place was assured now: he didn't have to fight to keep it. He'd go where he was needed.
Reyes, though, folded his arms. "Me?"
"You told me it was my field team," Falkner said. "Which one of us has a better feel for university politics? Are you going to argue my judgment now?"
Hope Mitchell's updated case file was centered on Chaz's blotter when he came back from the bathroom, a yellow post-it ordering review this and see me before I leave. But Reyes's door was shut. So after Chaz spent fifteen precious minutes of his prep time memorizing the data it contained and then stored it in his locking file, he wasn't surprised when Reyes appeared from Down the Hall and without breaking stride, said, "Villette. My office."
Chaz's head tracked as Reyes swept past his desk without offering a clue as to the nature of the conference. Chaz glanced over his shoulder at Todd; Todd shrugged with his eyebrows. All right, then. Chaz grabbed notebook and pen--in case he needed to draw something--and lurched upright, heart already accelerating in his chest as he searched his conscience.
Nothing jumped out at him as a current and immediate sin, but he spared a moment's amusement that Reyes could still do that to him.
"Shut the door."
Chaz did, softly, feeling the click of the latch against his fingers before he released the handle. Reyes had a manilla jacket in his hands. He stood in front of his desk, facing Chaz, shoulders square.
"I'm really not going to like what you're about to tell me."
Reyes shook his head, and did Chaz the honor of not insisting he be seated. Granting Chaz the advantage of his height, which meant Reyes thought he was going to want it. Silently, he extended the jacket.
Chaz accepted it and began scanning the printouts inside, a pattern already building its three-dimensional structure in his mind as he flipped pages and memorized images, correlating, contrasting. "These are DNA sequences."
Reyes said, "Everyone in Idlewood, except Susannah Greenwood. Every dead gamma Frost has retained samples from." He hesitated. "Hafidha Gates. You."
Chaz had known it was coming, and so he managed to keep the shock of rage and fear from registering on his face or snapping the mirror up around him. The cards were only identified by code numbers, but he'd just spotted a closely repeating pattern to two of them. One was familiar, part of an autopsy report he'd once studied exhaustively. And that part of the code number must indicate the age of the subject, which meant the lower sequence was...
"This one," he said, and handed Reyes his card.
Reyes glanced at the code string and nodded. "How did you know?"
Chaz handed him the second one, the similar one. He made his voice crisp and professional. "Because that one's William Villette. Which one's Hope Mitchell?"
Silently, Reyes indicated the card. "You're seeing it."
Chaz nodded, patterns dancing in his brain. "I'm seeing its absence, anyway. Which one is Hafidha?"
Reyes leaned over his forearm, riffled cards, handed him the proper one.
"She gave consent for this?"
Reyes made a face. "Eventually. The Bug--didn't want her to."
Cardstock crumpled in Chaz's hand before he realized he was clenching it. Carefully, he uncurled. "Sorry."
"They're duplicates," Reyes said, wryly, which made Chaz cough slightly with suppressed laughter. Not funny-laughter, but surprise and irritation. Of course Reyes had seen him coming. "What are you not seeing?"
Chaz flipped a few more cards. "I'm not seeing the anomaly. I'll have to look at a few thousand controls to be really sure, but--there's nothing here. Nothing that indicates a genetic link to the anomaly, or a link to resistance of it. Except--me and Mitchell. There's an..." His lip curled ironically "...anomaly in both of ours that looks similar. And this thing in Hafs' might be... part of the same thing. An adaptation? He looked up at Reyes. "Can Eileen Cho offer consent?"
"So you're conducting medical experimentation on human beings without their knowledge or permission?"
"Treatment," Reyes said. "Testing for treatment. On a ward of the state." He shook his head, scowl lines drawing long beside his nose. "Essentially the same thing. Do you have a better option?"
"Where'd you get mine?" Because Chaz sure as hell hadn't signed any forms.
"Evidence," Reyes said. "At a crime scene. I'd say I was sorry, but--"
"Don't," Chaz said. "I like you better honest."
Reyes' chin came back. He returned Chaz's stare, but it looked softer around the eyes than Chaz's felt. "Touche."
Chaz slapped the jacket closed, quieting the buzz of patterns in his brain. "May I keep these?" Reyes' nod was only a formality. They were already stored in his head.
"So you agree with Frost's assessment?"
"Yes," Chaz said. "The majority of these people have nothing, genetically speaking, in common. Other than being human. But the betas do, and it looks like genetic damage. We have anecdotal evidence that some things can predispose--left-handedness--and it's early to make any blanket statements--"
"The anomaly's acquired," Reyes said.
Chaz nodded, feeling a coldness settle into his spine as if from within. "The anomaly's acquired. And some people have a freak resistance to it."
University of Memphis, TN, September 2009
"Shit, Cassie. Have you seen this?"
Cassie looked up to find Bethany leaning through her office door, alternately waving a newspaper like a flag and fanning herself with it. Her pale face was splotchy, and sweat glistened across her forehead and sternum and darkened the top of her black camisole. They'd had more than one discussion about sartorial color choices in Tennessee summers, but with a name like Bethany Strange, she was probably doomed to a life of black lace and heat exhaustion. Orrin Sykes lingered behind her, keeping body heat distance between them. Tall and gaunt with deep-set eyes, he didn't need to wear black to coordinate with Bethany--he already looked like a cartoon undertaker.
"Seen what?" Cassie leaned down and tilted the oscillating fan toward the door. Filmy black fabric billowed and stuck to Bethany's sweaty thighs. Cassie recrossed her legs in sympathy.
Bethany slid the wrinkled, ink-smeared copy of The Daily News across Cassie's desk, eclipsing a pile of to-be-graded quizzes. Cassie's eyebrows climbed as she scanned the headline. "'Police Baffled by Memphis Mummy'? Really?"
"I would have said 'mystified'," Bethany said, collapsing into the wooden chair on the other side of the desk. Her paisley skull-and-crossbones bag landed beside her with a whump. "How often do you get to write a lede like that?"
"That name sounds familiar." She tapped the grainy photograph of a dark-haired young man. She didn't recognize him, but no one looked quite right in the blurry pointilism of newsprint. "The...mummy."
"Dan Goodrich? He was an anthro major. He took your Ancient History of Asia class last semester. He was kind of a douchebag." She winced, glossed lips twisting. Cassie cocked an eyebrow, and from the doorway Orrin made a disapproving noise. "Well," Bethany said defensively, "it's true."
Somewhere over Tennessee, September, 2009
Evening light mellowed the landscape as the Gulfstream dipped towards the General DeWitt Spain airport in Memphis, Tennessee. Nikki Lau leaned against the window, trying to ignore the worry churning away in her gut. Did we kill the wrong guy? Did we? She wanted to steal another glance at Brady, but he was going to catch her at it if she kept it up, so she settled for watching the arched shadow of a bridge inchworm across the green-amber mottled celadon surface of the broadest river she'd ever seen. Mud flats scattered with trees made swampy margins between the river and streets lined with houses and businesses. As the plane descended, Lau could make out toy cars and the unraveled cotton-swab tops of trees. A flash like sunlight bouncing off an angled mirror drew her attention; when she turned her head, she caught sight of a massive pyramid of dark glass, glittering in the slanted light.
"Crap," she said. "I guess they take the Memphis thing seriously."
Across the table, Brady raised his eyes from a pile of case jackets--everything they knew about the missing girls. "Hmm?"
"Honking big pyramid," she said. "I wonder if it's bigger than the Luxor." She'd been to Vegas often enough when she lived in LA, and the glistening black sides of Sin City's resident Egyptian-themed casino were a familiar sight to anyone driving in from the southwest.
"Chaz would know," Brady said. "It's a sports arena. Or was. The Memphis Grizzlies used to play there, but I think it's closed now."
"You'd think Tennessee would be more black bear country," Lau deadpanned, just to get a flicker of a smile out of him. It almost worked: the smile muscles tensed, at least. But he was carrying the same load she was right now, and probably a little bit more.
She knew something was up with him and Gray. You'd have to be blind to miss it. What it was, exactly, was a guess--but Lau knew what had happened with his last serious relationship, and if she couldn't get herself over a perfectly amicable divorce from a guy with absolutely nothing wrong with him except that she didn't love him, what was it like to move past something like... Andre Kent?
He should get a medal for even trying. And Gray, who she really still hoped she'd get to meet someday, should get a medal for putting up with him during the process.
Reyes dropped into the chair beside Brady and slid a netbook onto the table between them. The motion was enough to attract the attention of Falkner and Worth, who arrived in tandem from the front of the plane. Worth stood aside to let Falkner claim the seat beside Lau, but Falkner shook her head and gestured Daphne into it.
Reyes swiped a fingertip across the skidpad on the tiny computer, revealing the foxy face of Solomon Todd. "Everybody's here," Reyes said. "What do you have?"
"Geographic profile," Todd said. "Chaz has gone over the police reports on all four victims, treating them as linked. It looks like Memphis PD did a good job with the missing person investigations--even pulled cell records. Three lived in the Normal Station neighborhood, which is the U district, more or less. Other than U of M itself, there's not a lot of other links--and even within the university it doesn't look like their paths would have overlapped much. We're still working on it."
"There are places in any University where everyone's paths overlap," Reyes said. "Student Union. Library. Out in the quad on sunny days."
"Local bar or pizza joint," Lau said. "Victims are town and gown, remember."
Reyes nodded. "Observer bias," he admitted, dismissing himself with an airy wave. He looked up at Falkner for direction, making Lau's lips curve a little. Was it killing him to let Falkner run the show? Sure, it sounded like it had been his idea, but how hard was it to pull your own command if you were Stephen Reyes? And what was really up? It wasn't that he doubted Falkner's ability to lead. And she sure as hell didn't need seasoning. It couldn't be that he had some reason to distrust himself on this one, could it? Other than the reason they all had, this time out.
Lau shook off the distraction. Trying to second-guess Stephen Reyes was like playing chess against Bobby Fisher. Sometimes you didn't even figure out the other guy's strategy until the game had been over for a month and a half.
Falkner seemed ready for him. She drew herself erect from the core and uncrossed her arms. "Footwork. And lots of it. Once we get settled, we'll start drawing up interview lists--"
"I've sent some preliminary suggestions to your email," Todd said. "I had to do something while Villette was playing supercomputer. I guessed it might save you some time on the ground. I suggest you concentrate on the University to start, as if you needed me to mention that."
Reyes smiled grimly at Todd's Skyped-in image. "That joke only works if you have a chalkboard, Solomon."
It must have been context, because Todd stared, taken aback, and burst out laughing. He was still shaking his head as he cut the connection. Lau was pretty sure she heard him mutter Asshole in cheerful tones as he went.
Reyes snorted and snapped the netbook closed. He stood, Falkner moving aside to let him have the aisle, and returned to his usual seat up front without another word. Falkner followed.
Worth glanced at Lau. "Non sequitur much?"
Brady leaned over the table. "What was that about?"
Lau lifted the folder she had been flipping through and hid her mouth behind it. "Marital shorthand."
Brady's paroxysm of laughter drew Reyes' attention back to them, but by then, Lau was absorbed in the case jacket, and butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
University of Memphis, TN, September 2009
The U of M campus comprised exactly the mix of traditional and modern Brady would have wanted if he'd been location scouting for a major public university campus. Students filed along tree-shaded path through an atmosphere that remained sultry even in September. The white-columned brick administration building stood across an elliptical plaza from a smaller hall with an elaborate yellow and red art deco facade. The long shadow of a stark, modern white clock tower lay on the ground as if cast by the gnomon of a giant sundial.
Brady watched his team precede him across the brick, all but one of them doing a fairly convincing imitation of casual, academic haste. Falkner couldn't mosey if her life depended on it, but if Brady hadn't known already how uncomfortable Reyes was, he never would have guessed from watching him.
Reyes hurried two steps to get the door for the rest of the team while Falkner consulted a card. By falling in a half-step in front of Brady as Brady passed through the door, he managed to let Brady keep his preferred position at the end of the line. Brady was grateful. He thought he was keeping the gnawing worm of regret from showing, but just in case it was better to be behind everybody.
Inside the building, the air-conditioned cool drifting beneath shadowy high ceilings came as a relief. Falkner was already ten steps down the corridor, Lau and Worth caught up in her wake, and Reyes and Brady hustled to make up the distance.
A minute or two later, they gathered before a reception desk, behind which resided a slightly doe-eyed woman who rose from her chair to greet them. "You must be the team from the FBI," she said. "Chief Merchant is waiting for you in Dean Rand's office."
The Dean of Students was a broad-hipped woman who seemed firmly anchored in her office, with its sweeps of neutral carpeting and cliffs of pale Danish Modern bookcases. Her pale skin was almost translucent, her gray hair was hot-curlered into an updated bouffant, and for a moment Brady imagined his Grandma Gilmer patting her own ample hip and whispering "The bigger the bottom, the bigger the hair." He liked Dean Rand before she even opened her mouth.
"Special Agent Nicolette Lau," Nikki said, stepping to the forefront. "We spoke on the phone."
She offered her hand to Rand as the man who must be Chief Merchant, thin and brown and tough-looking as a mahogany plank--Brady thought of Morgan Freeman, twenty years ago--rose from an oatmeal-colored chair and extended his hand to Falkner. Introductions all around, Brady at first prey to an unnameable anxiety until he realized it was his internal timer telling him to get some calories into the betas. Not this trip, he told himself, and felt the anxiety convert to sadness.
He shook hands and mumbled pleasantries, and let himself be pushed to the back of the group and out of the circle of negotiations.
"We've arranged to put you up in some VIP housing on campus," Rand said. "Interview space might be a little more challenging--"
"The house is quite small," Merchant said, meaning the police station. "SA Lau said you would conduct most interviews in the field?"
"Until we identify a suspect," Falkner said.
Merchant dipped his chin. "We have reciprocity with the Memphis PD. I'll handle the liaison with their homicide investigation for now. When would you like to start interviews?"
"Tonight," Falkner said. "Right after we get settled and grab something to eat, if it's not too late. Otherwise, first thing in the morning. We'd like to hit the ground running. Has the victim's body been forwarded to our facility in Baltimore?"
Merchant nodded. "If you're correct about the link between the Goodrich murder and the missing girls, I agree about the need for haste. A young woman's life may be at stake. We provided SA Lau with transcripts of interviews of Goodrich's family and known associates. Including Quattrochi. That might save you some time."
"Our analysts are reviewing them," Falkner said. "We'll still wish to re-interview. Sometimes we ask kind of funny questions."
"Just like on TV?" Dean Rand asked.
"Sometimes," Falkner said. "But only sometimes."
Rand and Merchant showed them their rooms and the phones and left them to their own devices, though Merchant made sure every one of them had his cell number. "Damn," Daphne said, as she followed Falkner into the small conference room set aside for their use. "That's a lot of paper. These are the transcripts of the completed interviews?"
She hadn't really intended dry understatement, but apparently she'd achieved it anyway, because Lau snorted and shook her head. "And just think, we left Todd and Chaz at home. They've got e-copies, though, so we don't have to review all of this."
Brady shut the door behind himself, closing all five of them inside the gray-carpeted hush of the little room. Nobody said it, but Daphne could see the thought travel from him to Reyes, from Lau to Falkner. Each face stilled for a moment, then resumed animation with an effort. Lau looked down guiltily, her mouth twisting, and Daphne brushed her arm with the back of her hand.
You couldn't help but evoke the ghost of Hafidha. Even avoiding mentioning her showed the shape of her absence. She was too much a part of who they were and how the team functioned.
Into the awkward silence, Daphne's BlackBerry buzzed. A moment later, the other palmtop devices around the room answered.
"Interview lists," Reyes said. He opened his mouth to say something else, then looked at Falkner.
That look she gave him might have been amusement. "Let's split them up and get to work."
They did it by zone, a geographic split. Tonight they'd start with the campus, residences first. Reyes and Lau departed to visit Goodrich's apartment--where his body had been discovered--and canvass his neighbors, and the other three stayed behind. Tomorrow, when people would be in their offices and workplaces, the whole team would interview the faculty and graduate students that might have known Goodrich or Quattrochi, librarians and aides who might have known Carter, fellow cafeteria ladies who would have worked with Gale.
Since Falkner, Brady, and Daphne were working in such a geographically restricted area, they'd first check Quattrochi's apartment--on the Park Avenue subcampus a few city blocks from the main campus--and then split up. Help, if it was needed, would never be more than a few minutes away. The following evening, when somebody would have to drive out to West Memphis, they'd work with partners.
Something about Quattrochi's one-bedroom grad student apartment left a funny taste in Daphne's mouth from the moment she slit the seal and paused inside the doorway to let Falkner and Brady enter first. Brady gave her a funny look, but acquiesced when she waved him through. He should have the first look at the scene, and anyway, Daphne preferred to keep her unanticipated emotional reaction out of his attention and Falkner's.
The apartment was cramped, cluttered with secondhand furniture, and piled with books. It was smaller than Chaz's apartment, which was saying something--or maybe it wasn't actually smaller, but Chaz's place had good light, and the darkness in this one made it seem close. Blackout curtains dimmed the bedroom, where it seemed Quattrochi had slept on an opened-out sofabed. Dusty ceramic kittens dotted the bookshelves and the battered nightstand that served to hold a TV up. Heaps of clothes, clean or dirty, lay kicked this way and that. The floor was carpeted, but there was no evidence of a vacuum cleaner, and nobody had bothered to wash the dirty dishes in the sink.
"Not houseproud, was she?" Brady said. Daphne winced on the missing girl's behalf, but she too was trying to breathe shallowly. Wasn't it everybody's worst nightmare, strangers in your home when you were unprepared?
She'd identified that uncomfortable sensation. It was the sense of the road not taken. This could have been her as a med student, living on mac and cheeselike substance and sleeping where she fell.
If she hadn't preferred adventure, this was where she could have ended up--or begun, rather. This wasn't an end-point. It wasn't supposed to be an end-point. It was supposed to be the road that took you there.
"I wonder if she had a porn buddy," Daphne answered. "You know, this looks like a grad student apartment to me."
Falkner was in the bathroom, rattling through the medicine cabinet. Daphne edged up on the kitchen sink and ducked down, holding her breath as she opened the cabinet under it. The trash had been recently emptied, at least. The only things in the bag were a couple of Starbucks cups and a fistful of withered roses, their colors faded like parchment, like something out of a Joni Mitchell song.
"So why do you throw out the bouquet you had enough sentimental attachment to to dry?" Daphne asked.
Brady snorted. "You broke up with him?"
"What if he turned up horribly dead and you were the chief suspect? Would you hang on to those flowers?"
Brady shook his head, curls breaking with sweat around the tops of his ears. He needed a haircut. Out of character. "If I killed him, probably not. I'd probably crush them up before I threw them away, if I were harboring that kind of rage." He paused. "And if he was dead and I loved him? I'd wrap them up and put them out of sight."
"So these didn't come from the boyfriend."
That tight smile creasing Brady's face looked like victory seen through pain. He turned away and raised his voice. "Falkner? You should see this."
When they finished inside, they moved on to the neighbors. Daphne knew the questions by heart now, and knew how to let one answer lead naturally and organically to the next. She knew the little reassuring noises and the hesitations that would invite an interview subject to fill the silence. She knew her job, and if she wasn't Todd or Reyes or even Lau across an interview table, she was still good at it.
And this? It was relentlessly routine. They divided up the grad student housing by apartment number and worked it door by door, leapfrogging each other as necessary.
Some were one-bedroom efficiencies for single students; others were housing for married students or students with children. There were one hundred and fifty apartments in total, which worked out to fifty doors knocked apiece. By fifteen, Brady quoted Ghostbusters to her when they passed in the courtyard--"When we get to twenty, I'm going to puke."
Daphne laughed wearily and punched his arm, and then wondered when that had happened. When, exactly, had the Cowboy stopped being the intimidating hardass she desperately wanted to impress, and started being some guy she could slap on the shoulder? Somebody who she could tell needed moral support, and who would offer it in return?
About the time, maybe, that the WTF turned into home.
Today, they were just two people who desperately wanted not to have made a terrible mistake. She imagined his gut was churning with as much awfulness as her own, but the job had to get done. And if they had done it wrong before, more reason to get it right this time.
She turned her attention back to the interviews. Harried-looking grad students in pajamas or boxer bottoms, bathrobes, jeans, shelf tanks. Barefoot, in slippers, wearing flipflops. Ripped cargo pants and unwashed hair. Gauzy hippie skirts. Some with irritated looking spouses rattling cooling supper dishes significantly as she asked questions, those same spouses surprised when Daphne asked the same questions of them. Of any available children, if the children were old enough and the parents were amenable.
It was amazing how many doors opened to a crooked gold badge and the words, "I'm Special Agent Daphne Worth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We're looking into the disappearance of your neighbor Lisa Quattrochi, and I was wondering if you had a few minutes to spare to answer a few quick questions?"
They looked... young. Even the ones who were her own age. And when she mentioned Quattrochi--Lisa, as Daphne started thinking of her by the sixth or seventh door, since that was how her neighbors knew her--they looked worried, or frightened, or irritated. A few got angry--referred aggression, taking it out on Daphne because they could not get at the thing that really hurt them--and she rode it, kept them from shutting the door when she could, asked the same questions. Weight loss, behavior change, anything you've seen that struck you as out of the ordinary, no matter how small. Anybody else in the community exhibiting these symptoms? No? Was Lisa upset about anything? Did she ever confide in you? Do you know who might have been sending her flowers? What were her interests outside school? Did she ever mention anything about Daniel? Were the police harassing her about his case?
It was endless and relentless and a good thing students stayed up late, because the sun was gone and the night cool enough to sting before they finished. The next time Daphne's path crossed Brady's, she rolled her eyes like a silent movie star and said "I hope Reyes and Lau are doing better," and Brady answered, "This is slower than crap dripping down a cow's tail."
Falkner paused as she passed in the opposite direction. "How's it going?"
"Forty-five," Daphne said. "I'm starting to get a sense, though. Let's just finish this and order some Chinese food. The delivery guys keep walking by, and the smell is killing me."
"I'll call Reyes," Falkner said.
Brady heaved a sigh and scratched his head, blond locks falling back into place as if blow-dried. "Race you."
There were two addresses left on Brady's list when his palmtop buzzed. None of the team's rings.
He knew he shouldn't have answered, but it was reflex. "Hi mom," he said. "I'm at work."
"This late? Oh, honey, you work too hard."
"It's the job."
Looking back, he would never be able to retrace the series of noncommittal grunts that got him into trouble. One minute, his mom was fretting about how long it would be before frost got her tomatoes, and the next she was saying, "You know, Danny, you're not getting any younger. When are you going to think about a family?"
"You're so good looking," she said. "Just like your father. What about that Chinese girl you're always talking about?"
He'd mentioned Lau three or four times, in the context of work or casual friendship. It was enough to put her into his mother's head as the leading contender for grandchildren. Sure. When she decides she wants kids, we can do A.I. Iron control kept the words in his head; his mom probably didn't even notice the strangled silence. She was on a roll.
"You father would have a fit, of course."
About her being Chinese. Brady could picture it; all he had to do was downgrade the fit the old man would have about Gray by ninety percent. And put an expiration date on it.
"But he'd get over it for grandbabies."
"Nikki's a co-worker, mom."
She sighed. "I know, sweetie. I'm sorry."
"It's nothing," Brady said, "Look, I'm on the clock, I really have to go. I'll call Sunday if I can."
She hung up after a few more pleasantries; he found himself staring at the phone when Daphne dragged up, her stone focus on polished and professional flagging badly. "Everything okay?"
"Fine," he said, and folded the phone closed. It went into its belt holster as if he'd never pulled it out. "Come on, Kemo Sabe. Close your eyes and think of tangerine beef. We're nearly there."
She almost smiled. "You got any interviews left?"
"Two," he admitted.
She held out her hand for the palmtop he'd just put away. "Give me one."
Memphis, TN, September 2009
Standing on the grotty brown carpet of the apartment building hallway, watching Reyes's shoulders, Lau jammed her hands into her pockets. "Brady's better at scene analysis."
Reyes slit the police seal on the apartment door left-handed and clicked his lockblade knife closed. He put it away, producing a key from the same pocket, and with lavender-gloved hands opened the door.
It opened on a dark room that smelled faintly of old leaves and mothballs and something sweet.
"Think of it as cross-training."
Forensics had already been through the scene, so Reyes reached out and flipped the lightswitch by the door, illuminating a typical depressing student pad. Broken-backed chairs and couches were shoved against the walls of a small living room with dingy white walls. Threadbare brown carpeting covered an uneven floor. When Lau stepped on it, she could feel the lumps where the pad beneath had worn into crumbles.
The room also boasted a TV and several bookcases. Piles of books and mail on the coffee table were all shoved to one end, creating space for a laptop computer that was nowhere in evidence. Crime lab, Lau thought.
There were no signs of a struggle, except the stains on the third-hand couch. Everything about the room said this was the den of a hard-working doctoral candidate.
It was hot and still, breathless. That itchy odor rasped her sinuses with every breath. "I hope somebody cleaned out the fridge."
Reyes grunted. "He was found on the sofa." He crossed the living room with rapid steps that almost hid his limp. For a moment, Lau thought he was going to throw himself down on the sofa and compose himself as if in the scene photos, but instead he crouched, wincing, and dropped one knee. Gingerly, he slid one hand under the drab tweed skirt of a pleated dust-ruffle.
Lau should have better things to do that watch her boss grope around under furniture. The smell of camphor followed her, fading slightly as she walked into the kitchen. It had an underlying note, something bitter and resinous and not unpleasant. Both were infinitely preferable to the crime-scene smells she had expected, cadaverine and putrescine, voided bowels and spilled bladder. And better, too, than the formaldehyde and rotten meat stench of Payne's basement dissection and mummification shop.
The kitchen was as threadbare and Spartan as the rest of the public space, and as cluttered. The table had obviously never been used for eating; it groaned under the weight of library books arranged in piles that no doubt made all the sense in the world to the former occupant, scraps of yellow Post-It marking pages. The refrigerator hadn't been cleaned, but it hardly mattered: there was nothing in it but a broken sixpack of Diet Coke, a crusty squeeze bottle of yellow mustard, and a bottle of insulin.
"He was a diabetic," Lau called around the corner. "And he was doing his dissertation--" she leaned over the books on the table "--on something to do with Middle Eastern languages, although your guess is as good as mine exactly what."
"Hello," Reyes said, behind her. When she turned around, he was holding up another textbook at eye level, open to the title page. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. There was a scrawled pencil signature in the upper right hand corner. Lisa Quattrochi.
Quattrochi's victimology was still in progress, being compiled by the rest of the team. But Lau remembered the spare details they knew already. It wasn't unusual that she would leave a book under her boyfriend's couch, certainly. But--
"Didn't Todd say she was an anthropology grad student?"
"Archaeology is a branch of anthropology," Reyes said. "And Egyptology falls somewhere between archaeology and art history, from what I recall. So if you think of Egypt, what do you think of?"
"Mummies," Lau said promptly. "Think she goes back on the list as a suspect?"
"I don't see how we can avoid it." Reyes folded the book closed again, handling it by the corners, and only barely managed to whip it aside as he was interrupted by a virulent sneeze, which he stifled in the immaculately-tailored crook of his elbow. "Excuse me."
Lau grinned. Sometimes, it was nice to be reminded of his mortality. "What is that smell, anyway?"
She shook her head. "There's something else. Something... bitter. Black-smelling. And something sweet. Resiny."
He cocked his head to one side and sniffed. "Myrrh. And frankincense," he said with certainty. "It's strongest by the couch."
"Raised Catholic," he said. "The stuff seeps in through your pores. And it's an odd kind of incense for a grad student with no signs of spiritual interest to be burning."
The basement, the bodies, the jars. "The Belfast mummies didn't smell of myrrh."
"No," Reyes said. "They didn't."
Lau left him there and went back to the kitchen. No garbage pail beside the stove, though the spatters on the cheap latex paint told her where it should be. Maybe the crime team had taken it. She started pulling cabinets open--over the stove, over the counter, under the sink--and after the third one she stopped and stepped back, examining the cleaned-off shelves with a frown. Mismatched plates, yard-sale wine-glasses, just as you would expect. And--
"Reyes," she called.
He appeared at the narrow entryway, frowning. When he followed her gesture, the frown deepened. "No food at all in the house?"
"Not even a can of Beefaroni or a package of ramen," she said. "Now what kind of a grad student lives like that?"
Memphis, TN, September 2009
There's so much you can't do.
No seventy days of preparation, no priests and dancers and hired mourners. You haven't figured out how to remove the organs; you're not willing to risk the remains to try. All you have are oils and unguents and your two careful hands, the charms you sculpt from wood and clay. Incense burns in lazy coils as you wrap Lisa in linen, layer after layer. She was pink and soft and curved only days ago. Now her skin is brown, leathery, the arches of cheek and temple proud through sunken flesh. Still beautiful, in a way, but so unlike her face in life.
It will be all right, you tell yourself. The organs are safely preserved, no need to seal them in honey. You wouldn't want to rip the brain out, anyway--the thought makes your sinuses prickle. But you've done the best you could. You've done well, never mind the nagging doubts.
So why don't they speak? You feel Emmie with you always, a soft flutter like the brush of a bird's wing, but Minerva and Cerise are silent. You brought their favorite things: books, jewelry, even the bicycle propped in the corner. Dried flowers and jars of honey and spices line the shelves, carefully dusted. But no trace of any part of their souls.
Dr. Martin would know what you did wrong. If you could just find the courage to talk to her.
When Lisa's bandages are snugged into place, you wipe your hands on a rag. Last into the sarcophagus goes the teddy bear you found in her house. A ragged, threadbare little thing, one eye missing, but it has the feel of something loved. The glass lid slides into place, and the pungent smell of caulk cuts through the cloying layers of incense.
You stumble downstairs when it's done, shaking and wrung-out. Hungry. Always hungry. Your phone rings as you fix a sandwich, a shrill rattle against the table that makes you jump. A container of take-out barbecue sauce ricochets from counter to floor, spraying red across the linoleum. Your hands shake as you drop the knife.
The number isn't one you recognize, but you're laughing at your own nerves and the silence in the house hasn't broken in days.
"Hello?" The word sticks; you clear your throat and try again.
A pause, then a woman's cautious voice. "Henry?"
"Yes." Something familiar there, but you can't place it--
"Hah." A triumphant bark of a laugh. "It's Meg. Meg Brooker."
"Wow. I-- Wow." You sit, the chair knocking the backs of your knees. "It's been a long time."
Meg Brooker. Emmie's tomboy friend from high school. A fierce, dark-haired girl who ran everyone into the ground on the hard red clay and dead grass of the soccer field. She made Emmie laugh, and smuggled wine coolers to share in the stuffy darkness of her family's tool shed. You were only Emmie's shy little brother to her, but she broke a bully's nose once when he threatened you.
You shake your head against the sudden rush of memory as Meg laughs and says "Six years."
"What happened to you?" Your stomach snarls, and barbecue sauce dries like clotted blood on the kitchen floor, but that can wait. "You disappeared after graduation."
Another laugh. "I joined the army. I know--crazy, right? I got back last month." Her voice dulls, the sun vanishing behind clouds. "I heard about Emily. I'm-- I'm so sorry."
You ought to be used to it by now, but the knife still twists sometimes. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Look, I called because I'm in Memphis for a college interview. Do you want to get together? I'll buy you a drink."
You swallow, mouth drying even through the hunger-spit. "I'd like that."
Emmie would like that.
University of Memphis, TN, September 2009
Dinner was Americanized Chinese takeout in Falkner's room, and if it was a far cry from her mother's cumin beef, the watery, flavorless Buddha's delight was at least food, and lots of it. It wasn't the meat Lau missed, when she missed things she'd used to eat before it had really sunk in that she was eating things with nerves and attachments and emotions. It was the comfort food, and cumin tofu just wasn't the same.
Neither Brady's tangerine beef nor Falkner's garlic chicken--both swimming in glossy cornstarched sauces--looked at all tempting, thankfully. Lau sighed, and ate another limp baby corn spear before putting her takeout box down. "Is there any of the vegetable fried rice left?"
Daphne had taken the precaution of packing a small bottle of real soy sauce, so they weren't at the mercy of the plastic packets, and a teaspoon of that rendered the fried rice acceptable. Lau traded her chopsticks for a fork, opened a Fresca from the vending machine in the lobby, and settled in.
Falkner gave them ten minutes to lay down a foundation of calories before she glanced at Reyes--patently oblivious and profoundly absorbed in his fried dumplings--and cleared her throat. "So what do we have?"
Brady looked from side to side, and when nobody else looked ready to jump into the breach, he stepped up. "Quattrochi fought with her boyfriend--a public quarrel--about a week before he died."
Lau slugged back Fresca, wrinkling her nose at the somehow-pleasant artificial acridity. "Domestic violence?"
"Just a shouting match," Brady said. "But a very public one. It seems to have been about Quattrochi's teaching load, and him feeling neglected. He was still around after, though--they didn't break up." A muscle in his jaw worked, and he suddenly got very interested in picking the chili peppers out of his dinner and laying them on a napkin.
Reyes asked, "Did you get into Quattrochi's apartment?"
Falkner nodded, chewing a green bean. "It was what you would expect. A complete pigsty. Textbooks, a pretty nice student sound system that was probably hooked up to her laptop, closets full of ironic hipster clothing. One thing we did learn was that she was an avid bicyclist, but her bicycle and helmet were not in her apartment or chained up outside."
"Suggests she may have gone out for a ride," Lau said. "Is that in the police reports?"
"There's no indication that anybody knew where she was going," Worth said. She, too, pushed her dinner aside half-eaten, making a face. She reached for a fortune cookie. "She didn't leave a note, and it's possible that the local police--well. Might have missed the bicycle thing. Especially since there are bike racks all over the place."
"So how do you know hers is gone?"
"We don't know it's gone," Brady said. "We know it's not at her apartment or any of the racks in the complex. God help us, we looked. At every fucking two-wheeler in the complex. Compared a photo from her apartment. Not there." He forked a piece of beef into his mouth and chewed, swallowed. "I've got the campus cops looking for it. Kind of an All Points Bike."
"Oof," Worth said, with a catlike flinch and headshake. "What did you get?"
Reyes swirled tea in a paper cup. "There's nothing in Goodrich's apartment to indicate he was involved in anything shadier than stealing television off the internet. We did find some of Quattrochi's things scattered about, including a book on reading hieroglyphics, though. Also, Todd called in. He's got a list of people who have moved from the Belfast area to Memphis since the gamma incident there. Chaz is following up on them electronically, since we are a little bit swamped on this end, but he says it's slow going and Todd is still tracking some down."
"We did find out that Quattrochi had a secret admirer," Worth said. "Somebody left her flowers a couple of times."
Reyes perked up. "Not the boyfriend? Not a stalker?"
"It was after his death." Worth rolled her cup between her hands. "And it appears she didn't think there was anything creepy about it. No note, no threats. She threw the flowers away, though--they were still in the trash in her kitchen. All dried out."
"Right," Falkner said. "Go to bed. Make it good. Wake up call's at five. Somewhere out there, there may still be victims alive."
Lau swallowed the last bite of fried rice and folded the container closed around the plastic fork. As the team stood, she and Daphne swept the detritus of dinner into paper sacks to discard in the hall. It was nice of Falkner to let them use her quarters as home base, but nobody really wanted to sleep in a hotel room that smelled like cold Chinese food.
It starts with a touch.
You don't mean to. Don't want to. Not now. Not yet. Sitting with Meg in this dim, loud bar you feel more human than you have in years. Alive, after so long in a tomb. You talk about high school, finding the few bright moments amid the terror of your childhood and holding them to the light. You tell her about classes. She talks about her army friends. She's as fierce as ever, the corners of her dark eyes sun-creased now. But under the fall of curls against her cheek you see scars, and she limps. The world is hungry, and takes its share of everyone.
You want to keep talking, to listen to her laugh and pretend like you're the kind of person who lives like this every day. Ignore the fifth empty box waiting in the attic. Ignore Emmie's lonely yearning. Selfish, but you can't help it.
Finally, though, the spark of laughter dims in Meg's eyes. Her cheeks are flushed. Empty bottles crowd the little table--you're nursing your second. She leans across the table and takes your hand in her callused one, holds tight enough that your automatic flinch doesn't pull you free.
"I'm so sorry, Henry. I know how close you were. I should have been there--" Her voice cracks.
"It's all right. It wasn't your fault." You should have been the one to protect Emmie, but you never could. Grief and loneliness unfold in your chest, razor-edged. And with them comes the whisper of Emmie's voice. Your hand tightens against Meg's, and before you can stop it the magic pushes free of your skin.
Ten minutes later she starts to sweat.
Fifteen minutes later she pushes a half-drunk bottle of beer away and frowns at it. "I don't feel so good."
You want to cry, but that never helped anything. "Come back to my place," you say. "I'll make coffee."
"Yeah. Sure." She works her tongue against her teeth and grimaces. Alcohol makes the dehydration worse. "I need some water."
"I can make that too."
She laughs and follows you out. Her limp is worse.
She's soaked in sweat by the time you reach the safety of the blue house. You help her up the stairs, holding her elbow while you open the door.
"Christ," she mutters, shaking her head. Curls stick to her damp cheeks. "When did I turn into such a lightweight?"
"It's all right. Sit down. It'll be okay soon."
She nods, shuffling toward a kitchen chair. Her walk is all wrong, nothing like the carefree strength it ought to have. What happened to her out in the hungry, hurtful world that she hasn't told you?
As she reaches the chair she freezes. Her shoulders tense. A warning of what's coming, but you don't know what to do. She turns, and the spark in her dulling eyes isn't humor. "Henry. What did you do?"
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC, September 2009
At four o'clock in the morning, the burr of Chaz's AOP startled him awake. He jerked upright, blinking, disoriented, his hand on his throat as if he could still feel the sting of a tightening wire. The Addams Family snapped their way through most of a verse before he managed to get a hand into his pocket and answer.
"Doctor Frost," he said, as the creak of the brown leather couch in Reyes' office reminded him of where he had dozed off. "You've concluded your autopsy?"
Even to himself, he sounded like he was wading his way up from the depths of sleep, voice creaking and breaking, offering at least one sharp pop.
"Doctor Villette," she answered. "I'm sorry to wake you."
She wasn't, of course. But she made the attempt to simulate human behavior. Like the Terminator. Fuck you, asshole. "It's okay. I'm at work. I was just catching a cat nap. Go ahead with the results, please."
"First," she said, "you must understand that it's difficult to autopsy a mummy. Normal tactics of dissection will not work. But as radiation exposure is not a concern in this case, I subjected the decedent to a full course of computer aided tomography--a CAT scan. I am in the process of conducting a DNA extraction. There's also a carbon chelation technique developed by Frederick Zugibe, a former New York forensic pathologist, that allows fingerprinting to take place. A basic process of mummification is the formation of long-chain carbon molecules in the flesh, which is what causes stiffening of the cadaver. Merely moisturizing or rehydrating the body will not result in a pliable, fingerprintable skin."
"I think I understand," said Chaz.
Frost sniffed into the phone. "Zugibe's tactic replaces the calcium ions in a mummified victim's skin with soluble sodium, which can then be washed out, breaking up the carbon bridges and allowing the skin to become at least moderately elastic again."
"Do you have reason to believe that the recovered victim is not who the police believe him to be?"
"What? No. But I also have no reason to believe that their identification is accurate, either, as it's based circumstantial evidence--to wit, the location of the corpse in the home of a missing man. I do not have the fingerprints yet. The chelation process will take at least three days. Once I've obtained DNA, however, I will be submitting it to the FBI lab for matching. Which is, as you understand, sometimes a lengthy process."
Longer without Hafidha. Chaz made a noncommittal noise.
Frost clucked her tongue. "But while a positive identification will take a while--if Goodrich's DNA or prints are even on file--I have discovered some other interesting... anomalies, for lack of a better word."
"I'm listening." And he was, now, sitting up on the couch with his elbows on his knees, leaning forward in the dark room and listening intently.
"I do not believe that this death was caused by the same process as the ones in Belfast, which suggests as well that this is not the same gamma."
Chaz breathed out a long sigh of relief, stifling it so he wouldn't miss a word Frost said. His throat hurt as if he'd been breathing smoke. He could picture Frost on the other end of the phone line, impatiently forward on her toes.
She forged on, not pausing to make room for his reaction as most people would. "There are a number of discrepancies. There was a good deal of damage to the cellular structure of the Belfast mummies, and no carbon bridging. The unfortunate individual on my table currently displays much more classical mummification. He's not merely dehydrated. He has cured."
"I see," Chaz said. He found his shoes and fumbled them back on over slick navy dress socks. Hafidha would have scowled at him for wearing navy, and told him it made him look like the underside of a cucumber.
"In addition," Frost said, "the present victim appears to have suffered several post-mortem mutilations. His eyes, genitals, and extremities all show damage, and his nose was hacked off with something very like a kitchen knife."
"Uncertain," she said. "There are other differences as well. The Belfast mummies smelled of... mummy. Putrefaction, faintly, and a certain mustiness. Like moldy beef jerky, as I have heard it described."
"And the alleged Mr. Goodrich does not?"
"The alleged Mr. Goodrich," she said, "has an odour of sanctity about him. Concealed under a stronger aroma of camphor. The--I hesitate to use the word, but it is the best I have--alchemical processes at work in this cadaver have infused the flesh with preservative substances. Acid resins. Beta-boswellic acid."
"Frankincense," Chaz said.
"And myrrh. Copal. Natron. I believe that some of the body's water and carbon were converted into these substances. And a majority of the rest was...expressed."
"Wait." Chaz resisted the urge to scrub out his ears. He was awake now, adrenaline the most effective wake-up drug he knew, and the sense of being unable to draw a full breath was receding. "The gamma is transmuting something in the flesh of his victims? Or something like that."
"Or something like that," Frost admitted. She hesitated, and corrected gently, "Victim, Dr. Villette. So far, only one. Have a good morning."
"Good morning, Dr. Frost." He let her disconnect and slid the AOP back into his pocket. Victims. Why had he said victims?
Because he had dreamed it. While he was dreaming also of choking on wire.
University of Memphis, TN, September 2009
Predictably, Daphne awoke, showered, drank coffee in her room, brushed her teeth, checked her plum-colored suit in the mirror--ignoring a brief pang when she stepped into the stylish-but-sensible cordovan shoes Hafidha had forced her (not quite at gunpoint) to buy--and twisted her hair into a ponytail. She texted her "Good morning, Sweetie!" to Tricia, checked the load on her firearm, and squared her shoulders. "Way to greet the day."
Situational awareness be damned, there weren't enough hours to get everything done mindfully. She checked email on her palmtop while waiting for the elevator. There was one from Frost and one from Chaz, both timestamped for oh dark thirty. Falkner walked up beside her as the elevator door chimed, and Daphne held the BlackBerry up so she could read Chaz's email, as it was the shorter and less technical of the two.
"Thank God," Falkner said, fervently, stretching her shoulders back. Daphne heard the crackle as Falkner's spine straightened.
The weight lifting off her could have come from Daphne's own shoulders. "We didn't make a mistake."
"It doesn't seem like it," Falkner said. They stepped into the elevator, Falkner passing a hand back through to hold the door as Lau jogged down the corridor, three running steps putting her inside. "Unless the manifestation has evolved."
"Chaz's email?" Lau asked. She seemed brighter, too. They all swayed slightly as the lift began to descend.
Daphne nodded. "Someday we're going to make that mistake."
"That's why we do everything we can to bring them in in one piece," Falkner said. "We're not judge and jury."
Except when we have to be. Daphne licked her lips. "So what are the odds of two similar weird manifestations appearing less than three hundred miles apart?"
Lau shrugged, her houndstooth suit jacket rising and falling smoothly with her shoulders. "We get a lot of invisibility," she said. "All different kinds. But that's an obvious one. Who hasn't felt invisible, or wished she could melt into a wall?"
"Or through the floor?" Daphne said as the doors opened.
Lau grimaced sympathetically. "At least twice a press conference. Come on, let's grab some of that yummy continental breakfast before the guys get down."
The morning was made of interviews. This time, the team dispersed more widely. Reyes and Brady headed out to West Memphis to investigate Carter's housemates and living arrangements, and the rest of the team repeated the previous day's interview process on campus, this time concentrating on Carter, Gale, Goodrich, and Quattrochi's co-workers and--in the case of the latter two--department members.
September wasn't really Autumn yet as far as Memphis was concerned, and by midmorning Daphne's feet squished and sweltered in her nice shoes.
When the team reconvened for an early lunch in their cramped, cluttered conference room, it was takeout again. Barbecue this time, and infinitely superior--and Reyes had somehow managed to score Caesar salads and slices of veggie pizza that looked halfway edible for Lau and Falkner.
"Whole Foods," he said, when Daphne pointed her plastic fork inquiringly.
Daphne kept her sunglasses on inside, feeling like a rockstar. It was her best defense against the combination of underslept headache and glare through the window.
Todd and Chaz joined them by webcam, feeds sharing space on a pair of netbooks. The information dump was fast and dirty and accomplished between hurried bites. "Carter was a bicyclist too," Brady said, piling pulled pork onto an onion bun. "A good one. She biked to work on a regular basis, and it's something like fifteen miles."
"So she was fit," Lau said. "That makes her a higher-risk target for the UNSUB. But it also means she spent a lot of time alone, right?"
"Higher-risk for her," Daphne agreed. She drained coleslaw between the plastic spoon and the styrofoam edge of the cup, then added a miserly quantity to the tower of pulled pork on her bun. "Let me guess, she was taken off a bike too?"
"She never came home from work," Reyes said. "Her roommates reported her missing after thirty-six hours. And yes, her bike is missing. We have a description."
Falkner said, "Did the bike ever turn up?"
Brady shook his head.
So that was two missing.
Daphne groaned. "Is there a campus cycling club?"
Falkner shook her head, but Daphne thought she probably meant yes. "I'll add it to the interview list. Anything else?"
"I followed up with the local crime scene team. No trash can was logged into evidence from Goodrich's apartment." Chaz said it evenly, but they all knew what the evidence suggested. The gamma had spent time with Goodrich, and been jamming hard enough to eat up all the food in the place. And he'd cleaned up after himself when he went.
Todd cleared his throat. He was eating, too, as was Chaz, but Chaz's lunch wasn't something-unidentifiable-with-noodles in a square tupperware. "So if we buy the Mummy Gamma 2.0 hypothesis, based on Frost's analysis this one is a lot more familiar with actual historical mummification techniques than the first."
"Crap," Brady said. "Do you suppose the University of fucking Memphis has much of an Egyptology department? Why wasn't that the first place we looked?"
Across the table, Reyes rubbed his eyes. It wasn't the first place they'd looked because the sheer mass of people to interview meant that something had to come second. And third, and fourth, and fifth.
Chaz asked, "Was Gale a bicyclist?"
"She wasn't," Lau said. "According to her friends and coworkers, she liked romantic movies, Oasis, dark beer, and books by Jennifer Crusie and Charlaine Harris. She dated casually but had no steady boyfriend. She lived alone." She smiled. "Guess what, thought? Gale also got flowers. And they were still in her room. Dried out, but we sent them to the lab anyway."
"Dried out," Todd said. "Like Daniel Goodrich."
After he was done pinching his nose, Reyes said, "Even if the gamma isn't affiliated, there's got to be somebody there who can contribute to the profile. Who can use Frost's autopsy to give us an idea of the gamma's knowledge base." He looked around at the team, and Daphne had known him long enough to imagine what he saw: Falkner stiff and upright; Daphne with her arms crossed across her chest, as if that were all that was holding her together; Brady slumped in his seat like a too-tall teenage boy in math class. Lau alone seemed collected. "I know. Everybody, I know. It seems like an impossible task. The volume of information is staggering, and I know also that it feels like every head we cut off the hydra just results in two more growing. I know it feels like a hole has been blown in our ability to process that data. And I know we're racing the clock for Lisa Quattrochi. But I also know that we're coming closer to a profile, and possibly to the lead that will bring us to a suspect, and I know that you're the best in the business."
He laid his hands flat on the table and met their gazes one by one, whether directly or mediated by an Internet connection. Daphne felt herself rocked back in her chair. The inspirational halftime speech was not a genre she'd ever imagined Reyes finding himself comfortable with, but apparently she'd underestimated him.
"We'll get to the bottom of this," he said.
Todd made a rude noise through the speaker. "All things are possible under heaven."
Daphne looked at the monitor over the top of her sunglasses, ignoring the dazzle for a moment. "So, Todd. you ever try to push a gurney through a revolving door?"
The problem with dried flowers was that they never wilted, never drooped. They just sat in a vase, slowly fading over years, collecting dust and becoming more and more brittle. Set about Cassie's book-cluttered office in three different places now, the bouquets were starting to feel like so many eyes staring over over her shoulders.
Moreover, they smelled odd. Not just dry, or dusty, but like... mothballs. Like natron.
Honestly, they were starting to give her the creeps.
She pushed her chair back from her desk, shamelessly abandoning the grading, and had just scooped the oldest bouquet out of the reproduction jackal-headed canopic jar representing Duamutef (a son of Horus the Elder, whose image is meant to contain the stomach) when Bethany's familiar knock rattled her door.
"Come in," Cassie said, dropping the crisp-petaled flowers sere and rustling into the nonrecyclable garbage.
Bethany stuck her head in, her face again dewed with sweat. Something in her expression arrested Cassie before she could dispense with the second bouquet.
"Problem?" Cassie asked.
Bethany swallowed. "Somebody from the FBI wants to see you."
"Somebody" turned out to be a compact, well-spoken man about ten years her senior. His suit fit him like he'd had it tailored, and he knew how to tie a Windsor knot. Everything about him would have said calm, cool, intellectual professional--if it wasn't for the tiny platinum baseball tacking his velvet-gray tie down, and the welts of faded scars around his mouth.
"Doctor Martin," he said, extending a hand. "I'm Stephen Reyes. I'm investigating the murder of Daniel Goodrich."
She came around the desk to take his hand, amused to note that she had a couple of inches on him. His handshake was good--firm and dry--but as he stepped back the swing of his jacket revealed the diamond-textured rubber handle--you didn't call it a hilt on a pistol, surely--of his gun. He noticed her wince, and smoothly swung the jacket closed over it. "I have a badge too," he said. "I have to pass a gun safety course to keep it. I promise it won't go off unless I want it to."
She laughed. "I guess that was pretty transparent. Please, have a seat. I'm going to take a wild guess--you're here to ask questions about mummification, aren't you?"
Though she gestured him into the comfortable chair, he demurred. "That was originally part of the plan," he said. "But first I have to ask, Dr. Martin--who sent you those flowers?"
He gestured to the two bunches still in their improvised vases, the third in the trash basket.
"I don't know," she said, a chill tickling her spine. "They were delivered anonymously."
He nodded, as if she had confirmed a suspicion. "I am going to describe a person to you. And I need you to think, very carefully, if there are any of your students who might fit that description." His hand went to his hip. She tensed, but all he came back with was a phone. "And then I'm afraid I would strongly suggest that you enter protective custody."
"...I beg your pardon?" She heard the words, but they sounded like something from a TV show. Not anything anyone would be saying to Cassie Martin.
"Three young women are missing, Dr. Martin," he said. "It's our strong belief that their disappearances are linked to this case. And at least two of them received gifts of dried flowers before they vanished."
Something there is that does not love a wall, Reyes thought, watching Dr. Martin pace slowly around the cramped room in a hastily borrowed Memphis FBI safehouse, picking up objects, examining them with a critical eye, and setting them down.
Reyes, his sidearm digging in under his ribs, sat beside the door. He could be out with the team, interviewing Martin's list of twenty-two persons of interest. He could have turned Martin over to a representative of the Memphis police. They had safehouses of their own, no doubt, and officers to staff them. If Martin was the gamma's next target--and the flowers tended to indicate that she was--there was nothing in the profile to indicate that he was a career criminal, or connected, or would have any way of finding her once she was safely sequestered.
Reyes was pretty sure it was a he. It was the detail of the flowers, the male victim mutilated and dumped, the women kept. Captive, he told himself hopefully, unbelieving.
But he wanted to get Martin to relax, to come down off the tension of the interview. He had a few things he wanted to ask her, once she had processed enough to be thinking with what he judged was normally quite ferocious clarity. And Falkner had requested him to take care of the protection detail.
"We can have somebody fetch your work," he said. "A book? Laptop with Tetris on it?"
At the first, she looked up. At the last, she smiled.
Reyes kept his gaze on her eyes--an agaty, stippled hazel--so it would not trail down the long brown-satin curve of her neck. Down, boy. She probably smelled like wonderful old books under the cloud of her hair.
"I noticed you had a book in your pocket," she admitted. "Improving literature?"
Sheepishly, he pulled it out. "Barbara Neely," he said, displaying the color-splashed cover. "I like mysteries."
"And the Doors." A sharp crease etched itself between her eyes when he jerked back against the chair. "Sorry." She spread her hands. "You were humming. Spooky insights are your department, right?"
The chill made his hand numb when he slid the paperback into his pocket again. "It's actually not all that spooky. It's a matter of playing odds and noticing patterns. Statistics."
"You make it sound so dry." He'd engaged her. She sat down on the edge of the loveseat opposite, elbows on her knees, and leaned into him. "So teach me how you do it."
"Crash course?" He flexed his fingers to shake the cold out of them.
"All right. You heard me say that the UNSUB is probably male, late teens or early twenties. If he's older, he's quite socially retarded, and trauma may have arrested his emotional development at the younger age. He's most likely white. We believe these things to be true because of the environment he chooses to do his hunting in--a university campus--and the nature of his victims. He is most likely male because of the way he treated Goodrich--mutilated and discarded, treated with contempt--and because there is probably a sexual aspect in the relationship he imagines he has with the female victims he chooses. We know he imagines this relationship because of the flowers. It is suggestive that his female victims are white, young, and pretty, and their bodies have not been recovered. This makes me believe that they themselves are a form of trophy for him. It could even mean that he's keeping them alive. He may believe he's keeping them safe. He's probably extremely chivalrous to women. He probably appears quiet, reserved, and unassuming--"
"Jesus." She rubbed her hands together and bit her lip, then drawled the word out again. "Jeeeesus."
Hands on his knees, Stephen Reyes waited.
She got there. "White, young, and pretty. None of those things describe me."
Only one of them. But pretty didn't begin to cover it.
"There's the rub," Reyes said. "So we need to figure out what it is about you that attracts him. You're the break in the pattern. And as such, you might be the key to it."
"Like pulling a raveled thread."
He nodded, about to elaborate, but the mellow strains of "Amarillo by Morning," tinny and digitized, interrupted him. He held one finger up to hold his place in the conversation and held the BlackBerry up to his ear. "Reyes."
Brady's voice was staticky under the noise of traffic. "We've got another body," he said. "Female this time, I think, although it's a little hard to tell."
"And the clothes don't match any of the descriptions," he said. "I called home first. Frost is already on the Gulfstream. There's a piece of luck, though--the vic's got a prosthesis."
"Where did this turn up?" Reyes asked. From the sound of traffic, he had a pretty good idea.
"The Deacon of St. Mary's Cathedral found her when he unlocked the doors this morning. She was wrapped up in a shroud on the step, all heaped up with more of those fucking dried flowers," Brady said. "Posed remorsefully. Inasmuch as you can pose pork jerky."
"Christ," Reyes said. "Don't the churches in this town have security?"
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC, September 2009
By the time Chaz's phone started snapping at him again, he'd more or less lost track of what day it was. His life was an endless procession of scanning documents on his computer screen until his eyes burned and his gummy tongue stuck to the coffee-rank roof of his mouth. Every so often somebody--Todd--put food in front of him. Every so often the used coffee needed draining to make room for the next batch. Twice he fell briefly asleep in his chair, once for a few hours longer on Reyes's sofa. Somewhere out there were three women more or less his own age who might still be alive.
If they were, Chaz was determined that he was not going to be the weak link in the chain that might lead to their deaths.
"Good morning, Dr. Frost," he told his phone. "This is Special Agent Villette."
If being beaten at her own phone etiquette threw her, Frost gave no sign. "I've commenced work on the second body. The chelation process will not be complete for several days. But I've found another way to confirm the second victim's identity."
"I'm putting you on speaker." Chaz caught Todd's eye--it wasn't hard, as Todd was athletically eavesdropping--and held the phone up between them. "Go ahead, Dr. Frost."
"The victim is Corporal Margaret Brooker," Frost said. "Age 23. A disabled Iraq war veteran. I was able to identify her by the serial numbers on her prosthesis."
"That's good work, Dr. Frost," Todd said. "G.I. bill, I assume?"
"That's the fascinating part," Frost said. "Corporal Brooker was not a student at the University of Memphis, or in any way attached, although she had applied for admission."
"Seriously?" Chaz regretted the outburst immediately. He could imagine how Frost's icy stare would coast over the tops of her spectacles like Scott Summers' eyebeams, if Cyclops' power were to make you feel like a puling idiot.
After the pause, Frost said, "I took the liberty of following up on her medical records, as I am aware that you and Agent Todd are somewhat overburdened at present. Her residence of record is with her parents, in Lewisburg, Tennessee. She attended Marshall County High School, graduating in the class of 2003."
Chaz's memory was better than almost any baseline's. But it wasn't perfect. Sometimes, like anyone, he needed a little push in order to remember an obscure detail. "Wait," he said, the thrill of the chase rocketing up his spine with a tingle like a kiss. "Marshall County. Class of 2003. That was the alma mater of two of the Belfast victims. Slater. Karynne Slater. And Emily Jane Damaes. And Damaes' next of kin was a half-brother--"
"Cauthren," Todd said. "Henry Lee Cauthren. He's on Dr. Martin's list. Doctor Frost, I think you just caught our gamma. Thank you."
"You're welcome, gentlemen." The click as she cut the connection rang through the space between Chaz and Todd. For seconds, neither one of them breathed.
Then, slowly, carefully, as if it might be radioactive, Chaz put the AOP down on his desk. "Holy shit. He caught it. He caught the manifestation from the gamma who killed his sister. It is a fucking contagion after all."
"Correlation is not causation." Todd swallowed audibly. "But then, there's that thing we don't believe in again."
"I'll call Reyes," Chaz said. "You start pulling everything you can get on Henry Lee."
The thing that haunted Chaz--as he worked, as he sorted and collated and pieced together the data that Todd gleaned from newspaper morgues and insistent phonecalls, as if the backtrail were a symphony and Todd was the conductor--was not Henry Lee Cauthren. It was not Henry Lee Cauthren and his older half-sister Emily Jane Damaes. It was not Henry Lee Cauthren, Emily Jane Damaes, and the spotty county records that hinted at the crimes of their abusive, alcoholic (step)father. It was not even Emily and her terrible, senseless death at the hands of Thomas Payne, the Belfast gamma. Those horrors were alienated in Chaz's consciousness for the time being, part of an immense jigsaw puzzle. He would not mourn for them now. Perhaps later, he'd have time and energy for mourning.
The thing that haunted Chaz--as he built a profile in his head, created a model of a man he'd never met, and got to know him as intimately as a brother, a best friend--was the memory of Danny Brady's grim, graven dignity across the breakfast bar countertop.
The first thing they pulled were the tax records, and the location of Cauthren's cheery blue bungalow that he'd bought with life insurance money from his father, his sister. But that wasn't enough, and as much as Chaz wanted to rush, he knew the team needed more. They needed everything that might give them an edge in dealing with Henry.
They needed to know that it looked likely that Henry James Cauthren had physically and sexually abused his son and stepdaughter. That he'd died of an alcohol and diazepam overdose that anybody could have seen coming. That said son and stepdaughter had, in response to the abuse, developed the kind of relationship you expected of soldiers under fire. That Emily's death would have shattered the younger Henry. That Henry had relocated a couple of hundred miles away after Emily's body was released to him. That there was no record of Emily's interment. That in Memphis, Henry had enrolled as a full-time Art student, but had taken classes in Egyptology--
"Flowers in the Attic much?" said Todd, dropping off two jelly doughnuts and a cup of coffee almost white with cream on Chaz's desk.
"No shit," Chaz said, and kept working. He knew why he couldn't stop thinking about Brady. Because the profile kept telling him one thing, over and over. There was no way Lisa Quattrochi or the other girls were alive. They were somewhere, kept safe, and they'd died just like Margaret. And the reason the team had gotten Margaret Brooker back was because the leg she'd lost in Iraq made her imperfect, so Cauthren hadn't kept her.
Memphis, TN, September 2009
The line of FBI and police vehicles was five strong, and it was only one of three such, closing now on the Cauthren residence. Ahead of them, officers were cordoning streets, shooing residents indoors,
In the rear seat of an SUV driven by Falkner, with Brady on shotgun, Daphne strapped her helmet on and tightened the side closures of her ballistic vest. She took a deep breath, to make sure she could, and felt the weight of the trauma plates against her ribs and breasts. The vests actors wore on TV looked more comfortable than hers, but they were asking for a fatal bullet through the armpit. Real-world projectiles did not respect tidy dramatic conventions about where one might get shot.
Lau sat beside Daphne; Reyes had stayed behind with the threatened history professor. His voice still came to them over radio. "Good luck."
"We're in position on the North side," Falkner said into her mike, bringing the SUV to a stop sideways, blocking the street.
The Cauthren house was... adorable. It sat mid-block, a tree-framed bungalow in bright, Mediterranean blue, with friendly porches and a dozy aspect. If houses had faces, as Daphne's brother had always insisted they did, this one wore a sleepy smile.
Lau looked at it in patent disbelief. "What's he building in there?" she muttered to Daphne.
But before Daphne could answer, Falkner said, "Three," and reflex took Daphne out of the car, her sidearm heavy in her hand.
By prior arrangement, she and Lau immediately broke to the left, leading a group of SWAT agents through a side yard where songbirds twittered in the slack warmth. The lawn was cut, the foundation plantings lovingly maintained. There was no fence or gate, and they moved quickly, hunched over, all too aware of the potentially deadly sightlines from the windows above.
The swimming pool was Daphne's first sign that something inside this house did not suit the superficial air of suburban normalcy. It had been an elegant, kidney-shaped affair, not large but attractive and functional. Now it was clogged with green leaves--water lilies?--and a mess of floating stems. Among them drifted saucer-shaped blue flowers, each lance-head petal curving up and out as if reaching for something.
"Lotus," Lau said. "I think we've come to the right place."
Brady's voice in Daphne's headset crackled. "In position."
"In position," Daphne answered, as they moved up to the back door. There was a porch here, too, screened on both sides by shading lattices. It was vacant, but the SWAT agents checked it carefully nonetheless. The one with the Halligan tool ("Hooligan tool," Daphne heard Todd say in her head) stepped forward and shoved the wedge head into the doorjamb while his team and the two ACTF agents covered him. With a sharp, splintery crack! the door swung open.
"We're in," Lau said, and Daphne heard the thump! from the front of the house as Brady kicked the door in.
"So are we," Falkner said, unnecessarily, and Daphne and Lau led their strike team into the kitchen.
It was a house. A nice house, well-kept, airy, brightly lit, and filled with the incongruous creak of weapons belts, the nylon shushing of body armor, the panting of adrenalinized men and women as they moved from room to room, weapons ready and hearts thundering painfully. The sharpness of those breaths never left Daphne: she still heard them, sometimes, in her sleep. They were the best air she'd ever tasted.
Over her headset, voices followed her. "Living room, clear. Dining room, clear."
"Kitchen, clear," she said herself, as Lau checked the pantry and split off with half their team to check the cellar. Daphne, who had seen too many movies, waited.
"Basement clear," Lau called up, and Daphne heard the tromp of her boots ascending. "Second floor?"
"Already up here," Brady said. "Nothing but two bedrooms and a sunporch converted to an artist's studio. But... there's an attic."
At the foot of the attic stairs, Lau in her six, Daphne came shoulder-to-shoulder with Brady. He bumped her lightly, like a big friendly cat, and she leaned back, startled by the gesture but glad of the reassurance.
Sidling back to back, they climbed into warmth and sunlight.
Daphne did not think they would find the attic empty. A sense of presence filled the house. But empty it was, or empty--at least--of the living.
The room smelled of camphor, resin, linseed oil, and sweet spice. It was a beautiful place, a temple--the panels between the beams of the vaulted ceiling plastered and painted by a skilled hand in Egyptian-looking frescoes. Jars of some golden fluid--honey?--sat on the tops of mismatched tables, obviously salvaged from yard sales, stripped, and lovingly oil-finished so the scarred wood glowed in the light. There was a woman's bicycle propped in one corner of the room, a set of tennis rackets, women's clothing, preserved food in ranks of jars set among the four white-draped oblongs that could be nothing but coffins.
Four white-draped oblongs, and one that stood open and empty, neat rolls of off-white cloth stacked inside it, a glass lid as if for an aquarium leaned alongside.
Everywhere, everywhere, dried flowers. And silence, except for the sound of Lau hyperventilating as she lifted, with gloved hands, the corner of the nearest pall. "Dear God," Lau said, the cloth shaking with the trembling of her hand.
Daphne crossed to her quickly, but Lau was already pulling her armor together, sealing herself up inside it until her surface was as smooth and strong as glass. "What is it?" Daphne asked.
Silently, with a gesture, Lau showed her the dead woman wrapped in linen in her Sleeping Beauty coffin. Silently, with a gesture, Lau drew her attention to the ragged teddy bear tucked in by her side.
"He's not here," Falkner said, her tone so weary that Reyes could picture her fumbling her weapon into its holster and struggling with the snap. "But the victims are. And Emily Damaes."
"Dead?" He knows the answer from her tone, but he makes himself ask, anyway.
"He took... very good care of them," she said. "He's got another coffin ready. It might have been for Brooker, Stephen--"
Reyes kept himself from turning to check across the room for Cassandra Martin's presence only by an act of will. "But he missed Brooker," he said, lowering his voice. "And he needs something else to fill that coffin with."
You don't go home after dropping off Meg. You can't face Emmie, or the house, or the row of silent boxes.
You couldn't finish Meg. Between the leg--awful clumsy plastic, nothing like real skin and muscle--and the plain silver cross that hung at the hollow of her throat, you knew she wasn't for you. Wasn't for Emmie. And anyway, Lisa hasn't spoken, just like Minerva and Cerise. You've fucked it all up somehow, and no excuses can convince you Meg would be any different. So you wrapped her in a silk shroud and left her on the step of St. Mary's. It's silent on the edge of dawn, a heavy, sepulchral quiet, but it's peaceful too. Maybe Meg will be safe here. Maybe she'll be at peace.
After that you walk, aimless, for hours. The sun rises in shades of salmon and vermilion and gold, spills rich and warm over the rooftops. You're already sweating by the time you reach the shade of Overton Park. You hide from the sun, try to hide from your own thoughts and the flutter of Emmie's voice and the silent faces of all the girls waiting for you every time you close your eyes.
When the sun begins its slide into afternoon you know it's no use. You have to go back and face Emmie. You have to figure out a way to fix it. Find the courage to talk to Dr. Martin. You could talk to Bethany--that would be easier. She's funny and smart and she smiles and teases sometimes when you see her to hand in papers or around campus. But you realize from her conversations with Dr. Martin that Bethany knows enough about Egypt to grade quizzes and not much more. Whatever secrets she keeps wrapped in skulls and black lace, they aren't the ones Emmie needs.
You'll talk to Dr. Martin soon, you tell yourself on the long walk home. And you won't bring home any more girls until you do, no matter how Emmie pleads. It must be the Opening of the Mouth. You've read and studied the pictures, but you're doing it wrong. Dr. Martin will know.
Distracted by the spiral of your thoughts, you don't realize anything's wrong until you turn the corner that leads to home.
The noise hits you first: voices, the hum of engines, the crackle of a radio. All out of place on your quiet street. Then you see the cars. The strangers on your lawn, on your porch. The open front door.
Nothing is safe. You should know that by now.
Your pulse sickens you as it races. Your cheeks burn as your hands go cold and numb. You want to run to Emmie, to hold her and keep her safe and kill anyone who comes close, but you'd have better luck running into a burning building than through that swarm of cops. So you turn, always a coward, and walk away, careful and slow. Twelve strides back to the corner. Another twelve till a neighbor's fence and shrubs block the view of your desecrated house.
Now you run, hard and fast, faster than you've ever run from anything.
Not soon. You'll talk to Dr. Martin now.
Cassie was getting used to the intermittent music emanating from Special Agent Reyes's phone, and the careful way he crossed the room and turned away to answer it. But this time, after a sentence or two his voice dropped even further, and he glanced at her, frowned, and stepped out into the hall.
Reyes, she noticed, was left-handed.
It took every ounce of willpower she had not to tiptoe across the room, long linen skirt swishing against her ankles, and flatten herself against the wall like a cartoon character to eavesdrop. Instead, she kept her hands on the book in her lap, the highlighter tucked away between the last three fingers of her right hand.
She didn't have long to wait. He came back in, extending the device so she could read the screen. It was an image, with the slightly unfocused look of something shot with a smartphone or PDA camera. Hieroglyphs. Hand-drawn, and rather well, though not entirely grammatical. She ran the translation in her head. "I don't understand--"
"Cauthren," he said, "seems to have stopped by your office today. When he found you and Bethany Strange gone, he slipped a note under your door and tracked down Ms. Strange."
"Missing," he said, very gently. She closed her eyes. Missing could become that other thing without so much as a transition.
"Oh." She pressed her hand to her mouth as Reyes, eyes wide, turned to her. "Somebody's going to have to tell Orrin."
"The envelope the message was found in had your name on it."
That thump was the book sliding out of her lap. She hadn't even noticed. But her hands clung together over her chest, and what she could feel of them was cold as ice. "He's asking for help. Help speaking with somebody--" she squinted at the symbols again. "--he wants an interlocutor."
"Your help." His eyes were dark. Intent, the irises a transparent chocolate brown. When he paused by the window, they lit up from the side, full of textures that were otherwise invisible. "So if he wants you to be able to find him, and he wants your help in particular--"
"My help making somebody talk. My help as an interpreter?"
"Your help with his rituals, to make them come out right? Where would he go? Where would he take Bethany?"
The direct question settled her, or maybe it was the focus of Agent Reyes's gaze.
"The Pyramid," she said. "It's perfect for him."
On the patio, outside under the cool leaves, by the still water floated with beautiful cerulean lilies, Lau and Worth came up to Falkner with eyes that said they wanted--needed--something. The timing was good. The water and flowers had worked their miracle. After the close, still, immaculately kept blue house. Falkner could turn away from her conversation with Brady, turn to them and be the pillar they needed.
Lau looked her in the eye and said, "I think we can bring him in alive."
Falkner looked at Worth.
Worth nodded. "Teddy bear," she said. "Lau found a teddy bear with one of the dead girls. He's trying to take care of them."
"God help him," Lau said. "He's trying to do the right thing."
Falkner looked at Brady--for an opinion, not approval.
Brady bit his lip so hard it whitened. And then he nodded. "No promises," he said.
Bethany stops fighting eventually, and you thank all the gods you're not sure you believe in. You're strong enough to hold her, but every time your hands tighten on her arms, every time soft flesh presses to bone, your stomach rolls over. It might be easier to tie her up, but that disgusts you even more. Now she sits, flushed and disheveled, glaring at you. She doesn't cry, but rubs her eyes every so often like she wants to. Smoky mascara and eyeliner smear her cheeks.
You wait by the chained rear entrance of the pyramid, away from careless eyes, away from the stony gaze of Ramses. To the west lies Wolf River Harbor, lined with trees on either side, Mud Island, and beyond that the wide lazy stretch of the Mississippi. The sun slides swollen toward the horizon, and the glass walls of the pyramid shine with all the colors of sunset. You're glad the doors are locked; inside is cement and stadium seating, the air thick with the ghosts of popcorn and hot dogs and sweat. Out here in the bleeding daylight it's something beautiful, something holy.
Bethany moves and you tense, but she only twists her tangled hair into a knot above her nape. Her jaw is sharp with tension. Hazel eyes narrow as she tracks your every pacing step.
"How did you do it?"
No accusation or recrimination. You've received plenty of those since you arrived on her doorstep--you only knew her street, but the bat mobile in the window and the ghosts on the welcome mat made it easy to find the house. Accusations and demands and more violence than you'd thought her capable of. A boot-sized bruise rises on one shin, and your shoulder throbs where she bit you. The scratches on your cheek have dried. You don't mind the pain, but every time she struggled you felt the power rising under your skin, trying to chew its way free.
"How?" she asks again, honest curiosity. You wish you had a better answer, but all you can do is shrug.
Her face twists, lips parting for a scathing retort. Then she stills again. "Really?"
"I don't know what else to call it."
She snorts and wipes her cheek with the hem of her skirt. It only smears the sweat and makeup. You get a better look at the boots that kicked you, and now you're amazed she didn't break your leg. Oxblood leather, heavy soled and laced to her knees.
"Aren't you dying in those things?" You flinch as you hear the words. Bethany grimaces.
"You sound like Cassie." It's her turn to wince. You stare at each other through awkward silence and lengthening shadows as the sun slips down.
"I'm not going to hurt you," you say in a rush. "Or Dr. Martin. I just need her help." You tried to explain earlier, but she was too angry. Now she leans forward, elbows on her knees, and her frown is confusion instead of anger.
"Help with what?"
"The Opening of the Mouth. I'm doing it wrong, and none of the books are helping. Dr. Martin will know how to do it, how to bring their souls back. She has to." Your sinuses prickle, all the pain and frustration of the last few weeks finally breaking free. You pinch the bridge of your nose, hard enough to carve a deep crescent with your thumbnail. Crying doesn't help.
"Can I help?" Her face softens in pity and you turn away; you'd rather see her angry. "I know I'm not as good at this as Cassie," she continues, "but I'll try."
Your knees weaken. You need Dr. Martin, but the sun has nearly set and she isn't here and strangers have Emmie and you have to do something--
Noise from the parking lot and you startle: tires and doors. Voices. They've found you. Trying to think of a plan, you turn back to Bethany, but she's already on her feet, chest swelling.
She screams, high and fierce, the lines of her neck springing taut with the strength of the cry. Then she spins and bolts for the trees, and the water.
The pavement slapped Lau's feet as she ran, each footfall jiggling loose droplets of sweat that dribbled down her forehead and neck. Her shirt under the ballistic vest was soaked, her hand slick on the butt of her gun. She knew the rest of her team was behind her, Daphne running hard to keep up, Brady a few steps behind and gaining. Even this late in the day, the glass pyramid behind her still reflected hot gleams at the sky; the asphalt underfoot just soaked up the sun and gave it back as swelter.
The chase rang in her, so strong she barely heard Reyes' voice. "Brady, stay back. Send up the women. We don't know what kind of range he has, and we know he has more respect for females. The signs of remorse surrounding Brooker's body--"
"Sure," Brady said, between panting breaths. "He wraps them up nice after he's done with them." But Lau heard him dropping back--not far back, just level with Falkner. Daphne caught up to Lau as Lau hurdled the curb at the edge of the parking lot and sprinted down a grassy slope to the edge of the brown water. A band of trees loomed; Lau didn't quite crash through, as she could see the muddy water's edge beyond. She staggered, instead, to a halt against a larger tree's uphill side. Daphne crouched behind a bush ten feet off.
As she heaved breaths in and out, Daphne caught her eye and nodded. A jerk of the head. That way. Daphne must have caught sight of the quarry before she ducked.
Behind them, Brady and Falkner advanced more cautiously now, mincing down the turf that Lau had chipped with her running steps.
Lau took one last deep breath and jerked around the tree, gun extended.
Henry Lee Cauthren stood mid-calf deep in the coiling brown river, one arm around a young white woman's throat, the other twisting her right arm up and behind her. The woman--Bethany Strange--was off-balance, pulled back against him, the water pushing at her splayed legs, adhering her full black skirt to her thighs. She was taller than Cauthren, and in other circumstances Lau would have thought stronger, but Cauthren was a gamma, with everything that implied.
Lau wished, badly, that Todd were at the top of the bank with a rifle. She still had every intention of bringing Cauthren in alive if she could. But it was nice to have insurance.
She lowered her gun and stepped through the screen of trees. Daphne had her back. And Falkner and Brady were right behind her. That was enough firepower. "Henry?"
The gun went into the holster, but the snap stayed up. Lau spread her hands as she came down to the water's edge. Cauthren stared at her past Strange's shoulder, eyes wild, dark hair wet and plastered to his cheeks and forehead. He was smaller than she'd expected, wiry-looking, underfed, his eyes sunken over staring cheekbones.
"Henry," she said. "I'm Nikki Lau. I want to help you."
"You have to help Emmie," he said.
"We want to help Emily," she said. "We're the people who caught Thomas Payne after he hurt her. We want to help Emily, and we want to help you."
She took a step forward, ignoring how her shoe sank into the muddy river bottom, how the water swelled up around her ankle and made her foot slip on leather. "Come on out of the river, and let Bethany go, and we'll help you and we'll help Emily."
"I need Dr. Martin."
"Dr Martin is with us." One more splashy step forward, watching Cauthren, watching Bethany, wondering if he'd just eased off Bethany's arm a little. Yes, she was standing straighter. Yes. "Emily is with us too, and we want to help her. Doctor Martin can help your sister."
"He did it badly," Cauthren said. "Payne. It was ugly and awful, but Emmie stayed anyway. And I've studied and studied, and I'm better than he was, but none of them stay. None of them talk. Emmie is so lonely, and Lisa and and Meg--" His voice cracked. "I need help."
Emily's not the only one who's lonely, Lau thought, with a twinge of pity. And a twinge of nausea, too, as she remembered Payne's damp and crumbling basement in Belfast, the racks of Mason jars repurposed to hold organs, the bodies arrayed with sepulchral attentiveness.
"Emily--Emmie's fine," she said. "Emmie's safe. Let Bethany go and come with me and I'll show you."
Far above, Lau could see the police chopper circling, hear the distance-attenuated thunder of its rotors. Somebody--Falkner--must be ordering them to maintain their distance, and Lau blessed her for it.
Cauthren stepped back, but Strange stayed where she was. His hand slid back, now just cupping her throat. Lau caught her eyes. Hold on, she willed. Just hold on. We'll get you out of this.
Strange moved. Suddenly, purposefully, she dropped to her knees in the river, sliding eel-like out of Cauthren's grasp. She plunged forward, scrabbling, lunging toward Lau. Past Lau, if she could get there, up the riverbank and away--
She didn't make it. Cauthren threw himself after her, both clutching hands grabbing an ankle clad in a heavy oxblood boot. She kicked, hard, kicked again, but the water and her skirt and her lack of leverage impeded her. She caught him between the eyes; he barely flinched.
Gamma, Lau thought, and reached for her gun.
The crack of gunfire sounded right beside her. Daphne, walking down the hill like John Wayne if Wayne knew how to shoot straight, her service weapon before her in both hands speaking twice.
The first one splashed the water beside Cauthren; the second caught him in the chest. His hands slipped from Bethany's boot. She kick-crawled another few feet away. He half-rose, hand to knee, looking as if he would lunge after her.
Daphne's gun spat twice more.
Cauthren rose to his full height, turning away. Not dead, still moving with volition. "Henry!" Lau yelled after him. "Henry, stop, please, let us help you--"
He surged away, crimson coiling through the water around him. Can't let him go. Can't risk touching him--
You can't control it any longer.
The power crackles under your skin as you grab for Bethany, hungry and thirsty and pushing free. You're glad, so glad, when your fingers close on the armor of her boot instead of skin. She kicks hard; your nose crunches. You want to let go, but Emmie beats frantic wings inside your head.
Don't let her go! We need her! I need her!
Another kick, this one sharp and hot in your chest. You can't breathe. Can't hear over the roar of your heart, the roar of Ammit. Bethany tugs free, scrambling through the mud, and Emmie drives you after.
We need her.
You need Dr. Martin, but she didn't come, only these cops, and Bethany won't help you now even if she meant it before.
Another blow. Another. Not Bethany--she's too far away. You're bleeding.
You turn away from the pain, away from the people shouting on the shore. The river is cool, soothing, muddy browns painted blood and gold and scarlet as the sun sinks away. It's not far to Mud Island, Emmie urges. Her voice changes, demanding instead of soft. You can make it. You're stronger than you think.
It doesn't matter. Even if you escape, they've taken Emmie. Taken Meg and Lisa and the others, and no one will help them now. You'll be alone and afraid.
You're crying, all the warmth leaking out of you into the hungry river. It coils like a snake around your legs.
Don't leave me! Emmie cries.
No, you think as gritty water fills your mouth. You won't.
The sun vanishes into bloody water. Swallowed by the serpent. You follow it down.
Lau swallowed hard and drew a bead on the back of Cauthren's skull. She fired, missed as he dove, tracked the motion and would have fired again but he plunged into the river, swimming strongly, then feebly, and the angle made her bullets glance into the water where they could do no harm at all.
It didn't matter. She could see how he righted himself in the water, how he struggled to stay upright. How quiet he suddenly became as his mouth slipped under the red-bloomed Mississippi. The current dragged him away. There was no splashing, no shouting. Just the arms stiff out, the head bobbing down twice, a third time. Drowning reflex, Lau thought, even as she plunged through the water to get to Bethany, caught her arm, ducked the girl's panicked roundhouse swing and bundled her into her arms--dripping, shaking, alive.
Daphne was already moving, down the bank, Brady and Falkner covering her as she kicked off her shoes and made a flat dive that carried her far into the river. She stroked strongly into the current, effortless and competent.
She did not reach Cauthren before he went down and did not come back up again.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC, September, 2009
When Daphne walked into the briefing cabinet, she found the team already assembled--and Reyes, uncharacteristically, pacing the three or four steps the cramped room afforded, while Falkner occupied his habitual chair. He caught her eye as she settled herself in the worst spot at the table--back to the projection screen, in between Lau and Chaz. Brady winked at her from across the table before she spun around.
Daphne recognized the thin, lank-haired girl who frowned sullenly from the display, though it took a moment to mentally age her into a thirtyish woman so Daphne could put a name to her. Hope Mitchell. The gamma who'd kidnapped Reyes, held him for three days, and more or less knocked his face in. The pale meaty scars were still faintly visible, disapearing into his hair and creasing his full lips.
"Not a new case?" Daphne asked, just to be sure.
Reyes shook his head, but Nikki answered out loud. "Just a briefing."
"Agent Todd's been looking into Ms. Mitchell's backstory," Reyes's voice stayed pleasant and level, but he sipped his cooling tea like a man who needed to steady himself. "His discoveries combine interestingly with some things she let slip while I was her prisoner, and combined with our existing body of information may prove revealing about the essential nature of the anomaly. Todd?"
Todd didn't stand--he was behind the table, next to Brady, and he would have had to climb over either Falkner or the Cowboy to get out. So he tapped the pile of papers before him into a tidier rectangle instead and cleared his throat. "I've recovered Mitchell's pediatric medical records," he said. "She was treated as a failure to thrive case from age eleven months, when her growth curve dropped from the seventieth percentile to the fifteenth."
Todd paused, while Daphne waited for the sharp intake of Chaz's breath to match her own. It didn't come, though, and when she glanced over at him his face was carefully blank. He waited, hands in his lap, blinking intently at Todd. Reyes warned him, she realized, feeling a moment's warmth for the old bastard. After that moment passed, Daphne looked away from Chaz.
"HIPAA violation," Brady said. "Drink."
Todd started speaking again. "She responded well to nutritional supplementation, however, and by the age of three was back on the curve. At five, at about the date of the marriage license for her mother, Kitty Samson, and her stepfather, Clement Mitchell, she falls off the curve again. This is also when the ER visits start, though the records were a bit dicey to track down. They start off in Wisconsin and wind up in New Mexico, and wander all over the flyover zone in the interim." Todd pushed his stack of paperwork to the center of the table. "There might be a few missing."
Chaz spaghettied out an arm to grab them, glancing around the table to see if anybody wanted a prior claim. Daphne waved him in. He'd just hand her each sheet as he finished, and he read faster.
"She was committed in Albuquerque in 1982--diagnosed violent and autistic, and her family said she was a danger to herself and others and could not be controlled. As far as we know, she first killed a man in 1984," Todd said. "Between her release in 1995 at age 21 and her death in 2009, she stayed busy, averaging 14 victims a year. More than one a month for fourteen years. We know because she kept meticulous numbered records. Although--" Todd looked down "--we have not recovered all of them."
"You're describing a beta to gamma progression," Brady said, as mildly as if he were merely clarifying. "A juvenile beta triggered by intolerable physical abuse over a period of years to convert into a delusional gamma."
Reyes cleared his throat. "Actually, she might not have been."
Every head at the table swiveled--except Chaz's and Todd's. "Explain, please?" Falkner asked.
Reyes licked his lips. "I'm not sure Hope Mitchell was a gamma. I would be inclined to diagnose her as a second-stage beta, comorbid with paranoid schizophrenia. And there's more."
Daphne considered screaming when he paused, but he was just taking a breath. And you couldn't blame a man who had been through... that... for steeling himself before choosing to talk about it.
"She told me she had known what she was since she was born," Reyes said. "She had some linguistic markers of precocious speech. And... She told me her mother was impregnated by a stranger who came out of a white light. A superhuman stranger."
You could have heard a feather drop.
Without raising his eyes from the medical reports, Chaz said, "Her father was a gamma."
"There are some indications that that may be so." But Reyes--cautious, uncommitted Reyes--nodded. He believed it.
Daphne bit her cheek. Before she could get her emotions under control enough to speak, Chaz looked up. "Are we going to reconsider a genetic link now?"
"No," Reyes said. "I think the DNA evidence was indicative." He looked at Chaz so expectantly that Daphne could imagine the coaxing.
"It's not just trauma," Chaz said. "It's exposure. There's got to be an inoculation in addition to the primary trauma and the secondary trauma. What do you know about orchids?"
Brady's chair creaked. "Nothing?"
Chaz leaned forward on his elbows, then winced and dropped the left hand into his lap. "Orchids bloom when they're stressed. They bloom when they're expecting to die. Reproduction is a massive expenditure of energy. So I think what happens with the anomaly is that there's a primary stressor--the first crack--and it gives the anomaly a foothold. And maybe it gives you some advantages. Makes you a little tougher, gives you some tiny edges. Some little paranormal gifts. Not even first-stage stuff."
"It's a parasite," Lau said.
"A symbiote," Daphne corrected, feeling her heart in her chest like a sackful of Mexican jumping beans. Across the table, Todd was a frowning Buddha. "It's a symbiote that helps us survive the monsters we breed ourselves."
"Well, there's your evolutionary edge," Falkner said. She closed her eyes as if her head hurt.
Chaz nodded. "Pre-first-stage stuff, which some people might not even notice as anomalous. And then when there's a big crisis, a serious threat--it spawns."
Reyes leaned against the wall beside the static image of Hope and steepled compact hands. "That implies that the natural habitat of the anomaly--symbiote, or parasite--is the damaged human brain."
"Right," Chaz said. "So if it wants to spawn--"
Brady said "It has to make damage. Like our friend in Memphis, who--"
"Caught it when his sister died at the hands of the Belfast gamma."
It was like watching a tennis match. Daphne wished she'd brought a cup of coffee in, suddenly, because she badly needed something to do with her hands. "So how does that explain betas? And second-stage betas?"
Chaz shrugged. "Resistance? Maybe Hafs and I had something like antibodies, from being exposed so young. We were immunized. Early trauma can cause permanent changes to the DNA, and only, only... Mitchell and me--there's a genetic marker in common. Since my... parent does not exhibit that same genetic marker, it strongly suggests that Duke was right. On top of everything else, the Bug is a teratogen."
Nikki said, "But Hafs wasn't--"
"We don't know," Reyes said, "what Hafidha did or didn't experience. If Chaz is right, her primary trauma and her innoculation could have happened before she was adopted by the Gateses. When she was a tiny child."
"And maybe I'm even more resistant because I got it--" Chaz swallowed "--antenatally. Like Mitchell. Who also converted as an infant. But if that's true, it implies something else."
Reyes didn't look down. "We know how to breed betas."
It fell into a long, echoing silence. Daphne caught herself straining her ears, as if she might be able to hear the ripples of that splash bounding and rebounding off the walls of the room. Across the table, Danny Brady wasn't breathing.
Chaz's lips thinned. "You going to tell the CIA about it?"
Reyes's face had never been so still. Daphne bit back her sigh of relief when he finally spoke, like a man taking holy orders. "I'm not even going to tell my mother."
Later, when Chaz was in the kitchenette, Reyes maneuvered around him to the coffee pot. Hot water came from a red-handled spigot on top. Chaz waited while the Old Man filled his mug and turned back. The mirror said no one was close, and whatever Reyes wanted to say he'd say it now.
"If you're right," Reyes said, head tipped back to stare straight up at Chaz, "there's another implication. Something Todd began to suspect some time ago, but I decided at the time that we should keep it to ourselves as speculation."
Something I didn't want to say in front of Brady, Chaz read between the lines.
"I know," Chaz said. "You're all potential gammas."
"Me more so than most," Reyes answered. "Keep an eye on that, would you?"
You, Chaz thought. And Brady. That was why Reyes had shuffled the team like a deck of cards. He was making sure that they could take down Stephen Reyes. He was planning in advance against his own worst nightmare.
"Reyes--I think... have you considered that we're all too close to this to do the job anymore?"
Reyes stopped moving. The stare didn't waver. "Are you questioning me, Villette?"
Mutely, squinting as his eyes dilated, Chaz nodded.
"Good," Reyes said. And left Chaz blinking as he brushed past him into the bullpen.
Reyes went to his office. He shut the door. He sat down behind his desk and typed his password. But as the monitor flickered to life he spurned the keyboard with his fingertips.
He pulled his palmtop out of his pocket and frowned at it. Then he scrolled through a contact list, found the name he wanted, and called--quickly, as if any hesitation could cost him.
"Dr. Martin? It's Special Agent Reyes. I mean, Stephen Reyes. This isn't an official call. I was just wondering if you were doing all right...which now that I say it, is kind of a stupid question."
"Oh," she said, her throaty voice pleasant, pleased, surprised. "No, it's not a stupid question. Please, call me Cassie."
Daniel Brady sat at his desk and prayed.
It had been an ongoing argument with Hafidha, who was the sort of self-righteous spiritual Atheist only a kid raised by hippies could become (and didn't he feel guilty, thinking that now. But guilt did not remove truth.).
But he believed. He believed in a God better than the people who worshipped Him. He prayed to a God who loved all His creation equally.
He prayed to a God of Love.
He prayed for guidance. And he prayed for strength.
It was not unlike the sort of prayers you might expect at an AA meeting. Only without the crazy-ass gamma element, he hoped.
He prayed because he had identified the problem.
He'd thought he could manage on casual sex and careful friendships. He had the gang at work. He had Lau, sister and best friend and avenging angel. She'd been ready to kill for him. Eager, even.
He had all the family he needed right here.
Which was good, because lately, he'd been lying to his mother again. Every Sunday, like clockwork. Because every Sunday, like clockwork, he called his mother. And there weren't any truths about his life that he could tell her.
She'd heard Gray's name. He'd been my friend in the State Department. She had never heard Andre's, and that was an omission Danny failed to forgive himself every time he picked up the phone. And now, years later, and in no small part due to Gray (In that case, the lie became true: he was Danny's friend at State. If he was even entitled to call Gray a friend anymore.) Danny understood the lie he'd been telling all along.
There was a tension in Danny's life between being with the guy he wanted to have a life with, and in hiding that life from his family. And whatever noble lies he told himself, that was why he'd left Gray.
Because he couldn't lie about this. He couldn't lie about Gray.
And he couldn't tell the truth, either.
Danny was alone in the office. It was after seven on a Friday, and even Reyes had gone home.
He picked up the phone on his desk. Not his cell, that would do it in the push of a button, remember the numbers, keep a record.
When Jim Brady answered, he held his breath for two seconds. Then, at the second gruff hello, he dropped the handset softly in the cradle without speaking, and laid his forehead against his hands.
Marshall County, TN, October, 2009
Standing in her underwear and stockings, Esther Falkner laid her old dress blues out on the rough synthetic motel-room comforter piece by piece. Army blue looked stark against the muddy greens and browns of the cheap fabric. She inspected the press, ran the lint roller over it, and pulled it onto her freshly-showered body piece by piece: skirt, blouse, jacket. The neck tab was still the bane of her existence, but she wrestled it down. She found herself fingering the hershey bars on the left sleeve and forced her hand to drop. She pulled her white gloves on.
She slipped on her freshly-polished shoes, and picked up her beret.
A glance in the mirror showed a tall, stern woman with excellent posture, her long hair turned up severely in a French twist. The uniform still fit.
She nodded to herself, found her umbrella, and stepped out of the motel room, checking the door behind herself to be sure it latched.
The corridor was long and featureless except for the intermittent punctuation of other doors. Despite herself, Falkner thought of all the things that could be going on in the reassuring anonymity of those rooms. Nothing of it showed on her face: she could feel the impassive mask pressing down on her features as if it were a clear plastic shell she kept in a drawer and brought forth as necessary.
In the lobby, the desk clerk nodded to her. She nodded back, and opened the umbrella as she stepped out under the awning. Outside, rain dripped watery light across Tennessee hills as green as wine bottles.
Falkner got into her rental car, stowed the umbrella on the passenger side, and pulled out onto state route 129. Behind her, the Econolodge greyed away into the rain.
It was a half-hour drive to the cemetery. Belfast itself, when she passed through it, had not changed--a cluster of a half-dozen one- and two-story buildings huddled at a crossroads, nestled amidst rolling wooded hills like the backs of drowsy dinosaurs. There was no parking lot at the graveyard: she just pulled to the side of the road at the end of a row of cars.
She got out of the car umbrella-first, careful of her shoes on the muddy verge. When she stood, back twinging, falling water speckled her shoulders. She locked the car behind her--aware as she did it that it might be the only locked car on this side of Lewisburg--and picked her way across soaked grass to the gap in the cemetery wall where a gate had once stood. She joined a cluster of umbrellas under the branches of a crooked black walnut tree.
She stayed at the back, not wanting to interfere in the family's grief. Falkner's umbrella was black, as were those of the four other uniformed service members present--a male Lieutenant and a rifle-armed honor guard of three, two men and a woman who came up to the shoulder of her tallest compatriot. Those of the other mourners were a riot of colors, pulled out of hall closets in frantic improvisation that morning, and they contrasted strangely with the black clothes.
The service was brief, to the point. The grave yawned open. The coffin above it lay under a flag striped in bold red, white, and blue. Under the direction of the Lieutenant, three rifle volleys were fired. The flag was folded and presented "on behalf of a grateful nation " to Corporal Meg Brooker's mother, because Meg had never had the chance to marry.
It was nothing new. It was over quickly.
There was no gravestone yet. In the slow, milling dispersal that followed, Falkner walked up to a woman her own age, clutching a triangle-folded flag to her chest. "Ms. Brooker," she said, extending a white-gloved hand. "I'm Esther Falkner. I am so very sorry for your loss."
Because she had the resources of the FBI behind her, Falkner knew that Melissa Brooker had been a single mother. That Meg was her only daughter. Looking at Brooker, at her chill, pinched face, Falkner did not need to imagine her pain. She felt it, felt what it would be to lose Bekk this way. To get her back from war, injured but alive, and then have this happen--
Brooker lifted her chin. "Did you serve with my daughter, uh, Captain?"
Falkner shook her head. "I wore the uniform out of respect for her service. I'm retired. I am in the FBI now, and I was on the team that investigated your daughter's murder."
"Oh," Brooker said. She squeezed Falkner's hand hard, and then dropped it. "Oh. Did you--"
She looked away.
"No," Falkner said. "But I was there when it happened." She could have said more, but she didn't know, yet, what Brooker needed to hear.
"Henry--" She stopped. "Henry was a good kid. I knew him. I went to--I remember him graduating. I remember his sister's funeral. How does something like this happen?"
Falkner shook her head. "Sometimes it just does."
"I wish--" Brooker laughed painfully. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't say that. But we have to forgive, don't we?"
"Say whatever you need to," Falkner said, aware that other people were milling about them, coming close, offering tacit support of Melissa Brooker as they noticed that this intimidating stranger had buttonholed her.
"I wish you hadn't killed him."
Falkner sniffled. She let it happen; let the tears sting. Now that she knew she could. "So do I."
The conversation after that consisted of a few pleasantries. Falkner gave Brooker her business card. She didn't expect Brooker to call. She walked away as the funeral party started to break up, and slid back into her rental car. Could anyone else tell what of the water on her face was tears, and what was rain? She could: the tears were hot. They burned.
Other cars filled and drifted away. Falkner waited. At last, when Melissa Brooker had been helped into a sedan by a man who was probably her uncle or father, Falkner got back out of the car.
This time, she did not bother with the umbrella. She didn't expect anyone but the vault guys and the gravedigger to see her now, and they were concerned with wending their green mud-spotted backhoe harmlessly between the neat white interchangeable headstones of the Armed Forces section of the graveyard. There were no mourners to guide her, but with the help of scribbled directions, she found what she was looking for anyway. Two graves, side by side, under freshly turned and returfed earth. On the far side of the graveyard, where the rows were not as neat and white as teeth.
These ones also had no headstones. Falkner wondered if they ever would.
She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a baggie of petal fragments, whispery and frail, more the memory of blue than the color itself. Carefully, rain falling down her neck, she spread them across the graves of Henry Lee Cauthren and Emily Jane Damaes.
Back in the car once more, she pulled her cellphone out.
It rang only twice before the cheery, overwhelming rush of questions that was Dinah Liebowitz filled the line. "Esther! How long has it been since you called? How're Ben and the girls?"
"Hi, Mom," Falkner said. "I'm sorry. Work has been hell."