"The Unicorn Evils" - by Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
--Dylan Thomas, "And Death Shall have No Dominion"
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Metigoshe Indian Reservation, Delia, ND, Wednesday, May 13, 2009, 2230 hours CDT
When Falkner's phone rang on an "unknown caller," she almost didn't take it. But Todd was driving, and she had a minute. And a window of cell signal, apparently. "Falkner." She winced when she heard her own voice: brisk and curt. Well, it was the time for it.
When she heard Stephen Reyes's voice, she was unassailably glad she had answered. "Falkner," he said. "I'm on the rez with four other agents. We believe our target is looking for your target. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she said, while Todd looked at her curiously. She held up a hand. Drive, Sol. I'll explain later. "We're in the endgame. If she's here--"
With Hollywood timing, two radios buzzed with Brady's voice just as Todd made the turn onto the rutted dirt track that led to to Amos Sanaiwap's home. "She's at the Jeviss place. Sam's been poisoned. She's out in the woods and we need backup five minutes ago. Brady over."
"Crap," Todd said. He turned an axle-shuddering three-point reverse in the driveway, bouncing hard over ruts. Falkner bit her lip on a squeak of pain; she wouldn't have wanted Todd to take it any easier. One-handed, he grabbed the radio, thumbed it, and said "Copy. Backup enroute. Todd over."
One more crackle. "Brady out."
That was it, then. Brady was out there in the dark with a gamma and two good, untrained cops. There was no way Falkner and Todd could move fast enough. But they were all they had.
"Re--" She remembered at the last minute not to say his name over the cell phone, choked it off as Todd bounced them back to the gravel road. "Brady's in hot pursuit of our UNSUB. We're going to support. Meet us there, and be careful." She rattled off the address, amazed as always at the sharpness of the trained human memory in crisis. She'd never have remembered that if adrenaline wasn't snaking through her veins. "Falkner out."
She turned to Todd. "Reyes brought the cavalry."
"There is a God," he answered, and didn't take his eyes off the road.
It was a slow, painstaking quartering through the woods, a hunt by ear and hand-shielded flashlight. The radios crackled back and forth. Headsets would have been better, but Falkner hadn't thought to hand out extras to Spears and Spencer before they split up. This wasn't a well-planned FBI raid. It was street-cop seat-of-the-pantsing, and Brady was intimately aware that he didn't know Spears and Spencer well enough to anticipate their moves. And they didn't know him, either.
He had a headset, though. And when it gave him Falkner's voice, he almost said Hallelujah.
"Brady," he answered softly. "She's still out here somewhere. I keep hearing movement where Spears and Spencer ain't."
"We're here," Falkner said. "With the cavalry. Watch your target discipline, okay?"
"Copy," Brady said, and wondered what exactly she meant by cavalry. Not the Reservation police, he hoped. They seemed like pretty good cops, under Spencer's leadership, and he didn't want to carry the bodies of any good cops out of the wood tonight. He turned to Spencer, who was closer. "Falkner's here. Positively identify any target as Tabor."
"Got it," she said, a voice in the dark. "Are we waiting for her?"
"She's coming to us."
In the silence that followed, he heard Spears' "shh!" clearly. And the slow, cracking footsteps that followed. Tabor didn't have a light, or was afraid to use it if she did. That was an advantage, in the thick trees and filtered moon.
"Spread out," Spencer whispered.
Brady went wide to the left, watching Spears and Spencer's lights. "Felicity Tabor?" Spencer called. "Felicity? You need to come out now. Your father is worried, Felicity. He's scared sick, and he wants to see you. I can take you to him. I can make everything okay."
A crunch. "He's not my father. He's poison too."
Voices echoed in woods. Bounced strangely. But Brady thought he had a sense of where Tabor was now. He squinted through the darkness, trying to see her outline rather than imagining he saw it. If we can keep Bloody Larry in a box, why not this one?
Of course, what Todd and Reyes had done to get Joseph Lawrence Hakes into that box was the stuff of FBI cowboy legend, and a really good case study in How Not To Catch People Who Can Kill You With Their Mind. The inconvenient fact of Hakes' survival had taught them a good deal about gamma toughness.
"My father is the Gitchie Manito," Tabor said. The gamma's voice was threadbare and exhausted. Brady could hear her teeth chattering, chopping the words to pieces. "The sun is my grandfather and the moon is my grandmother. Gitchie Manito made woman and put her on the earth, who was her mother, and he made man and put him on the earth who was his mother. To the wind he gave the power of direction. To the water, he gave the power to purify and renew."
"That's what you're for, Felicity," Brady said into the darkness. "You came to renew the earth, didn't you? To clean the poison off it?"
"The poison," she said, with sickening conviction. "We've poisoned the world. And now it's poisoning us. Why do you think everybody has cancer? Why do you think everybody on the rez is dying of sugar poisoning? They were supposed to protect the Earth, to keep it pure, and they didn't. So they have to go so somebody else can do the work."
Sure, Brady thought. Blame the Indians for not saving the white people from themselves. That makes a lot of sense.
But it did, with the horrible toxic Ouroborous logic of a gamma's mythology.
Footsteps behind him, the flicker of lights. Falkner minced cautiously up on one side, Todd on the other. Brady saw Spencer turn in the backglow of her lowered flashlight, saw the eye contact with Falkner, saw Falkner nod. "Go get her," Falkner said.
Spencer and Spears faded back into the darkness, their lights dimmed behind jackets. Tabor would still see three lights here. She might not realize that the people who were familiar with the terrain were slipping around to flank her.
"Keep her talking," Todd said into his headset. His light clicked off. "Keep her on us."
"Gitchie Manito," Brady said. "Is that like Gitchie Gumee?" Somewhere back in his head, the opening stanzas of "Hiawatha" rolled. "The shining big sea water?"
"The great Manito," Tabor said. "He made all this. He is my father. He made me to take it back for him."
There. She was there. And moving. Picking through darkness. Brady was sure of it. He could almost hear her over the hammering of his heart. Todd was sure too; he leveled his pistol one-handed and tilted his eye to the sights, moving his light well off to the side.
Crunching from uphill. Brady shielded his light so it illuminated only the area before his feet and inched toward it, through the dark and treacherous wood. "Felicity?" he called. "The water that purifies and renews? Can you do all that without help?"
There was a crash, then, the sound of running feet. Tabor's, from their lightness and irregularity, and then heavier and more certain footsteps in pursuit. Shit, Brady thought, as the sound of a gunshot cut the woods. Shit. She bolted.
Daniel Brady ran. Feet thumping hard against the leaf-slippery earth, scrambling up the wooded slope with the moon a big waning three-quarters overhead. It stained the sky like clerestory glass and still didn't get under the trees worth anything. Off to his left, he heard Todd, scrabbling through the underbrush like a wounded deer; on the right, the flicker of Falkner's light cut through the trees occasionally. More crashing, a woman's voice shouting--Spears, he thought--and a sudden, sickening melon-ripe thump.
A second burst of gunfire followed, closer this time. A double-tap and a third shot following, a forty-caliber pistol by the sound--and a woman's scream. Something crashed and tore through the trees; something else crashed after, and Brady felt his already painful breathing accelerate, his heart hammering unhelpfully against the inside of his ears while he strained to hear through the noise. He kicked things in the dark. You couldn't help it. Even his boots did nothing to protect his feet. He was going to wind up blackening toenails on this one if he didn't break toes.
There were other people in the woods, and he couldn't tell how many. But the brightness through the trees ahead was a clearing, and the noise of a fight was coming from that direction. Falkner's light had vanished; Brady no longer heard Todd. But they were out there, to either side of him, trusted support--and they all knew how to do this.
Brady dropped to his belly, found cover in the understory, and crawled. He made it quick; there was no way to hide the rustling noises, and somebody out there had a gun. But he also wasn't about to fire at a random silhouette: Spencer, Spears, and too many of his own people were out here, and he didn't know who else.Chaz says the gamma's range is no more than thirty feet. Chaz says she has to have line of sight.
Then the darkness was an ally; perhaps the best one he had.
It wasn't the first time Brady had bet his life on Chaz Villette's superpowers. It might have been the first time he was quite this aware of making a conscious choice to do so.
He stopped within the treeline and levered himself to a runner's crouch behind a thick-boled tree. Quiet now; he smelled gunsmoke and heard someone panting, and it wasn't him. He held his breath to be sure.
A big bright flashlight, someone backlit, the glow coming from across the clearing. Brady risked a peek around the tree and saw the brilliance of a beam reflecting off swirling mist, rising from a position on the ground to splash tree limbs overhead and wash out the light of the moon. It did silhouette something, and for a moment Brady had a crazy-quilt adrenaline flash of horror-movie dreadlocked alien monster, swinging tentacles and massive shoulders looming against the trees in splintered light.
And then the monster said, "Are you okay? Did she get you?" and Brady's whole heart came unmoored in his chest cavity and tried to wiggle up his throat.
The figure in the clearing stepped back, a Glock held in a low safe position in her left hand, and now Brady could see a woman in a puffy jacket too warm for the season--unless you were a jammer--with her mass of weighted braids swinging free. Her boots crunched over twigs and she crouched beside whoever had the flashlight--Spears--still keeping her attention on a huddled shape on the ground in the clearing's center that had to be the downed gamma.
"It's okay," Hafidha said. "I'm Special Agent Gates. I'm with the Federal team. How's your partner?"
"Breathing," Spears said. "Not conscious. Tabor hit her with a fucking tree branch. And I broke my fucking ankle. I'm Robin Spears, RCMP. Where's your backup?"
Hafidha, Brady thought. Here. To the rescue. A save at the buzzer, no less. She had followed them here, he understood. Whatever had driven her away from the team, she hadn't gone far. She had monitored them and taken care of them and arrived like the cavalry, in the nick of time.
That emotion shoving his heart up his throat like a too-big cork was hope.
And what if it wasn't Hafidha? What if it was the anomaly out there in the dark, talking calmly to the wounded woman, keeping cover on the gamma?
Well, there was only one way to find out. And Falkner and Todd had his back.
"I'm here," Brady said, and sidled out from behind the tree.
"Brady, baby," Hafidha said. "You're a sight for sore eyes. Where's the team?"
"Still coming," he said, without glancing at the bushes where Todd or Falkner should be hidden by now. "Good thing you were here."
From the way the shadows jumped across her face, he thought she smiled. He kept edging into the clearing crabwise, his firearm leveled at the presumed gamma lying dead on the ground. "Did you secure her weapon?"
"Couldn't find it," Hafidha said. "If she had one. No pulse, though. But I'd still keep her covered."
She holstered her Glock and ran long fingers down Spears's calf and ankle. Spears hissed. "Congrats, honey," Hafidha said. "You've made a good diagnosis. You have a cell phone on you?"
"No signal out here," Spears said. Her voice was thin, stretched out and wavering along the lines of strain.
"Don't you worry about that," Hafidha said. "Just call; it'll go through. Danny and I could probably carry both of you out of here, but I've seen too many horror movies to leave the bad guy's dead body just lying on the ground."
Spears dialed; Brady saw her surprise as the connection completed itself, heard her voice giving the EMS team directions on where to find them.
"Hafs," he said, "what happened in Yardston?"
"Later," she said, standing. She nodded to the woman on the ground. "Little pitchers. Check the baddy again, would you? I have you covered."
God please let it be Hafidha. He was more than half-convinced. It was a misunderstanding, some complicated or crazy ruse she and Reyes had cooked up between them. It wouldn't be the first time.
He still said, "I've already got her covered. You go."
Near-silent, small and ghostly, Todd stepped out of the shadow of the trees. His pale face glimmered in the darkness; the pistol in his hands gleamed darkly. He kept his weapon pointed at Hafidha.
"Hey, Hafs," he said. "Don't take this personally. But I'd like you to step away from Constable Spears, there. And then I want you to take your gun out with two fingers and toss it over there by Brady. Easy and slow."
She lifted her hands very slowly. "I'll do that. I'll do that. Just let me go check the bad girl for Brady first? Can you see why I might want my weapon for that?"
"Did she have a gun, Hafs? When you shot her?"
"She didn't need a damned gun, Todd. She was armed and if she ever got line of sight on Constable Spears or her partner here, you know what would have happened." Hafidha's elbows dipped, as if she wanted desperately to hug herself, As if she could ward off potential bullets with the embrace of her arms.
Spears said mildly, "Two of those bullets are mine, Agent Todd."
"Todd." Brady's gun dipped towards the ground. "Go easy." But it was an act, at least in part. He knew what Todd was doing--engaging her, challenging her, assessing her. Trying to see if she reacted like Hafidha, or like... something else.
Falkner was there too, slipping out of the darkness, Lau and Worth unexpectedly flanking her. Their feet went whisk-whisk-whisk through leaves and grass. Pauley, too, appeared, and Reyes a half-step back, his hands empty and open, his dark complexion nearly lost in the shadows.
"Hey," Hafidha said. "The gang's all here. Except my baby brother?"
"I'm here," Chaz said. He stepped from the shadows behind Hafidha, not four feet from her shoulder, and Brady, whose gun barrel had dropped to a low safe position, nevertheless cursed quietly. Trust the kid to get in everybody's line of fire--
Unfair, Brady realized. He was doing it on purpose.
"Platypus," Hafidha said. "Tell them it's me. They'll believe you."
He looked at her the way Brady's Grampa Gilmer had looked at the coffin that held his wife's body, just before the tight army-green straps loosened and it drifted into a hole in the ground.
"We know about Des Moines," he said. "We know. There's nothing to hide now."
The only sound for long seconds was Spears' sharp intake of breath, and then Hafidha's strained laughter. Brady lifted his firearm again and leveled it at her chest. Daphne made a sound of sharp, hopeless denial. Brady tuned it out. Hafidha might be wearing a trauma vest. She might be very hard to kill.
Maybe he should be aiming between the eyes.
"Oh, man," she said. Her hand went to her weapon. Her off-hand, and she drew it cross-body. Slowly, slowly. She pulled it out just as Todd had directed, but she didn't toss it aside. "Des Moines? What happened there? Guys, don't shoot, for serious. You have the wrong end of the stick about me--"
Her voice trailed off, though, drowned out by another. Also hers, a woman's flexible contralto, but not the reassuring, worried tones she had been using. Something strained, hard, frantic, full of manic dips and falls. "--they're all in on it every one of them they're going to kill you lock you up you have to stop them nobody can save you but you you have to stop them get away get free and they're all in on it they want to lock you away and cut up your brain--"
"Stop it!" Hafidha snarled, whirling. "Stop it, it's not true, it's not true."
Chaz just stood facing her, unarmed, hands hanging at his sides, mouth still open. Tears streaming aross his cheeks, unchecked, unremarked, like what he had just done had hurt him physically. Brady heard Lau, watching, grunt with the effort of locking her arms out against their trembling.
"It's true," he whispered. "Come on, Wabbit. Let me help you."
She stared. Chaz looked down. He held out his arms as if coaxing a child or a puppy.
"You can't help me, platypatootie," she said.
He looked at her. He didn't speak. Slowly, unwillingly, as if ensorcelled, she took a shuffling step towards him. On Brady's right, Pauley strained forward, pushing his service weapon out before him as if tugging at an unseen collar. Reyes laid the back of a hand against Pauley's upraised arm.
Pauley was the only person Brady knew who was a better shot with a handgun than Hafidha.
Hafidha walked into Chaz's embrace, the pistol still dangling from her hand. He ducked down from the knees, getting under her, his right arm cradling her as she laid her head against his shoulders. Even from here, Brady could see her shivering, trembling all over her body like a small, kicked, starving dog.
That sound, he realized distantly, was Worth sobbing. But when Brady stole a glance at her, she was a rock, her mouth opening and closing like a dying fish's, her gun steady in a modified Weaver grip.
Chaz put his left arm down and took Hafidha's sidearm from her limp right hand. "Shhh," he said, into Hafidha's ear. He pressed his face into her cheek so that Brady could barely hear his voice. "I'm going to take care of everything."
He lifted up the Glock and nosed the barrel through her braids until it pressed against the side of Hafidha's head, right behind the indentation of her temple.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa--" Brady didn't realize he was moving until he had moved, his pistol re-holstered, stopping three feet from Chaz and Hafidha with his hands spread wide, wondering if he could jam the web of his thumb under the hammer before Chaz got up the nerve to pull the trigger.
Worth was a half-foot and a half-second behind him, but she caught Brady's eye and checked, set her foot back in the footstep and jerked him forward with her chin. Alone on the team, Brady had the physical power to manhandle Chaz and Hafidha apart, if it came down to it. Falkner hissed "Reyes!," and Brady heard those footsteps stop too, but he couldn't turn right now and see what had happened. She was right, anyway. If he tried to walk up on Hafidha with that bug zapper, Chaz would pull the trigger.
Chaz's head was tucked tight into Hafidha's shoulder, her face pressed into his neck. She leaned into him like he was the only thing holding her up, her arms linked loosely around his narrow waist. If the bullet that splattered Hafidha's brains all over the forest didn't keep going into Chaz's skull, the second one would.
"Danny," Hafidha said, her words mushy against skin, "leave us alone."
Chaz's eyes weren't closed. He was watching, Brady's feet, not his face. His finger wasn't registered. It rested on the trigger. Even in the dancing, angled flashlight beams, Brady could see that clearly.
"Chaz," Brady said. "Chaz, man, think about this."
"This is the right thing," Chaz said. "This is the right thing to do here."
Brady took a breath. He stepped back, a half-step, two. Unwilling, but taking the pressure off Chaz. The team was behind him; he could hear them breathing. He could hear the little noise of distress that Spears made low in her throat, and Spencer's groggy, awakening moan. He thought he heard Falkner praying under her breath, or maybe that was Lau cursing. It was too soft to be sure.
"It's what the anomaly would want," Brady said. "You're listening to the wrong voice in your head, man."
Chaz shuddered, a deep straining that looked like it came up out of the core of his body to wrack him. Brady stepped back again. The wry part of his brain, the one that liked gory novels and sarcasm, supplied a Chuck Palahniuk quote, exactly as if that were somehow useful. No matter how much you think you love somebody, you'll step back when the pool of their blood edges up too close.
"Don't you think the fact that there are voices in my head at all kind of indicates this has gone farther than I should have let it?" He breathed hard and painfully, blowing like a man fighting through agony, like a horse run until it couldn't run any more--each exhale strong enough to swing Hafidha's wire-thin braids. "How long do you think a gamma can keep pulling the trigger with a bullet in its brain, Danny?"
"Chaz. Think about what you're doing." Brady glanced over his shoulder. He trusted the team; he trusted all of them. But they had not lowered their guns.
Except for Reyes, who was standing there like an unmanned puppet, both hands empty and down at his sides.
Slowly, gently, Brady spread his arms wide, blocking any possibility of a shot from Pauley or the others with his own body. "What are you doing, man?"
The words came out staccato, one to a shallow breath. "What you'd do for me."
"Chaz, you do not want to do this thing." Just keep him talking, keep him engaged. Say anything. Get him to say anything.
"You don't think I can?"
...okay. Maybe not that.
Intellectually, Brady knew there was a whole night forest stretched out around them, the whole night sky stretched overhead. Nine people watching.
He wasn't aware of a single thing, except Chaz's breathing, Hafidha's trembling, Chaz's finger on the trigger of Hafidha's gun. "I am not going to--Chaz. Look at me, Chaz."
Chaz's hair shivered, but his chin didn't untuck. "I have to save her." Was his finger a hair less tense on the trigger? Brady couldn't tell in the dark.
Softly, the leaf-rustle revealing the shift of her weight as she leaned forward, Daphne said, "Please, Chazzie. Please don't kill my family."
That brought Chaz's chin up. His face clenched like a fist. "What if they're already dead?"
The longer the conversation lasted, the better chance all three of them were walking down this hill in the dark. Suicide took commitment. Time could wear commitment away. He got half a breath in him and kept talking. "Chaz, we don't know it's permanent, okay? We don't know she can't be helped."
"Don't bullshit us, Danny." Hafidha jerked against Chaz's shoulder, moaning. Brady saw her hands clench on his shirt. His arm tightened too, pulling her closer. "I can't leave her in there with It."
Anything. Say anything.
As long as it's the right thing.
"Killing her, killing yourself. It's what a gamma would do and you're not a gamma, Chaz. How could you hurt anybody more than that? What if we can get her back? Let Reyes have his chance."
"Let Reyes have his lab rat."
Reyes, off to Brady's right, jerked like he'd just soaked up a bullet. In an act of supreme bravery, or maybe cowardice, he tucked his chin and took it, one to the body, and neither took a step nor made a sound.
But that was okay. because -- There. That. There wasn't so much conviction in his voice, and Chaz's hand was trembling now, as if Hafidha's Glock had suddenly grown unbearably heavy.
Deep down, Chaz didn't want to die. He'd fight harder for life than anybody Brady had ever seen. And deep down, Chaz still respected, trusted, and admired Stephen Reyes, no matter how hard he might have worked to convince himself otherwise.
Brady exhaled softly. It felt like the first time in an hour. "Fine. Let Hafidha have her chance."
"You promised," Hafidha said.
Slowly, painfully, as if it hurt more than Brady cared to imagine, Chaz registered his finger along the barrel. He raised the Glock to safe, and lifted his other hand from Hafidha's shoulder.
He held out the gun to Brady. Brady took it.
Hafidha whispered, "You promised."
Chaz let his empty gun hand curl into her hair. Brady watched the braids dent under his grip, and looked down. The Glock in his hand felt like a feather. "I know, Wabbit. I know. I'm sorry."
Behind him, Worth's footsteps crunched across the clearing at a run. That shuffling sound would be the rest of the team as they followed.
It should have been Daphne, but she was on her knees in the leaf-litter, doing what she could for Spencer and Spears until the helicopters got there. And so when Nikki noticed that Chaz had vanished from the erratic light of the clearing, it fell to her to go after him.
Duke would be better at this, she thought. Falkner. Somebody who isn't me. But Duke was with Daphne and Falkner, Brady and Reyes were with Hafidha, and that left one agent free and capable. And sometimes you did the work that wound up before you, whether you were the best choice of the job or not. So Nikki held her Mag Lite low in her hand, illuminating just her feet, and set off into the darkness to find him.
There was a trail, and she knew where he'd been standing when he faded into the blackness. She didn't let herself dwell on the fact that she was searching for the Invisible Man in something good enough to pass for a primeval forest to a California girl in the middle of the night. If Chaz didn't want to be found--well, he wouldn't be. She wouldn't go so far she couldn't hear the others' voices and see their lights. But there was the chance that he needed to be found and didn't know how to ask for it.
Which was probably the case, since he was only a few steps off the trail, as if he'd walked as far as he could without a light of his own before sitting down on the first rock he came to. As she picked her way closer, making no attempt at quiet, she smelled the faint trace of blood. He cradled one hand in the other; she wondered if he'd fallen and skinned it.
For a moment she worried it was something worse, that Chaz had harmed himself, but he was breathing, and if his shoulders were rigid and shuddering, well, so were Nikki's.
She walked up behind him and said his name. He didn't turn.
Chaz hated to be touched, but maybe this was special.
Gently, she laid her open hands against his trapezius muscles, closed her fingers, and squeezed.
Chaz slumped like a pile of laundry, as if Nikki's touch had severed whatever reserve of pride or ferocity kept him upright. But as he folded, at least she felt him sigh and start breathing. Until that breath became a deeper shuddering, a horrible silent sobbing gasp. His diaphragm spasmed; his neck arched; his hair brushing the backs of her hands as he convulsed in grief. He cried silently, except for a thin keening sound that wasn't his voice, but just air whistling through the constriction of his throat. She would have pulled back, but his hands came up and covered hers, pressing down until she understood and leaned on his shoulders, pushing hard, holding him to the ground while he rocked against her strength and heaved air in and out like a man who was dying.
After a moment, he flickered in her vision. Like a ghost, like a stutter in the camera shutter. She'd never seen it before, only read Todd's report, and she would have jerked away, gasped, let him vanish. But when she would have snatched back his big cold hands wrapped her wrists painfully, clutched tight. She leaned harder, all her weight, fingers claws in the fabric of his shirt. She gave him a deathgrip and her voice, not saying anything useful, just stupid things, jokes she told her kid cousins, jokes she wouldn't let her mother know she knew, jokes that would make Brady blush violet. Leaning on him. Holding him down. Anything to let him know she got it, she had his back, it was okay to take whatever he needed. Saying something. Saying anything.
"I got you, Chaz. I got you."
She got him. She got it. He was jerking and juttering like that because he was fighting with all his heart and energy. Trying not to vanish.
Metigoshe Indian Reservation Infirmary, Delia, ND, Wednesday 13, May 2009, 2300 hours CDT
Pauley followed Falkner into the hospital room to find Spencer sitting up, an icebag pressed to the side of her head, her eyes closed. She opened them and straightened as Falkner walked up to the bedside. "How's the cabeza?"
"They're transporting me to Rugby when the ambulance gets here," Spencer said. "CAT scan. I told them I have a cat at home, but no cigar."
"It's the smart thing to do," Pauley said.
Spencer nodded, then winced like she regretted it. "Sure. I could have a big old hematoma happening in there and I'd never know it until I pitched over in the saddle." The things her mouth did told Pauley she was holding on tight to something that maybe needed saying, however much she didn't want to say it.
He looked at Falkner. Falkner nodded. "She didn't kill you," Pauley said. Bad cop, since Falkner had an established relationship, and it paid off in future camaraderie and cooperation and goodwill to protect such things.
Spencer said, "She had me dead to rights. Why kill Patty Birdsong and not me? She has a baby. She just came back to teach this semester. Not that I expect you to have an answer...."
"I do have one," Pauley said. "But you'll hate it."
Spencer's fingers whitened on her icepack. Pauley could see the pinkish stains feathering it--blood in her hair. "Hit me," she said, and he liked her. It took a certain kind of grit to joke when the room was spinning.
"Tabor saw you as a warrior. A real hero. Somebody who was fighting the good fight and protecting the tribe. She would have changed her mind eventually, but the avenging unicorn wouldn't destroy a virtuous woman."
"Oh," Spencer said. "That's crazy. That's just--"
"Yeah," Falkner said. "I'm sorry. That's all it is."
Nikki Lau was Daniel Brady's best friend for all kinds of reasons. Way, way high up on the list was because after the nurse practitioner came to tell him that Doris Jeviss was on the infirmary premises, she spent fifteen minutes helping him look for her, although Nikki was swaying on her feet with exhaustion. When they finally found Jeviss out in the infirmary parking lot under a light, more chewing the cigarettes than smoking them, Lau stayed by his side.
He needed her strength, because the thing Jeviss's face did when she saw them coming was enough to send him running in the opposite direction, otherwise. Her mouth opened. She shaped a single syllable, but made no sound.
In a situation like this, hesitancy was nobody's friend. Brady took a breath and plunged. "Sam made it to the hospital in Rugby. Alive."
Her eyes closed. The hand with the cigarette dropped down beside her round hip. She dropped back against the stained lamp-post and gasped. "I don't--" she said.
Lau took her wrist, leaning close, offering body warmth without controlling her.
"They intubated him on the scene," Brady said, painfully aware that Daphne would be better at this. But Daphne was with Hafidha. Speak plain English, you idiot, not cop talk. "They put in a tube so he could breathe. They gave him activated charcoal, provided pure oxygen, and administered an antidote. It's called Cyanokit. His heart wasn't beating when I found him, but they got him back in the ambulance. He's not out of the woods yet" --fuck, it really was his day--no, there'd been a night in there, though he barely registered it--his two days for thoughtless metaphors-- "but right now he's still alive, and he's in Rugby."
He didn't say that they'd had the Cyanokit because Frost had had it FedExed, morning delivery, from Baltimore. Doctor Frost saves another human life. The irony.
Jeviss turned her arm over, caught the hand that Lau had laid on her wrist for support, squeezed hard. "I don't have--a car."
Lau looked at Brady. Brady nodded.
She said, "I'll drive."
Outside in the hall, as he had expected she would, Falkner fell into step beside him and without turning, said, "About what happened in the woods, Pete--"
She used his first name, carrying with it the suggestion that this was a personal request rather than a professional one. He slowed his stride and lowered his voice. "Villette and Brady handled that better than I would have, Esther. It was a unique situation, and I'm not going to say anything to Victor that would force him to shitcan somebody's career." Or make him toss away the key, but Pauley didn't think that part needed to be said.
Her sigh of relief was still a sigh. "Chaz walked right up to the edge," she admitted. "But you're right. I was going to plead special circumstances and beg for your mercy. I owe you one, Pete."
He chuckled and tapped her shoulder with the edge of his hand. "You don't owe me a damn thing. Which doesn't mean I won't take your note, but--I turned Reyes down when he was putting the ACTF together, and I'll tell you what. Tonight proved to me I did the right thing. I couldn't do your job."
"Don't be si--" Her voice dropped off mid-syllable when she turned and saw his face. "What do you mean?"
"In Villette's shoes," Pauley said, "I would have pulled the trigger."
Todd let himself into Spears' treatment room at the infirmary with the sense that he was doing something deeply illicit, although there was no reason the Mountie couldn't have visitors. He hesitated inside the door as Spears looked up from her magazine. Her broken ankle was propped up on a rest. She surprised him by speaking first.
"Sol. I'm sorry."
He blinked. "I don't understand."
"I said--for what I said. You are different."
It hit him so hard he almost gasped out loud. He looked away for a moment; when he looked back, he thought he had his face under control. "You did well out there," he said. "Really well. I just wanted to say that."
"Thank you," he said right back. "For saying that I'm different."
She smiled when he paused. "It was unfair of me."
He shook his head. "No," he said. "No, it wasn't. But thank you for forgiving me."
Metigoshe Indian Reservation, Delia, ND, Wednesday, May 13, 2009, 2330 hours CDT
There was no way to bring her home except under sedation. Every possible mode of transportation they could have used relied on computers, microchips, whatever. Even if it was only in the goddamned traffic signals.
Madeline Frost wrote the prescription and measured the dose. But it was Chaz who checked Frost's math, took the needle and the tourniquet and the alcohol wipes, and brought it to Hafidha.
She waited in the home-built Faraday cage in the vocational electronics classroom at the junior high school, her hands cuffed behind her. Daphne sat in the cage with her, all her personal electronics on a tray on the teacher's desk. Reyes sat at the desk behind a triangular name plate that said Mr. Bello, his gamma-stopping TASER on the blotter next to a book called The Devil's Hatband. It was a good title. He wasn't reading it, just tapping a drumbeat on the desk-edge with his left index and middle fingers.
He nodded to Chaz. Chaz nodded back and walked up to the cage. "Daphs?"
She stood, not turning her back on Hafidha. Chaz gave her the capped hypodermic, the strip of rubber, the alcohol wipes, the sterile pads of gauze.
Chaz took out his gun. In her cage, Hafidha pressed her elbows to her sides as if she would be hugging herself, if the cuffs permitted it. "I should have known," she muttered. "I was never going to make it to Witch Mountain all alone."
Chaz kept his eyes on Daphne, who shook her head infinitesimally. He knew, but the reminder helped anyway. That thing that was talking, pushing his buttons--it wasn't Hafidha.
"I'm going to give you a jab, sweetie," Daphne said. "It's to make you sleepy so we can bring you home."
Hafidha neither moved not acknowledged Daphne as Daphne opened her cuffs and refastened them in front of her, then prepared to administer the sedative into the vein in the crook of her arm. She looked over Daphne's head to Chaz, instead. Her eyes were deep brown, but the overhead lights revealed the topography of her irises. He saw her wince from the cold of the alcohol, but not when the needle went in.
She said, "Life is a meat grinder, honey. We just try to be brave and beautiful while it's chewing us up. And I wasn't brave or beautiful enough."
"You were braver and more beautiful than anybody," Chaz answered. "We'll find a way to fix this. You and me. I'm not giving up on you."
"You never quit," Hafidha said, and smiled. Daphne released the tourniquet; the rubber made a snapping sound. She stroked Hafidha's braids back from her face and secured a gauze pad over the pinprick with paper tape.
Hafidha's voice was already blurry when she said, "You just keep on trying until you run out of cake."
It brought him up short. So Hafidha, and so wry. He watched her hiding her face behind the beaded curtain of her braids and wondered, is that her, in there, sending me coded messages from behind the monster?
Or is it just the monster, twisting the knife a little?
He could reach out again, reach into her, let the mirror unfold like a canopy and confirm what he already knew. Or feared, or hoped for. He should have pried; he should have reached out to her; he should have checked on her more.
Am I my sister's keeper?
Later, maybe. Later. Right now, he couldn't bear to know.
A swirl of red like cardinal wings caught his attention. He turned, but whatever it had been--flicker of movement, hallucination--was gone.
I should have--
He should have.
It was too late now. Hafidha slumped forwards into Daphne's arms and Daphne laid her down. Gently, gently. She crouched beside Hafidha, still stroking her hair, murmuring something that sounded like, "Wabbit, wabbit."
Chaz felt Reyes come up beside him. It was a good excuse to turn, to stop looking when looking had become an invasion of privacy. "You performed exceedingly well," Reyes said. "Under exceedingly difficult conditions. I think you should know that."
Chaz nodded. There were times when he could meet Reyes's eyes. This was not one of them.
"You'll accompany Hafidha and Worth to the airfield immediately," he said. "The plane is waiting; you'll return to Virginia without delaying for the rest of the team. We'll follow tomorrow. I want you to get Hafidha settled in Idlewood. And I've made arrangements for you to spend the night there as well."
"You're putting me in Idlewood?" He heard his own voice as if it belonged to a stranger, and analyzed it dispassionately. Numb, like he only deserved and expected it.
Reyes, however, shook his head. The smile he offered was hesitant and hopeful, not an expression Chaz was used to associating with Reyes--and weary, which was all too common. "No. I'm putting you to bed. To sleep. Where somebody can come by every fifteen minutes and make sure that's all you're doing."
"Oh," said Chaz's mouth, Chaz himself registering the words a split second later. "I guess that's smart. And where will you guys be?"
"Here," Reyes said. "Until very early tomorrow, when the plane comes back to get us. I suggest you and Daphne move quickly; there's a car on its way from the airfield now, and I'd like you to be in the air by the time I'm done stalling its occupants."
It was a game designed to draw him out, but Chaz decided it was okay to let himself fall for it. "Occupants?"
"Dr. Rupert Beale and Unit Chief Victor Celentano," Reyes said. "And while you and Worth are returning Hafidha to the east coast, I will be explaining to them in excruciating detail how we wouldn't have caught Hafidha without your help, and how you were instrumental in her capture--decoying her to you and convincing her to surrender her weapon."
Chaz closed his eyes. "And if I think I should be in Idlewood?"
Reyes touched his arm, fleetingly. "Kay and Ramachandran will be waiting when you arrive, to perform an evaluation. For your peace of mind, Chaz. Not mine."
Metigoshe Indian Reservation, Delia, North Dakota, Thursday, May 14 2009, Midnight
"You look good," Rupert Beale said. He was the first one through the door, and he paused to hold it for Victor Celentano, though Celentano was ten years younger and didn't limp. Celentano's self-conscious sleekness contrasted oddly with the air of professorial clutter that followed Beale around like a mantle of office. "I mean, you look like you're recovering well."
He smiled when he said it, and it was fair enough. One cop injured in the line of duty to another, and so Reyes nodded rather than cutting Beale dead with a look. He wondered what Beale had been like as a beat cop, or as a homicide detective. He'd seen photos--in Beale's books--of a barrel-chested young man in a Chicago cop's dress uniform, and it was important to remember that that guy still lived inside Beale's body, softened shoulders and a limp or not. Weird to think he'd been pounding Chicago pavement while Reyes was going to high school and sweating scholarships in the same city.
For a second, Reyes wondered if Beale had ever busted his father. Not that he'd remember if he had; one D&D musician was pretty much like another. You only, as Beale had said in one book or another, remembered the weird ones.
And what if they're all weird ones?
With Hafidha's transportation accomplished, Reyes had hoped never to see the junior high's electronics shop again. But he had been unable to arrange to receive Celentano and Beale in the tribal police station's conference room. He'd just about had to ask Brady to sit on Falkner to get her to let him handle this on his own. "If anyone's taking a fall for this one, it's me."
Better, for now, if she were on the other side of town.
The glare she'd given him was not unlike the one he was currently restraining himself from offering Celentano. Even as he forced the welcoming smile onto his face, Reyes found himself immensely grateful that no matter what else happened, his reports never felt the need to bullshit him. "Victor, Dr. Beale. We get pretty good benefits," Reyes said, touching his mouth self-consciously. "It only hurts when it rains."
"I know the feeling." Beale said. He dropped his carry-on on the desk and swung the door shut with the other hand, then rubbed his hip for exposition.
Apparently, the small talk was going to be Beale's job, while Celentano sized Reyes up and planned his attack. Beale settled himself in one of the rickety chairs, wincing, while Celentano paced. Reyes remained standing; the condemned man shouldn't look too comfortable. He did not, however, scruple to imagine Celentano stomping about like that in jodhpurs and shiny boots, a swagger stick thrust under one arm. Too many late-night M*A*S*H reruns.
Reyes, looking for anything to notice that wasn't Celentano debating his fate, found himself staring at the logo on Beale's carryon. The bag was maroon leather, masculine and luxurious without being ostentatious about it; its apparent softness invited the touch of a hand. The tag was silver, discrete. The brand name was Gamma.
He raised an eyebrow at Beale. Beale, fair-skinned, blushed crimson. "I have," he said, shamefaced, "a deeply inappropriate sense of humor. A year ago, that was funny."
"It's a nice bag," Reyes said, more charmed than he'd expected. It was his first piece of evidence that Beale had a whimsical side, and the man's apparent mortification over it made Reyes want to let him off the hook.
A courtesy that Celentano was not about to afford Reyes. So Reyes could use all the karma he could get.
As if their low voices had drawn Celentano's attention back, he turned and folded his arms, leaning back on the wall beside the tall whiteboard at the front of the room. "So you followed Villette out here?"
"It was the logical place for him to go," Reyes said. "And once I was sure he was on Gates's trail, I didn't have the means to relay information back without alerting her." He shrugged. "As you can see, his analysis of the situation proved correct. Lives were spared because of his actions, and at least one of those lives was that of a federal agent."
"The fact remains that he went rogue. The BAU is not a Dirty Harry shop, Stephen, and I'm not going to run it like one."
Beale's chair creaked, but when Reyes glanced over, he was just watching, hands folded in his lap.
Dirty Harry, on the other hand, was a San Francisco cop. "He got results."
"Through insubordination." Celentano uncrossed his arms and came striding into the room like a comeback pugilist leaving his corner.
"So give him a suspension and a note of censure in his file. It'll balance the commendation I'm going to write him." Reyes sighed. "If you fire him--"
Celentano turned. "There are other options."
And there it was. On the table now. While Reyes was framing his response, the chair creaked again. This time, Beale levered himself out of it. He didn't make a sound, but Reyes marked the faint sheen of sweat across his forehead, though the room was full of late-night chill. Here it comes.
But Beale surprised him. "Victor, forgive me for being so blunt, but if you let political pressure turn you into a witchfinder, you're not the public servant I think you are."
There was a pause in which Celentano quite obviously framed and discarded several retorts. Finally, he sighed and said, "So, what? So we just wait around and see if Villette grows up to be a dragon?"
Reyes glanced at Beale. Beale nodded. Your witness. "We still don't imprison people for things they might do one day."
Celentano shook his head, but there was a lot of irony in his tone when he said, "We don't?" A deep breath and a single sigh followed. "You know there were elements in the last administration that were very excited about the potential military and espionage applications of our anomalous agents, Stephen."
"Knowing," Reyes said, "is not the same thing as having confirmation."
"Spoken like a scientist," Beale said. He stared at Celentano until Celentano was forced to look back. "Victor, I've met Charles Villette. I've read the casefiles on what happened in East Texas. And I've read his publications. It's my professional opinion that nobody is going to get anything out of that young man through duress. You lock him up, you're going to be building yourself the eventual anomaloid equivalent of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If he ever gets a pulpit, you'll have made the kind of enemy that topples regimes."
Reyes cleared his throat. "And what about the current administration?"
"There's been no official word from the top," Celentano admitted. "They may be reserving judgment. They like to do that. There are elements within Congress and the Justice Department that are more than a little scared of the whole thing. In the absence of a strong policy..."
Reyes nodded. "And whose side are you on, Victor, really?"
Celentano folded his arms again, a more defensive gesture this time. Reyes could tell because he caught himself doing it and forced them down to his sides again. "The Bureau's," he said. "But you have to know that's a complicated proposition."
Reyes smiled without warmth. It sat slightly better on his face when he turned it from Celentano to Beale, his unexpected and welcome ally. "Then you have to know there are things that would send me to the press."
The staring contest lasted the better part of a minute, and it was Celentano who looked down first. "You're going to die in that job, Stephen."
The smile felt less like it was glued on and flaking now. "Oh, I know it."
Having won, he considered, he could afford a little magnanimity. He picked his paperback up off the blotter, slipped it into his coat pocket, and said, "Come on. I'll buy breakfast. The all-night diner down the block is actually pretty good."
"Thank God," Beale said, reaching for his carryon. "I was ready to eat the duty sergeant." He fell into step beside Reyes, a few feet behind Celentano. When the Unit Chief preceded them into the corridor, he leaned over to Reyes and murmured, "He's projecting his fears, you know."
"Classic presentation," Reyes answered, his tones equally low. He paused with his hand on the doorknob, and turned back to take one last look at the classroom with its piles of clutter and salvaged materials, give-and-take circuit boards and disassembled printers: evidence of a teacher who had devoted everything to his students, trying to show them some kind of ladder out of poverty. "It doesn't stop him from being right."
Beale smiled. "I've read your work too, Dr. Reyes. Call it an old cop's hunch, but I suspect you are going to outlast Victor. Too many people know this secret for it to stay a secret forever."
Reyes let his hand slide from the knob and turned away. It wasn't going to be him that locked this door.
Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C., Thursday, May 14, 2009,0415 am
It was supposed to be still raining at Dulles, which suited Brady's mood just fine. It had been a fast and quiet ride home, the Gulfstream sailing eastbound through the night, its occupants feigning sleep or aimlessly turning the pages of books they were not really reading. Falkner was playing hostess to Beale and Celentano, so Lau had roused herself to bring coffee and tea around and check statuses, which was usually Mom's role. Noticing, Brady got up and helped with blankets and pillows, though it was a little weird with so many outsiders on the plane, and so much of the team missing. Yes, he was a territorial son of a bitch, thank you for noticing.
Beale, who had been finding excuses to get up and down every twenty minutes or so, thanked him profusely and took an extra pillow. Falkner already had one stuffed behind her for lumbar support. Should have got the Gulfstream with the orthopedic seats.
Madeline Frost, showing no signs of fatigue, nodded with an excruciating correctness and said, "Thank you, Daniel. I am quite comfortable as I am."
"You're welcome," Brady answered at random. "There's extra if you change your mind." He stood to tuck those extra away and met Lau coming in the opposite direction.
"Thank you for flying Fibbie Airlines. You cabin crew is armed," she stage-whispered.
"You think I have the legs to make it as a stewardess?" Brady answered. Taken all together, it was the longest conversation of the flight.
Lau smiled a pinched pallid little smile and went back to sit beside Pauley, who patted her shoulder absently. She leaned into it, prompting Brady to wonder if that was on again. But no, it was just two people who were comfortable in each others' presence sharing a little warmth in a cold time, which was good. It suggested Pauley might be moving on, finally. Lau could be as prickly about her personal space as Chaz was.
They weren't the only team that used the plane, and various members of the Critical Incident Response Group had long ago worked out a plan for sharing locker space for foul-weather gear. Brady retrieved his hat from amid the trenchcoats, parkas, and fuzzy cardigans before the doors opened, and was the first one down the steps. Home, he thought, shower, food, bed. Or maybe just shower and bed; he wasn't sure he'd really ever be hungry again.
He was opening the passenger door of his truck to toss his go bag behind the seats when sense-memory offered what seemed, in the rainy dark of morning, like it might be a better idea. Cold water dripped down his neck while he considered. One memory led to another, and he closed his eyes against a flash of a tall, angular female form leaning over his desk, murmuring "Hmm. Cedar, amber, and nutmeg. Whoever you're not seeing, I like his taste in smells."
He climbed behind the wheel and reached for his cell. It rang just long enough for him to start regretting his decision when a groggy voice answered.
"Gray? Hey. Danny. Sorry to call so early--"
The it's-never-good-news adrenaline of the four a.m. phone call must have kicked in, because Gray's voice was sharp and crisp as he said, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." A patent lie, but-- "Well, not nothing. But no crisis. I'm home. I'm at the airport, I mean." God damn, he sounded like he was in shock. Good diagnosis, Special Agent. "Gray, I need to see you."
He'd never been to Gray's place. He couldn't quite bring himself to ask. But he couldn't face going home alone, either.
Gray's breath came out on a whistle. "Bad?"
"That bad, then. Look, I'm up. I was just going to go for a run--"
"In this? Don't lie to a cop, Putnam. We can smell it."
Gray laughed. "Come on over. I'll make you some scrambled eggs. There's always room for breakfast." He hesitated. "You need directions?"
"I'll use the GPS." Brady turned the key in the ignition. The engine purred alive. "Gray?"
"De nada, stranger. I'll leave the porch light on."
Silver Spring, MD, Thursday, May 14, 2009, 0445 Hours
Esther Falkner stood in the darkness of her younger daughter's bedroom, the door all but shut behind her, watching Deborah outlined in the faint glow of the clock radio on the nightstand. She was sleeping and breathing, that was all, her dark hair stirring in each exhale and her slight chest rising and falling under the off-white blanket. She'd kicked off the green and gold counterpane and burrowed her pillows all over the floor; it was an exercise of Falkner's self-control not to go and straighten them.
It seemed like no time at all since Deborah and Bekk had shared a bedroom, since Deborah had relied on Bekk to translate her toddler gurgles into grown-up English.
No time at all.
Falkner sighed through her nose and picked across the toy-scattered carpet barefoot, easing herself onto the edge of her daughter's small bed. Deborah was warm and heavy; she still slept like a child, imperturbable, and it was easy to edge her over and curl up against her back through the covers.
She'd only spend a few moments here, she promised herself. Only a few and then she'd go in and wake Ben. She should go in to him now.
But she was so heavy, and the bed was so warm.
As she closed her eyes, breathing in Deborah's scent, Falkner had a suspicion that, however good her intentions, Ben would find her in here in the morning. Later in the morning; it was already morning.
Washington, D.C., Thursday, May 14, 2009, 0445 Hours
Daphne Worth unlocked the front door of the brownstone and pushed it open carefully. The hinges still gave out their haunted-house groan. Thank god for real plaster walls and old solid oak interior doors; it probably wasn't enough to wake Tricia.
She stood in the hall at the bottom of the stairs and wondered what she should do next. Set her go bag down, that was a start. It made a faint scuffing against the wood floor. Some creature instinct sent her to the kitchen after that, because the kitchen was where the food and heat and light were.
She flipped the switch for the under-cabinet lights; she didn't think she could stand the cheerful blaze of the overhead tracks. At the kitchen sink she ran a trickle of water, squeezed dish soap into her palm, and washed her hands, then splashed her face. She scooped water into her hands and drank it. Then she turned the water off and leaned elbow-locked on the counter, waiting for some clue as to what she should do next.
That was where Tricia found her when she came in wrapped in her terrycloth bathrobe. Daphne realized her arms were tired. How long had it been since she got home?
"Sweetie?" Tricia said, her head cocked. "Are you okay?"
Say yes. Nod. Don't make her worry. But it was too late now.
Tricia's arms closed tight around her. "Oh, honey. Oh, honey. Come sit down."
That person making the horrible hoarse gasping noises--it was Daphne. She didn't know how long she'd been doing that, either.
Tricia got her to the couch and pulled Daphne's head into her lap. The terrycloth was wet under her face by the time she could breathe normally.
"Hafidha...?" Tricia said.
"We brought her in," Daphne replied, and was proud of herself for not breaking down again.
"Then she's alive." Tricia sounded so relieved.
"She's-- She's not our Hafidha anymore. Not only her. The thing in her head, the anomaly..." Yes, she could say it out loud. She could. "It's in there with my sister."
Tricia tightened her arms around Daphne, and Daphne clung hard to the support of those muscles and bones, that heat, that human care. That love.
"But she's still in there," Tricia said at last.
That made it worse, didn't it? No. Alzheimer's was horrible because the body looked like the one you loved, but the person inside was gone, and you would never talk to them again. You could only talk at them, and get an answer, maybe, from someone using their voice.
But Hafidha could still look out of her eyes, still use her lungs and larynx whenever the Thing had its back turned. Maybe that would be enough.
Maybe they could still hang onto her tight enough that the anomaly couldn't have all of her. Her friends would grip with all their might, with their imagination and inventiveness and love, and pull, and maybe, maybe, Hafidha wouldn't slide completely out of their grasp.
Daphne dragged Tricia's knuckles to her lips and kissed them. As I will, so mote it be.
So mote it be.
Seven Corners, Virginia, Thursday, May 14, 2009, 0445 Hours
Solomon Todd didn't go straight home, although he should have. He didn't have a single clean article of clothing in his jump bag, he hadn't slept more than three hours out of twenty-four in the past seven days, and he was old, old, old this morning. But that was the problem. The fish could fend for themselves for another day; he needed endothermic company.
He called a cab and went to Mehitabel's little blue house in Virginia, prepared to wait on the front stoop until the neighbors called the cops or she came home, if it was necessary. It turned out it wasn't--for the first time in what felt like living memory his luck was running in his favor. She had probably just finished a late shift at the women's shelter, because she was walking up her stairs when the cab pulled up to the curb amid cold drops of rain as big around as a newborn's fist, and when he called her name softly she heard him and turned. She let her face light up when she saw him, too, a gift he desperately needed. It lasted until she caught his expression, which meant until he was under the porchlight. He ducked under the roof and pushed the water off his face with a palm. Right-handed, because his go bag was in his left. Even a brief stint in the Army taught you to keep the right hand free to salute.
"I can't even say." He took her arm; they finished the steps together. She fitted her key into the lock. "But would you mind a little company? I've got two days off and I plan to spend them sleeping."
"Sleeping is always nicer with a friend," she allowed.
She let him into her cluttered, cozy house and locked the door between them and the world; she made him eggs over easy and bacon and fried potatoes and home-made hot chocolate. All things he probably shouldn't be eating, given the way the blood pressure and cholesterol count kept creeping up at every yearly checkup. But it was all good, and it tasted like home, and right now he wasn't really sure he cared if he died of it tomorrow. She put him in the shower and threw his wet and filthy clothes in the washing machine and found a pair of her late husband's too-big pajamas for him in the boxes in the attic. It wasn't the weirdest thing Todd had ever worn.
She tucked his head under her chin and wrapped her arms around him when he asked her to hold him. He cried himself asleep in her arms, and she treated his complete emotional collapse as if it were a goddamned wrapped and personalized birthday present, a gift he was giving just to her. It had been a long time since 1953, and Todd was as glad as anyone that the decade of Valium and poodle skirts was buried and on its way to becoming long-forgotten. But he knew he still carried enough of his childhood socialization to find her acceptance of him as a human being with human frailties stunning. Healing.
Always find the right word.
When he woke up with the bright morning filtering in around her blackout drapes only an hour or two later, she was still sleeping heavily. He lifted his head from her breast, which rose and fell with soothing regularity, and pushed a tangled strand of gray-brown hair off her face, and he thought Solomon Todd, what the hell is wrong with you? You're fifty-six years old. She's a goddess taken mortal form. She deserves garlands of roses and Indian motorcycles placed reverently at her feet. You will never in a hundred lifetimes do better than this. Right here. Right now. This is your chance. The one you will most likely never get again, son. This is as good as it gets.
So why the hell can't you figure out how you're supposed to fall in love?
Adams Morgan Neighborhood, Washington, D.C., Thursday, May 14 2009, 0445 Hours
Nikki Lau had grown up in the low, wide architectural landscape of Southern California. So of course, as a kid, she'd always longed for a house with stairs. Her favorite stories had had stair risers, bannisters, balustrades, landings. Sometimes they'd even offered steep, narrow attic stairs, that led to a high-peaked dusty room inhabited by old trunks holding clues to mysteries or magic waiting to be awakened.
She hadn't been able to afford the attic, but her public servant's salary had stretched to make the down payment on a two-story condo. Her staircase wasn't the antique one with a carved lion face on the newel post that she'd dreamed of as a little girl, but it was hers.
And when you were a little girl, you never imagined being too damned tired to walk up it.
But having a routine didn't just keep her on time and under budget; it made this life, at the edge of her strength and mental agility, possible. If she stepped into the routine of homecoming, momentum would carry her along.
So she trudged through the kitchen to the closet where her stacking washer-dryer combo lived. She dropped her go bag on the tile in front of it, dug out the laundry bag of shirts, underwear, and nightclothes, and tossed the contents in the washer. Then she skinned out of the things she was wearing, added the washables to the load, measured soap into the machine, and started the wash cycle. Her jacket and two pairs of trousers she folded to take to the dry cleaner's tomorrow.
She sort of wanted to burn them instead. But she couldn't justify being triggery about a damned Ann Taylor blazer.
She left her go bag on the floor--it was as easy to repack it there as anywhere--gathered her wallet, phone, and holster, and padded into the darkened living room and up the stairs.
In the bathroom, she dumped her gear on the flea-market magazine rack. "Hi, boys," she said to the two painted Scotty dogs that formed the uprights. She used the toilet, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. Always brush your teeth before going into the bedroom. Lest you pass out face down on the bed and wake up with sewer breath.
Yep, routine and momentum. She could count on them.
Her bedroom smelled unused. Not musty (she'd changed the sheets the day before they were called to Ohio, so that was all right), just empty, like a motel room that hadn't been rented in a long time. She went back out to the hall closet where she kept the ironing board, stood on tip-toe, and felt around the top shelf until her fingers found the lavender-oil linen spray. She used that to mist the bedclothes, then gave the rug a few shots for good measure.
She reached for the pajamas she'd left on the foot of the bed--how many days ago? Weeks? Longer than that? How had everything changed since she was last in this room?
No. Don't go there. Routine, remember?
But she found herself pulling out the bottom drawer of the dresser and digging through the layers until she found a corner of cotton fabric, light blue, black, white, a flash of red. She pulled it out.
Dana had made them for her: pajamas decorated with penguins, in beanies and wrap shades, snowboarding. The fabric was creased from lying undisturbed at the bottom of the drawer for so long. They were worn and washed thin and soft, and Nikki was stingy about wearing them, dreading the day they'd tear.
She put them on and climbed into bed.
On the night her divorce was final, she'd given the penguins names. It kept her from crying herself to sleep, or worse, calling Richard. She'd made up entire stories about them. Javier, with the red hat, the bad boy. Susanna, Olympic hopeful in green. Molly, in blue, who ran a penguin ashram in Antarctica. And StanBird, in yellow, who was a famous film director, but who always wore a baseball cap and sunglasses so no one would know he was a penguin.
She was so goddamn alone.
Everybody was, really. She knew that. But sometimes she wished she still had someone to share all that aloneness with.
She eyed her phone on the nightstand. She was not going to interrupt Daphne's reunion with Tricia, and besides, Daphne was probably sick of the sound of her voice after days in the car. Brady, she hoped, was having his own reunion. If he had as much sense as she thought he did.
I want to call Hafs.
Hafidha's parade of Boys had been not unlike her own abortive parade of What Was I Thinking?. They'd had a mostly-unspoken understanding about Dating Hell, and Nikki had always made sure Hafs was supplied with cookies or wind-up toys or postcards in thoroughly bad taste when the signs of Boy-dumping appeared.
When Erik the Notaboy died, Nikki felt as if she'd had a double-handful of toys and postcards turn to ash and sift through her fingers. She felt like that again now.
Times like these, you should only call people whose numbers you have memorized.
There was one she'd had memorized for a long, long time. Yes, she thought. It's the right thing to do. She picked up her phone and punched it in, just to prove she could.
It took eight rings, but at last she heard a sleep-rough voice say, "Hello?"
She swallowed down sudden, surprising tears. "Hey, Dad. It's Nikki."
"Nikki? You okay? It's--" She thought she heard a rustle as he rolled over, checked the clock. "--Are you all right?"
"Yeah, Dad. Sorry to wake you up. I just...I got home from a tough case, is all, and--"
"You wanted to know if your revered father was sleeping the sleep of the just and innocent?"
She could see his grin in the sound of his voice. "Well, I wasn't expecting miracles."
He chuckled. "You used to wake me up when you'd had a nightmare. Remember?"
Nikki had to swallow again before she said, "I guess some habits are hard to break."
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington, D.C., Thursday, May 14, 2009, 0445 Hours
Stephen Reyes meant to go straight home from the airport. So he wasn't sure why he found himself in the first floor of the Hoover Building, being nodded through the metal detector by a heavy-eyed security officer. He reclaimed his weapon and badge on the other side of the scanner and headed for the elevator. He stumbled from pure weariness on the smooth tile floor, but caught himself before the guard could comment.
The cleaning staff was finishing up Down the Hall; he glanced in that direction as he came out of the elevators. Once, this would have been as far as he had to go to get to work. If that were still true, he would probably be at home, asleep. He thought about calling Delphine--it was a decent hour, in Amsterdam--but even if she hadn't realized yet that her six-month artist-in-residence gig was going to evolve into a permanent relocation, Reyes knew. And she didn't need the weight of his concerns on her straight shoulders.
He continued along the corridor and shouldered through the doors into the bullpen.
Now there wasn't even Chaz sleeping in the copy room to sweep away the sense of perfect silence around the desks. The overhead lights were still in energy-saving mode, a twilight sufficient to navigate between the furniture. He trod slowly past each station with its empty chair and black monitor screen, headed for his office. Perhaps he'd just sleep there, on the couch. No one would wonder where he was.
He stopped beside the last desk, brought up short by the sight of a thing out of place. Hafidha's laptop, still plugged in.
The team would come in, see it there. It would throw them off their stride. He unplugged it, coiled the cord, and trudged back down the aisle to the door, across the hall, and into Hafidha's sanctum.
He placed it carefully, square to the edge of the tabletop, centered in front of the chair. People were picky about their workspaces. Territorial. If one had to disturb their turf, it was only right to restore it faithfully.
He plugged the laptop into the power bar at the back of the desk. To make sure it was as it ought to be, he opened the lid. It booted, to show the angular surreal desert landscape of Krazy Kat's reality, and the password prompt.
No one was ever going to enter that password.
Suddenly Reyes found the real world--the solid, constricting, entropy-ridden real world--around him. It echoed with a silence so loud it seemed as if it could shatter his bones and pulp the heart in his chest. But of course, it wouldn't. That would be too easy.
Instead he'd have to live, and hurt, and heal.
Gently, slowly, he folded her laptop closed.
Idlewood Psychiatric Institute, Ashton, VA, Thursday, May 14, 2009, 1000 Hours
They were building her her very own burrow.
They hadn't consulted her on the specs, of course, but she knew what the design features would be. Surfaces uncluttered by cables or jacks or outlets. A peaceful communications-free environment. Discreetly functional metal-mesh shielding in walls, floor, and ceiling.
Jesus fuck, they wouldn't even trust her with a television, would they? Her sentence was to die of boredom.
Would her manifestation go away if she didn't use it? Corrode, seize up, shut down? Maybe she'd go back to being a real girl again. Then they'd trust her. Because they were scared to death of anything but real girls.
Real girls were the rightful prey of people like her. She'd rather be a monster, even if it meant staying in here forever.
"Shut the fuck up, Bug," she whispered, even though she knew they were listening.
Without the Bug, there was nothing to listen to at all. Her temporary wire cage shut out the signals she was used to passing through her head and filtering for keywords, source, message frequency, visible and invisible attachments that rode the data like lampreys. Sensory deprivation. They'd left her nothing but her meat, the boat anchor her real self dragged behind it.
They'd reduced her to something like them.
They were watching as well as listening, so she made it look casual when she curled her left hand around her right wrist. She kept her face calm and her breathing steady as she dug her nails into the underside of her forearm, where the cameras couldn't see. She felt the skin break, felt blood well up warm around her fingertips, felt the nerves shriek with pain.
A girl had to feel something, didn't she?
They'd erected her hasty cage inside a larger room. The clunk of the door bolt made her jump and gasp and squeak. She was ashamed. But she felt so weak without the data. So vulnerable.
The orderly--what was his name? Nathan--poked his head into the room. "Ms. Gates? You have a visitor."
"Tell 'em I'm busy." The sound of her voice startled her. So harsh and tuneless there in meatspace.
She would not cry, she would not she would not because the Bug would be all over it, squealing and bouncing and sucking up everybody's hurt. But that meant she couldn't say his name, because she could feel the tears waiting for that one chink in her defenses. She sat on her bunk in its welter of bedclothes and tightened every muscle until she shook, so she wouldn't move, wouldn't speak.
The distance from the room door to her cage was two paces of those long Chaz feet. He walked them and stopped. After a bit, during which she kept her eyes on his chest, he said, "I'm...here."
"I noticed." She wasn't going to talk. Why was she doing it?
His long nose, his long face, his eyes like spare parts for two different dolls, his hair drooping in front and sticking up in back, his hands limp at his sides, and hell, the only reason his clothes fit him was because she'd gotten tired of watching the scarecrow flop around the bullpen--
"Bug, shut UP," she said, and thrust her right index finger between her teeth and bit down.
Chaz gave a little strangled noise and hurled himself at the wire, trying to poke his fingertips through the too-small diamond openings. "No! Wabbit, no, no, no. Don't do that." He must have seen the blood marking her forearm, because his mouth dropped open and his eyes closed. "Promise me you won't hurt yourself anymore."
Promise. The way he did. But she'd counted on him, and he'd let her down. She could be more honest than he was. "I can't promise, Chazzie. Sometimes...sometimes there's just too much Bug."
He bit his lip and nodded. "I'll come see you as often as I can."
"What if I don't want you to?"
"Then I'll come twice as often."
She was so surprised, she laughed. "That's so you."
He drew a deep breath. "I love you, sis."
I love you, too, she thought. She couldn't say it. All the things she was allowed to say, had to say, and that was the one that was off limits.
But she could stand up and walk the ten feet from the bunk to the cage mesh. She could lay her palms against the wire right where he'd laid his on the other side. And she could rest her forehead between her hands, so when he kissed the wire she could feel his breath warm at her hairline.
"Brave hearts and clean. And yet--God guide them--young!"
---Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Merlin and Vivien"