Teasers & Deleted Scenes
Woodbridge, VA, Memorial Day, 2007
Daphne Worth hadn't meant to be the first one at the cookout, either. But she'd said she'd pick up the drinks, and she'd been scared to death of getting lost, being late, or just plain being abducted by aliens between the condo door and Brady's white, picture-window, ranch-style house in the south suburbs. So when she pulled up it was obvious she was early; the curb beside the neatly-edged strip of lawn was barren of other vehicles and the front door of the house was tight shut.
Daphne turned the engine off but left the keys in the ignition. For a moment she sat with her hands on the wheel, considering pulling back out and driving around the block a couple of times. But as her hand was dropping to the key, Brady's door swung open and he filled up the aperture. Busted by a man who keeps a nice lawn, she thought. He was a quiet type. Kept to himself.
He strode down the brick walk, sunlight catching highlights off his thick sandy hair, and let the screen door bang. "Worth! Need a hand with anything?"
"Got a wheelbarrow?" She pasted the smile to her face--it got easier with practice--and popped the trunk. Two cases of beer, two bags of soda, a case of Deer Park spring water. Chips, onion dip, hamburger buns. "It's just drinks. I don't cook. From each according to his ability, right?"
"Beer is never wrong at a barbecue," he said.
"Chaz said to bring sliced Italian bread, too." She grabbed the bag off the passenger seat, swinging it across the center of the car as she stood up. "How much are we planning on eating?"
"Chaz and Hafidha are coming." He stacked the beer and water so he could pick up all three cases at once, and still had a hand free for the trunk when he was done. She followed him up the walk, her arms full of paper bags, and as he held the screen door for her he said, "It's pretty much impossible to bring too much food."
When she glanced at him to see if it was a joke, he winked. The bags crinkled as her arms tightened in surprise.
"Exhale," Brady said. "We're not that scary."
"New kid. First company party. You know."
She heard him lock the screen door behind them, but he left the inside door standing wide. Open for business.
Whatever she'd expected from Special Agent Danny Brady's private castle, the living room confirmed it. Steel gray carpet, gas fire closed down for the summer, royal blue leather couch, loveseat, and recliner. Glass-topped coffee table, and a high-definition television big as an army cot. The house was open-plan, living room divided from the dining room by a glass brick wall, light shining in through foundation plantings outside the window on the east. She wondered if he had a maid service.
"I didn't picture you as a glass brick kind of guy," she said, as he slid the beverages onto the breakfast island and walked around it to pop the fridge. Daphne was no expert, but it was a serious-looking kitchen: stainless appliances, double sink under a broad window open on the back yard.
She heard a motor running in the street, the put-putter of an aged four-cylinder.
"Built in the seventies," he said dismissively. "That's Chaz. I recognize the car. You want to get the door for him while I put this beer where it will do the most good?"
"In your belly?" Daphne asked, her pulse jumping as if she had said something greatly daring. She set her bags on the table and dove for the door before Brady could answer.
When she reached it, she burst into startled laughter. Because there was Chaz Villette unfolding his Jacob's-ladder body from the driver's seat of a baby-blue ragtop 1977 Volkswagen Beetle with Bondo-spotted fenders, his leather backpack slung off his left shoulder.
He looked up when he heard her, and she did a doubletake. In less than seventy-two hours he'd been transformed: the sallow complexion she'd apologetically thought of as bloodless replaced by a burnished and distinctly non-Caucasian bronze. If she found him unconscious in her ambulance now, she'd be reporting him as male, mid-twenties, and Latino, and worrying about making sure there was a Spanish-speaker handy when he woke up, just in case.
As she blinked at him, cheeks numb with a poleaxed expression, he pushed sunglasses up a browned Andalusian nose she now realized might have been inherited from some unknown Conquistador. But then he ducked his chin apologetically, awkwardly, and was suddenly just Chaz again. "Chick magnet?" he offered with a nod at the car, light voice scratching uncertainly.
She had recovered herself enough to laugh again. She stepped out the door as he walked around to the front of the Bug and grabbed the formerly chrome-plated latch. She said, "Worked for Ted Bundy."
"Mine's got both seats." He started stacking Styrofoam coolers on the curb. "Careful" --as she went to lift the first couple-- "that's hot."
"It's a cooler."
"Insulation is insulation." He shrugged, a gesture that always seemed to be about making defensive spikes out of his collarbones. "This one has ice and meat in it," he said. "And this one's ceviche. Are you sure...?"
"Got it," she said, lifting. The coolers weren't that heavy. Heavy enough, but not exactly a 175-pound rescue dummy. "Honest." She looked up as Lau's little red toppered pickup glided up at the curb. "Oh, look, here's Hafidha and Nikki. Hafs, could you--"
"In a heartbeat," Hafidha Gates said. She somehow managed to climb gracefully from the cab, despite platform sandals and a sweeping floral skirt and two Tupperware cake carriers stacked in her hands. She tossed beaded braids over her shoulder and shook them, as if the rattle pleased her. "Nikki, get the bag in the back?"
Nikki Lau was already bent over, rummaging behind the seats, shoving the razor-cut layers of her hair irritably behind one ear. "I brought wine coolers and guacamole," she said, as Daphne tried not to stare awestruck at the fit of her faded jeans. "This California girl knows better than to go mano a mano with real cooks. Is that yours, Daphs?"
"Um." She rested her chin on the topmost of the two coolers, foam denting under her fingers. "This is all Chaz. I don't cook--"
"Thank God," Lau said. Laden with bags and keys, she hip-checked the door and chirped the lock. "I thought I was the only one."
Her grin showed white, perfect teeth, and Daphne felt the tightness in her chest--of which she hadn't even been aware--ease.
The beers Brady shoved into the freezer had cooled enough to drink, so he pulled out a Coors and two Sam Adams and cracked each in turn with the blue-handled church key.
Behind him, Chaz had dropped his backpack on one of the saddle-topped barstools and was rummaging through it. Brady set one of the Sams down on the island for Chaz and stretched across to hand the other to Worth.
"Thanks," she said, pushing her bangs out of her eyes with the back of her other hand. She drank from the bottle, eyes closing. "Wow, that's good."
Chaz laid a black nylon package on the island and unrolled it, revealing three black-handled knives--paring, chef's, and long-bladed filet.
"You know," Brady said, "I have knives."
Chaz grinned at him sideways from under tumbled hair. "You think so, do you?"
Brady rolled his eyes and reached for his beer, breaking eye contact. "Huh."
"Do you have a cutting board?"
Brady craned an arm to retrieve the tempered glass board from beside the fridge, and laid it down beside Chaz on the side opposite the beer.
Chaz nudged it with a pinky. "This'll trash your edge. Do you have a wood one? Or plastic?"
"Huh. Don't those hold bacteria?" Yeah, Danny Brady, stirring conversationalist. He crouched down to rummage under the counter. He was pretty sure he'd gotten a cheap wood cutting board when he moved in.
Chaz crouched down beside him, legs folding like a roosting crane's. Brady found the board under the sink and put it into his hands. "The science at this point tends to indicate that the wood has natural antibacterial properties," Chaz declared, and flushed. Probably because he'd noticed he sounded like an issue of Scientific American.
In the dining room, Daphne cleared her throat and said, "I'll go see how the girls are doing with that fire."
"Hand me the lamb shank first?" Chaz levered himself upright and pointed to the cooler.
Daphne set her beer down long enough to paw through the ice and pull out a lump of plastic-sealed meat that looked like it would make a pretty good murder weapon. She thumped it onto the counter.
"Excelsior!" Chaz said. "There's marinated chicken for the spiedies in there, too, and the soaked bamboo skewers. Why not take the whole thing outside and put the girls to work doing the obvious?"
"Slave driver," she said, but she picked the lightened cooler up and propped it on her hip. Beer reclaimed, she rolled her eyes, blew her bangs out of them, and beat a hasty retreat to the back deck.
"What's a spiedie?" Brady asked, intrigued enough to risk the lecture.
Chaz moved the lamb to the sink and nicked the plastic with his paring knife. "There's two pots of chili verde in that biggest cooler," he said, pointing with his elbow. "Could you stick them on the back of the stove to stay hot? The little one's for Falkner, so don't, you know--"
"Mix up the spoons," Brady said, walking around the counter. "Right. You made chili verde."
"Signature dish." Dry as gin. A thump as Chaz laid the lamb shank on the cutting board. "I am from Vegas."
"Which is not really the Southwest, man."
"Yeah, yeah, Dallas. Whatever." By the time Brady sorted the spoons and turned around, Chaz had butterflied the shank, and was running the tip of his knife underneath the bone, lifting it smoothly away from the meat.
Brady leaned over for a better look. Without looking up, Chaz said, "A spiedie is a kind of marinated meat grilled on skewers and served on folded-up slices of white Italian bread. It's a southern New York thing. Originally they made them with lamb, but now they use anything--chicken, pork, venison. It's meat and bread." He winked, without missing a stroke of the knife. "You'll like it."
"And the lamb is also spiedies?"
"The lamb is just kabobs. Spiedies have to marinate for days."
Whether it was the chef or the knife--or both--Brady had to admit, he couldn't have done what Chaz was doing. He rolled his Coors between his palms and said, "The UNSUB is proficient with a knife, and familiar with anatomy. He may be a butcher, a hunter, have medical experience--"
"Or just be really hungry all the time."
The knife danced, making impossibly tidy cubes. Emeril, eat your heart out. "Chaz, you're going to cut your hand off, man."
Chaz appeared not to have heard him. The knife would brush his fingertips on the next stroke, if it didn't sever them. "Seriously," Brady said.
But Chaz's fingers whisked aside at the last moment, the knife came down, and the final cubes of lamb lay glistening on the board. "Nah," he said, grinning like a stage magician after a particularly impossible trick. "I'm good at this."
He pointed to the olive oil and garlic on the counter, this time using his chin as the indicator. "Can you assemble a marinade, Special Agent?"
Brady drained his beer and dropped the bottle into the recycling bin under the counter. "I have that training."
"I defer to your experience, then, as senior agent. Don't forget the red pepper, though... is that grin meant to make me uneasy?"
"That depends," said Brady. He reached into the cabinet over the stove for a jar of crushed reds and opened a drawer for the whisk. "Have you ever worked bomb squad?"
Lau was a Valley Girl, dammit. She could figure out how to use a simple gas grill.
And that was half the problem. She could figure out how to use a simple gas grill, and that was not what this was. This looked like the navigation panel on the Starship Enterprise, and not the Sulu-era one with the slider and a couple of nonfunctional push buttons in primary colors, either.
"We Laus believe in proper mesquite barbecue. Otherwise, cook it inside in the air conditioning like civilized folk."
Hafidha grinned. "Good try, Miss Direction. But you're not getting out of this one." She leaned over Lau's shoulder, frowning, and pointed to a dial. "It looks like you should turn that to light, and then push the red button?"
"You're not sure? You're supposed to be the technologist."
"That" --Hafidha aimed a long nail manicured in a starburst design at the gleaming red-enamel and chromed-steel temple of barbecue dominating the corner of Brady's deck-- "is no ordinary machine. Although it might in fact have a microchip in it. In which case, you should treat my guess as gospel truth."
"Hmm. Daphs still right inside?"
Hafidha craned her neck toward the house, skeleton earrings dancing on her shoulders. "Looks it. Why?"
"Because if it blows up, we might need medical care. Right." Lau extended a finger to the button. "Here goes nothing."
It made a satisfying scraping sound. And even a bright blue spark. But there was no ignition, and no flame. "Right," Hafidha said brightly. "No microchip!"
Lau stepped back and glared at the grill.
"You could ask Brady," Hafidha offered. When Lau rolled her eyes, Hafidha added, "But you'd never hear the end of it."
"You have no idea." Visions of getting boxes of matches for Christmas for the next ten years danced through Lau's head.
The sliding glass door scraped open, and Worth emerged, burdened with paper plates, bamboo skewers, and a gallon plastic bag full of what appeared to be raw chicken swimming in Italian dressing. "Fire and rescue," she announced, cheerfully. "Chaz wants us to turn these into chicken shish kebab with a funny name."
"Spiedies?" Hafidha bounced on her toes. "He made spiedies? Awesome!"
"All yours," Lau said. "I don't eat dead animal, and I'm not touching dead animal. But I am going to figure out this dratted NASA control module--"
Worth stretched to peer over the stack of paper plates. "Turn on the propane?"
Worth set the food and paraphernalia on the picnic table, and came around to crouch beside Lau's knee. She tapped the rosette handle of the off-white tank under the gas grill. "Propane. Turn it on?"
"Oh," Lau said. She shook her head in disgust. "Spark plus flammable material. There goes my serial arsonist career."
Worth edged the shutoff open. The hiss of escaping gas reached Lau's ear, and as Worth stood she set the grill to "Light" again and pressed the button once.
Blue flame ran across the bottom of the grill like pooling water, and Lau and Hafidha cheered. Lau grinned, dusted her palms on her jeans, and stepped back from the grill. "There. You guys skewer the poultry. I'm going to go get a beer and see what Chaz brought for the noncarnivores."
"Bring chips!" Hafidha said. "Problem-solving makes me hungry."
Lau slid open the door and paused. Outside, Hafidha was showing Worth how to skewer chicken so it stayed put. Inside, Chaz and Brady were discussing food preparation in terms of past cases while pretending they weren't trying to gross each other out.
Teamwork. It's not just for the office anymore. "Villette, if you ate all that guacamole, you are a dead man."
Esther Falkner spent twenty minutes wondering what to do with her hair.
At work, she wore it up, severe and businesslike. At home, she left it loose and long. It was another way to remind herself, Leave the job at the job. Leave home at home.
But compartmentalizing was a temporary coping strategy at best. It failed to account for a backyard potluck barbeque with her co-workers.
Her contributions to the food also required some internal negotiation. The tabbouleh was one of her party standards. But her other reflexive potluck contribution, salade niçoise, wouldn't fly.
"Leave the tuna out," Ben suggested. He sat at the desk in the kitchen, wearing the faded navy terrycloth robe he wouldn't let her replace, cuddling his first cup of coffee and craning a little backward to read craigslist. His glasses were on the bedside table. He always said he didn't need them for the computer.
Falkner sighed. "Anchovy paste in the dressing. It's not salade niçoise without it."
He got up to refill his cup. "Lau won't know there's anchovy paste in it if you don't tell her."
He curled his arm around her waist and kissed her cheekbone, right in front of her ear; his breath brushed the lobe. "You're a better man than I am."
"Hah. Don't give me ideas, you. I'm on deadline here.""Your family likes salade niçoise," Ben said plaintively.
"Then I'll make it for my family. Later." She kissed him firmly on the mouth and felt the prickle of his three-day-weekend beard.
Instead she improvised a main-dish salad--black beans, corn, tomatoes, rice, sweet onion, romaine, and avocado in chili-lime vinaigrette. She had, thank God, two very large covered bowls.
Hafidha and Chaz would be there, after all.
She went upstairs, took the HK sub-compact out of her gun safe, slid it in the pancake holster and tucked that into the small of her back, and made sure her shirt tail covered it. When she leaned forward the shape would show under the oxford cloth, but at this party that wasn't a concern.
Nothing left but the hair question. In a fit of desperation, she pulled it back, braided it, and let it hang.
Out in the hall, Rebekah's bedroom door was open. Rebekah sat cross-legged against her pillows in shorts-and-tank-top pajamas. She'd had soft, dimpled baby knees and elbows once, and a face so round you could hardly tell she had bone underneath. Now she sported an absurdly stern nose and a lot of forehead, and Falkner thought when she shed the last of her puppy fat her chin would be pointed. She had too much arm and leg for the rest of her, and just this year she'd decided to hate her curly brown hair.
She was showing Deborah how to fold a paper airplane. Deborah lay on her stomach at the foot of the bed, her chin in her hands. Falkner always insisted the girls wear sunscreen ("Skin cancer is a stupid way to die"), but Deborah was already penny-colored, and it was only the end of May. Deborah insisted on wearing her smooth black hair short, because of tree-climbing and gymnastics and karate and the sort of thing nine-year-olds seemed to think ought to be done on a bicycle nowadays.
They both looked up as Falkner passed on the way to the stairs. "Hi, Mom," Rebekah called. "Barbeque?"
"Yep. Be nice to your father, all right? He has no one to call for backup."
"Say 'hi' to Chaz."
"Yeah!" Deborah looked up from the airplane and smiled.
Posters of boys Rebekah insisted on referring to as "hot" studded her bedroom walls. None of them had the faintest resemblance to Chaz Villette. Falkner decided she had not just detected a crush in action. "Will do."
Woodbridge was on the other side of the D.C. sprawl from Silver Spring. She had plenty of time in the car to wonder if she should have invented a prior engagement. Nothing had as great a chilling effect on a party as the arrival of one's immediate superior. Brady may have thought, back in the office, that the invitation was a good idea. Things might look different at his front door. Or he might have thought she was about as likely to show up as Reyes was.
Well, enter cheerful, declare she couldn't stay long, make a tidy social circuit and a timely exit. Not that tough.
Brady's house was a ferociously suburban single-story with a healthy, buzz-cut lawn and mounding junipers around the foundation. It was as considered and tended as his desk at work.
She juggled the bowls against her hip and rang the bell.
"Come in!" Chaz yelled, which was followed by Brady saying, "Hey, it's my house." She realized only the screen door was closed, and was about to try for the latch when Brady opened it.
"Hey, chief." He scooped the top bowl deftly out of her arms before she could speak and held the door open with a foot. "Glad you could make it." He nodded her across the living room toward a breakfast bar and the kitchen. "Chaz customized the chili verde for you."
Chaz stuck his head around the corner and waved a knife that might have given an UNSUB heart failure. "Yours has chicken." His wide mouth split his face in a grin. "Extra-spicy."
She set her bowl down on the counter beside one full of tortilla chips. Chaz was using the knife to push cubed meat off a cutting board onto a platter. Lau crouched at the refrigerator, searching the door shelves for condiments.
She smiled over her shoulder at Falkner. "Hi, boss. Beer?"
"Please." Her "I can't stay long" speech was scattered in her head; she scrambled to reassemble it.
Brady set the other bowl down and popped the lid. "Tabbouleh!" Chaz crowed. "Perfect with lamb." He pointed the knife at the platter. "You want to skewer these with alternating vegetable matter? Nikki refuses to enable."
"I can cover for her." Falkner took the lid off the salad. "Nothing you do can stop them, you know," she told Lau.
"They have to want to change." Lau handed her an opened beer and peered in the bowl. "Ooh, pretty. Ooh! Lime!"
Worth bounded in the sliding door from the back deck. "The rock things are hot. I think it's time to burn some food. Oh, hi, boss!"
"The 'rock things?'" Brady repeated. He snagged half the pile of skewers from in front of Falkner and started threading lamb and blanched vegetables on them.
Worth blushed. "Bottom of the grill. Distribute heat. What do you call 'em?"
Brady considered for a moment. "Rocks."
"See, I was close. Chaz, do we need instructions on how to eat the chicken that isn't kabobs?"
Lau shook her head. "The nouns are the first to go." Worth took a pretend swat at her.
Chaz slid past Worth and Lau to the stove like an envelope through a mail chute. He lifted the lid on a pot. "Fold a piece of Italian bread around it, pinch it off the skewer, bite, chew. Repeat."
"Good plan," Hafidha called from the sliding door. "Can we start doing it now? With chili? Hey, Es, you made it! Ooh, salad-thingie!"
"Tortillas should be warm by now," Chaz replied. "You know the drill: eat it before I do."
The moment had come and gone when Falkner could have made her casual speech. That was all right; she didn't need it now, anyway. She nudged Brady with her elbow. "Pass me the cherry tomatoes."
Chaz craned his neck to peer over Brady's shoulder at the kebabs. "Don't leave them too long," he said, because he knew it would be annoying.
Lau grinned at Chaz across the barbeque, and the heat in his face had nothing to do with the gas fire. "You have no sense of self-preservation."
But Brady's voice and glare were relatively mild. "You aren't the only person on earth who can make his own damned food."
Chaz took another bite of Falkner's salad and pointed at the paper plate with his fork. "Obviously."
Worth, perched at the end of one of Brady's lounge chairs on the lawn, looked up through the bangs that half-hid her eyes. "Good thing, too. Some of us would starve otherwise." She followed that with a twitchy, apologetic smile, and shifted her gaze to the sapling tree at the corner of the deck. Sorry about the interruption, the gesture said. Don't mean to force my way in.
Of course, she was already in; she was the only person who didn't know it. Chaz wished he could think of a way to tell her so. Other than just telling her, which she wouldn't believe.
Because she'd looked away, he could stare at her without making them both nervous. He liked her gray eyes, round and wide when she was focused on a puzzle. He liked her strong, square jaw, her straight shoulders, and the muscle that worked in her forearms and wrists when she moved. Noticing gave him a pleasant little shiver. Purely aesthetic.
Sure, Chaz. Stop cruising your coworkers.
At least without encouragement.
Brady turned the skewers one after the other, a practiced, left-to-right sweep, and flipped the burgers beside them with the spatula in his other hand. Not bad for a guy who kept his knives loose in a drawer. Chaz breathed in the odors of searing lamb and beef. Flesh, blood, and char. Put that way, it ought to be disgusting. Instead it made his stomach growl. If he opened his mouth, he thought he'd drool like a St. Bernard.
A rising sound--a rumble like an unnaturally regular avalanche--reached the backyard from the street out front. Stomach, meet motorcycle. You guys sound like kinfolk.
"Duke's here!" called Hafidha. She and Falkner were out on the grass, deploying hoops and posts for croquet.
Brady raised his eyebrows at Chaz and waved the spatula at the house. "Get the door?"
"Guess I'll have to trust you with the cooking," Chaz sighed, and bolted before Brady could throw something other than food at him.
Chaz got to the front door as Sol Todd, helmet in one hand and cooler in the other, jogged up the step. The Harley leaned rakishly at the curb behind him.
"Brady said if you actually brought fermented duck eggs, I'm not allowed to let you in."
Todd shook his head. "Daniel Brady. A lion in the face of a psychotic killer. A mouse when confronted with duck ova."
"Fermented duck ova."
Todd held up the cooler. "Orchid noodles."
"Oh!" Chaz held the screen door open. "Enter freely, go safely, and leave something of the carbohydrates you bring."
"Not the most reassuring quote." Todd stepped over the threshhold.
"Don't worry. We've probably got enough food that no one's going to bite your neck. Probably."
He led Todd through the kitchen--"I like the glass brick," Todd said, so Chaz told him, "So does Brady, but he won't admit it"--and out onto the deck. Todd set the cooler down on the boards, lifted out a big square container and blue plastic tongs, and set them on the end of the folding table where the rest of the food was spread. When he took off the lid, Chaz breathed in a blended fragrance of sesame oil, soy sauce, and red pepper.
"Two-minute warning for carnivores," Brady called.
The sliding door screen scraped open. "Good timing," said Stephen Reyes, as he stepped out on the deck.
He wore a light green linen guayabera shirt, and pants that, however casual they were meant to be, still looked dressy on Reyes. And he carried a big stoneware crock with a towel wrapped around it like a muffler around a throat.
Reyes had come.
Chaz realized he'd begun to think of Reyes as being reconstituted every morning, then dried to a powder in the evenings and stored overnight, unless they were in the field. But here he was, magician's entrance and all.
And he'd brought food.
"Frijoles negros," Reyes said, and Chaz blushed, wondering just how much of his last twenty seconds' thought had scrolled across his face in lights. All of it, probably.
With a single swift movement Reyes slipped the towel off the crock, coiled it down on the table for a hot pad, and set the pot on it.
"You cook?" Chaz's voice cracked with surprise.
"To eat well, cook well." It sounded like a quote. Reyes tapped the lid. "My mother's recipe."
It occurred to Chaz to see if anyone else was as flat-footed as he was. Too late; if they were, they'd recovered. But he thought Brady, Lau, Hafidha, and Worth, at least, might have had something to recover from, given their studiously bland expressions.
Brady held out a skewer. "In that case, you can tell me if these are done. I don't trust Chaz."
Chaz snagged the second sample. They were done. He pretended to be grudging about the approval.
"There is meat," Brady announced, and everyone but Lau (who got to the orchid noodles before Chaz) converged like kids on a puppy.
Well, only if they intended to eat the puppy. Now is not the time to think of Mrs. Chow.
There wasn't room at the picnic table for everyone at once. (As at work, so at play, Chaz observed, and wondered if he should say it out loud.) So they cycled, depending on who had gotten up for seconds. Eventually Chaz ended up cross-legged on the grass with an embarrassingly large wedge of Hafidha's German chocolate cake on a paper plate on his knee.
Worth dropped down beside him with a bowl full of vividly-ripe strawberries. "I love spring," she sighed.
"Strawberries and asparagus," Chaz agreed. "Not a bad consolation for winter."
She popped a berry in her mouth and bit it off its stem. She smelled like sunscreen and green apple shampoo and now, strawberries. Chaz realized he was staring. He dropped his eyes to his plate and hewed a chunk off the cake.
Worth studied the others as she chewed, so he did, too: Falkner, Reyes, Lau, and Hafidha at the picnic table, Brady and Todd refilling plates at the folding table on the deck.
Chaz waited for her to break the silence. When it didn't seem about to happen, he said, "Family cookout in the backyard."
She turned, cocked her head. "Complete with emotionally-distant father figure," she agreed, and grinned.
"Hey, I was expecting 'absent.'"
"Lau had to pick her eyeballs up off the deck."
"So it wasn't just me! Ex."
"Mom's straight face went a little crooked."
Chaz shook his head. "Didn't happen."
"Did! Perceptible motion!"
"How's the cake?" Worth gazed at his plate wistfully.
"Here." He held up his plate and thrust his fork at her. When she looked like refusing, he said, "No, seriously."
She shrugged, took the fork, and shaved a little off, with frosting.
"Oh, come on."
"I don't want you to go hungry." Her deadpan was a beautiful thing. She took the bite. "Mm. On the other hand, that could be bad for you."
"Don't even think about it. Come on, we'll get you your own piece."
Reyes was scooping seconds of chili verde from the bottom of the pot when they hopped up the steps to the deck. Chaz felt absurdly pleased. You feed your family. And after tasting the Cuban black beans, Chaz thought he could consider Reyes's seconds a compliment.
Worth cut a stingy piece off Hafidha's cake while Chaz surveyed the remains on the table. Not bad: the sole evidence of the speidies was one heel of the Italian bread; the ceviche was reduced to a little juice and bits of garlic in the bottom of the bowl; and Reyes was claiming the last tortilla.
Chaz considered his own internal well-being. Not too shabby. He felt substantial and contented. His teammates around the picnic table looked about the way he felt.
"I know why I'm all about the food," he said to Reyes. "But what's everyone else's excuse?"
Reyes followed his gaze, narrow-eyed. Falkner, Brady, Lau, Todd, Hafidha, laughing and talking and eating. It made Chaz happy. And frightened. He had a lunatic urge to keep feeding them, to keep them at that table forever. As long as they were there, everything was all right. He felt Worth come up on his left, eating cake, and he wanted to freeze her there, too.
But Reyes turned to look at him, and time kept moving. "Isaiah 22:13," Reyes said. "'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.'"
Next week on Shadow Unit:
Black and bay, dapple and grey,
Coach and six little horses,
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
Way down yonder, down in the meadow,
Lies a poor little lamby,
The bees and the butterflies peckin' out its eyes,
The poor little thing cryin' mammy.
The things people will sing to their children.
"If there's any chance he's still in Tyler County, we could have our work cut out for us. They've got a forest fire." Falkner had to stop, and swallow. "An anomalous wildfire."
Reyes was too dark to turn pale, or flush, or any of the useful Euro diagnostics her own skin offered. But she knew from the set of his mouth that he was biting the inside of his lip.
"Tell the team, wheels up in thirty minutes. We'll brief in the air."
Falkner kept the relief off her face. "I already told 'em."
"The whole team?"
"Can you think of anyone we can spare?"
Reyes let out an unsteady breath. "Not this time."
"What are the odds," Todd said, "that an anomalous fire is unconnected to the disappearance of an agent in the same grid?"
Reyes gave Todd The Look. "It's his fire."
"As much as fire belongs to anyone."
Outside it was deep twilight. Falkner stopped with her hand on the driver's side door latch of the SUV.
"What?" Brady asked.
Until he asked, she didn't know herself. Then she registered the faint winter-night smell of woodsmoke, and the air that made the trees mutter like an angry crowd.
"The wind's rising," she said, and watched comprehension dawn.
Chaz pulled over and rolled the window down. Pine scent, smoke from the wildfires, and warm, humid air wrestled with the aridity inside the car. He kept both hands in sight on the wheel. The trooper's steps grated on the roadside gravel; Chaz mostly registered sunglasses when he leaned down to peer in the driver's side window.
"Driver's license--" The trooper's head turned, sweeping the inside of the car. He jumped back like a cat and snatched at his hip. Chaz froze in the glare of a large-bore, unblinking eye. "Both hands outside the car. Now!"
The season finale of Shadow Unit: "Refining Fire," by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull.