"Apolysis" - by Emma Bull and Will ShetterlyAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Janesville, Wisconsin, December 2012
The basement was dark, but she wasn't blind. The least light was enough, and air moving, and awareness of heat and moisture. Especially the latter, right now, but thirst was a good motivator. Work now, drink later.
The dusty metal of the air duct was slippery, and every movement made a reverberating scrape or clatter of sound. The bent, battered vent cover laid black bars across the view of the dim room beyond, and framed a hole just big enough to squeeze through.
She imagined forward. She imagined the taste of food and the undisturbed peace of home, and she envisioned it out there. Her own stomach ached with hunger. Forward.
The floor was shining-smooth and nearly as loud as the duct, tick-tick-tick. Hurry to a corner, press against it, and wait. The floor was motionless underfoot, and the space silent and empty--not just an absence but a palpable quality of not-there. She pushed around the corner into a high, wide angular volume of air--a hallway.
Against the dark stood the darker rectangles of doorways, and one outlined with a fog of light. A closed door, with light behind it, and moisture barely breathing out from beneath it. The bathroom.
The sound of rushing water quivered the air, and the floor vibrated with the thunder of it in the pipes. He would come out in a moment. Hurry to the door before he opened it. He'd be blind in the hall after the dazzle of the bathroom light.
The door opened in a wave of brightness that broke into dark as he snapped off the light. Before her was the pillar of warm and throbbing life that was her prey.
Calloused skin, that rough living leather, was no barrier at all. And why did blood never feel the way she expected it to?
She envisioned hurry, and flight, but light blazed again suddenly overhead. He must have found a wall switch.
Her own ears heard screaming, hoarse and broken-pitched, a man's terror. She cowered down in the cold behind the junipers, even as she ran, tick-tick-tick, across the bright tile and forced through a grate into the warmer darkness of the floor vent.
She was so awfully hungry. Home. Warm. Food. Foodfoodfood. Did the neighbors hear the screams from inside their houses? Would they call someone?
She didn't like that scream. The others had been quiet. He'd sounded so scared...
Of course he was afraid. He'd thought he was big and everyone else was small. Now he knew that didn't make any difference.
This is what I want. This is what it's like to be the one who makes the rules.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC
"And the second toxicology report," Nikki Lau announced as she came through the briefing room door, holding a fax aloft.
Arthur Tan looked up, his canted eyebrows making his whole face look basset-houndish. "Why do I assume it confirms the first one?"
"Her tone of voice," Hafidha Gates replied. "She sounds way too happy for it to be all a mistake."
Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner suppressed a smile. A man was dead, and it was possible someone had murdered him, and in those circumstances, one ought not to smile. Not to mention she was down to five agents, the stressful winter holiday season loomed, and no one was bombproof.
But as she looked around the table, she saw strength, stability, and a kind of fluid eagerness: five people who knew their jobs and one another and were ready to put that to use.
They've never been better. Then she pushed the thought away. Overconfidence might not be punished by the gods anymore, but it was still bad for judgment.
Chaz Villette lifted his gaze from his phone and, presumably, Google. "So we really are talking venomous spider?"
"Australian venomous spider," Lau answered.
Daniel Brady, in the chair nearest the door, heaved a sigh that would have shaken window glass, if the room had had windows. "And the day started so well."
"Is Rydel Pope still the only victim?" Falkner asked.
Lau palmed her bangs off her forehead. "I asked Detective Baumgartner to look for any other suspicious deaths, or deaths of anyone connected to Pope. But so far he's our only confirmed spider toxin victim."
"So how do we get to murder from there?"
"Besides the Australian funnel-web spider venom in Wisconsin, which sounds like a mythology based on Hercule Poirot?" Tan fingered the ends of a nonexistent moustache.
Chaz held up his phone. "Behavioral science. Specifically, spider behavior. These guys don't wander around hunting prey; they wait for it to come to them. If a spider this size had a burrow in the house, someone should have spotted it. They need heat and humidity, and Wisconsin in December during one of the driest years on record should have killed this one or forced it into dormancy, even if it managed to survive the trip home in someone's suitcase."
"You've bookmarked that web page, haven't you?" Hafidha asked.
"That's 'cause I'm not you."
"So, Houdini clause," Falkner acknowledged. Because if it didn't make sense, it was the purview of the WTF.
Brady frowned. "Wait, what do you mean, 'a spider this size'?"
"Um. Well, the tox screen shows robustoxin, so if there's an actual spider involved, it has to be a Sydney funnel-web, which means..." Chaz slid one finger on the touch screen. "...up to two inches." He held out his phone to Brady. There was a photo on it.
After a heavy silence, Brady grunted. "Big enough to shoot, then."
"I thought you'd swear," said Chaz.
"There's not enough profanity in the whole goddamn world."
Falkner knew she'd have to look at that photo. "We don't know there's a spider involved. Someone may be using the venom."
Lau answered that. "The coroner found puncture wounds in Pope's right heel consistent with a spider bite."
"Fangs," Tan said mournfully.
"Really small fangs," Hafidha offered.
"Not for a spider."
"Before we commit to making this trip, I'd like to get more data. Hafidha, I'd like you to find out if this spider is in zoos or collections in the U.S., especially..." Falkner looked again at the case documents in front of her, checking addresses. "Why do I recognize Janesville, Wisconsin?"
Chaz sat stone-faced and Brady was on his way there, but it was Lau, in a nice semblance of professional detachment, who replied, "Sullivan College, 2008. Tim Miner had an apartment there."
"Tim Miner." Hafidha looked up and added brightly, "Oh, yeah--wasn't that the case where Reyes tried to get Brady to shoot Chaz?"
Too late to try the "I will drown you if you open your mouth" look Falkner used on her children.
But there must have been something like it lingering in her expression, because Hafidha turned from her to the rest of the team. "Oops. That's one of the things I'm not supposed to say out loud, isn't it?"
It was Brady who answered--Brady, for the love of everything. "Well, why the fuck not? I was thinking it." He grinned at her.
After an instant, she grinned back. "When the zombie apocalypse comes, I promise not to eat you."
"Can't ask for better than that," said Chaz.
Brady eyed him sideways. "Hell, you won't wait for the zombies."
"There's a lot of meat on you!"
No one made reference to the thing they didn't believe in, but it lay there in plain sight. And it changed the game, just enough. "Lau, tell Baumgartner we should arrive sometime this afternoon."
"Do we all go?"
"Lau, Villette, and Tan. Brady, you'll stay here to catch anything else that comes in. Hafidha, I'd like you here, with maximum resources." She had no idea if Hafidha's resources were ever finite, but at least here, Brady would be close by to feed her and, yes, keep an eye out if she was in trouble.
Hafidha probably knew that, but all she said was, "Good. I'm going dancing with a Boy tomorrow night, and I don't want him to think I'm more interested in giant spiders."
"Even if you are?" Lau asked.
"Especially. It would be rude."
"Y'all know I've got your backs," said Brady.
"Especially if they have spiders on them." Tan cast his gaze heavenward and declared in a respectable version of Texas, "Christ in a shoebox with holes in the lid."
"Almost me," Brady said. "If you come back alive, I'll give you some pointers."
Nikki Lau leaned on the door frame of Hafidha's sanctum, her go bag weighting her right shoulder. "You have a date with a Boy?"
"Yep." Hafidha rocked back in her chair and settled her feet (in cobalt-blue cowboy boots) on her desk. Data flitted across the monitors like birds in a rain forest.
"Anyone I know?" It was a vain hope, and Lau knew it, but she asked anyway. Hafidha didn't date people her friends knew, and she never dated them long enough for her friends to change that. Except Erik. It might even be healthier that way. Lau was certainly no authority.
"God, no. I met him at the gym." Hafidha licked frosting off her fingers. "The artisanal cupcake: God's apology to jammers. He's Lithuanian, or Latvian, or something. He said he could bench-press me, so I made him prove it."
"He bench-pressed you?"
"Mm-hm. Do you have any idea how much core strength it takes to be a good barbell? If he can't dance 'til closing I'm going to taunt him publicly." She snapped her fingers, and the left-hand monitor stabilized on a news broadcast: archived from the 1980s, to judge from the fluffy, layered hair of the reporter on screen.
Lau took a deep breath. Once there'd been someone else Hafidha could count on, someone who'd ask her the tough questions in the right way, who'd know what the answers meant. Agent Lau, you're no Daphne Worth. "I get the feeling..."
Hafidha kicked off from the desk to pivot her chair and face Lau. "This isn't Twu Wuv?" She smiled and laced her fingers together behind her head, and Lau knew she was definitely not getting past Hafidha's personal bulletproof glass today. "Oh, honey. I'd sooner do heroin than that shit again."
"Nikki," Falkner called from the open door to the bullpen. "Call Detective Baumgartner. Tell him to have the local hospitals order the antivenom, and rush the delivery."
"On it." She pushed off the door frame and plucked her phone from her jacket pocket, trying not to feel rescued.
"Good girl," Hafidha said. Her expression was gentler than her words. "Now go catch your plane and bring me home a gamma to play with."
The Rock County sheriff's office was part of the same complex as the county jail, and it all appeared to be built of sandstone Lego blocks. Across the divided highway, a cornfield lay bleak with winter stubble. Falkner felt the lack of trees the way a small animal might feel an absence of cover.
Inside, before she could identify her team to the dispatcher, a short, heavy, mostly bald man sprang forward from a passage behind the desk. "You the Feds?"
Lau recovered fastest. "Special Agent Nicolette Lau. I believe we talked on the phone--"
The man shook Lau's hand once, thoroughly, as if it were the shaft of a lug wrench. "Detective Mike Baumgartner."
"This is ACTF Agent in Charge SSA Esther Falkner."
Lug wrench again. "That's a mouthful, huh? Thanks for coming."
Falkner watched as Lau introduced Tan and Villette, who behaved like model FBI agents. Tan always had, of course, but even Chaz managed, nowadays, to suppress his feral streak in front of strangers.
"Agent Lau said you needed a place to set up. Come on." Baumgartner lunged back down the passage, never looking back to see if they'd followed.
"It's nice to be wanted," Lau murmured, with no sarcasm.
Falkner knew what she meant. Detective Baumgartner behaved like a man whose salvation was at hand.
No pressure. She led her team after the detective.
As they passed the shoulder-height walls of the county detective staff's cubicles, Falkner could see men and women at their desks. They half looked up at Baumgartner as he passed, then transferred that almost-furtive gaze to the team, careful not to catch anyone's eye. Falkner nodded to them anyway and pressed her shoulders a little further back.
Baumgartner led them into a windowless room where a folding table and chairs were squeezed between a row of lockers and several dozen stacked file boxes. Two boxes had been drafted to serve as a stand for a ten-cup coffee maker and an empty peanut can stuffed with sugar, fake sugar, and creamer packets. One wall was mostly clear above waist height, where someone had propped a medium-size whiteboard with a blue marker and an eraser.
Falkner watched Lau, Tan, and Villette, but they gave no sign that the accommodations were anything but what they were used to. Good for them. They spotted it, too. Falkner tossed her dark wool coat on top of the boxes out of the way and turned to Baumgartner.
"It's crap, I know," he said, flushing. "We're short on room--"
"And you're the only person in this department who believes we have cause to be here." Falkner leaned on the table, which was sturdy enough not to shift. "Are you in trouble because of this?"
"No, no..." He raised his hands, but they dropped as if of their own accord. Surrendering to honesty. "I was already on my way out. Taking early retirement. I don't fit in too well, you know?"
This small, round man with his abrupt speech and awkward body language--no, nothing would make him fit in except extraordinary ability, the kind that had worked for Chaz, for instance. "Yet the Sheriff's Department authorized sending for us."
He turned a darker red. "I guess I can be pretty pushy."
"You could have let this case slide. We're still not sure it is a case. No one would blame you."
"I never 'let one slide.' I'm not going to now." Suddenly he smiled, showing a mouthful of worn teeth and a tricksterish delight. "Besides, this time the brass can't even warn me off. What are they gonna do, fire me?"
Chaz was already starting a pot of coffee, while Lau set up her laptop on the table and Tan unpacked files. "How did you know to call us?" Falkner asked, taking a manila jacket with the FBI seal off the stack.
"You cover the Batman cases."
The three agents she'd brought to Wisconsin were hard to surprise, but each, in his or her own way, pulled up short at that, if only for an instant.
"The what cases?"
Someone other than Baumgartner might have passed it off as a joke. "Where there's some crazy weirdo who kills people with some crazy shit for some crazy reason. I follow a lot of LEO sites. And that bank robbery thing in Chicago--hard to miss."
Falkner thanked Justice and her scales that he'd only mentioned law enforcement sites. She'd been afraid, seeing the sneaking stares of his coworkers, that they might be treated to gammas mixed with black helicopters and smallpox-infected illegals.
Falkner pulled out a chair and sat down. "Well, we're not superheroes, but we've done all right so far. Have you found any other cases that might be related to this one?"
"I asked the county coroner to look for 'em. Should be calling back any time now. One piece of bad news, though."
"We got two local hospitals, Mercy and St. Mary's. Neither can order the antivenom based on one guy getting bit." Baumgartner raised his shoulders, straining his blue dress shirt. "Budgets."
Two brisk raps at the door startled even Baumgartner. It swung open, and a sturdy-looking woman with graying red hair in a brown tweed trouser suit stepped in. "Thought I'd just bring these by, Mike. Is this the FBI?"
"Lee! We were just talking about you. Agent Esther Falkner, this is Lena Gretsch, Rock County coroner. You could have just called."
Gretsch shrugged one shoulder and laid a short stack of folders on the table. "In the time it takes to stand in front of the damned fax machine, I can drive over."
And you could have got someone else to stand in front of the fax machine, Falkner thought. Romance? No, nothing about either Baumgartner or Gretsch suggested that kind of relationship. Falkner recalled again the walk through the bullpen on the other side of the door. Gretsch had just run that gauntlet, when she didn't have to.
Lena Gretsch was with Baumgartner on this one.
"Dr. Gretsch, thank you for this. We need as much data as we can get." When Gretsch smiled and nodded, Falkner added, "You might be able to help us with something else, as well. Detective Baumgartner says the local hospitals can't order the antivenom for this toxin on the basis of one death. Is there a way--"
"I'll lean on 'em," said Gretsch. She tapped the folders she'd brought with her. "You want to look these over and call me?"
"If you have time, I'd prefer you stay and brief us on them. Can you?"
Gretsch pulled out a chair. "You betcha." She lifted the first folder and held out a photo of a middle-aged woman. "Jean Marie Fernandez. She was a real sweetie, the best clerk the Rock County assessor's office ever had. Thought it was a stroke because she was heavy, but..."
"There were no other risk factors. Which happens. So without an autopsy looking for--"
Baumgartner chipped in. "Batman shit."
"What he said," Gretsch agreed. She opened the next folder and showed a photo of a balding man, probably twenty years older than Fernandez, also heavyset. "Louis Kirkland. You got Kirklands out east? No? Then you haven't seen his Loony Lou ads. Which weren't funny, no matter what some people think, but they weren't enough to make some mad scientist want to kill him."
Falkner said, "But you think he was killed?"
"No, just that, well, if you're looking for undetected neurotoxin poisoning, he's got to be on the list. But anyone would be comfortable concluding for stroke. High blood pressure, high serum cholesterol, type two diabetes--" Gretsch shook her head. "I really need to start a zumba class."
"Do you have blood or tissue samples from Fernandez or Kirkland?" Lau asked.
"Death by natural causes." Gretsch looked sour, and Falkner wondered if there was a fight over this in her past. "I can start the process for exhumation orders, but that'll take weeks if they go through at all."
"Then we'll see if these three have any above-ground connections," Falkner said. "What can you tell us about Rydel Pope?"
Gretsch tipped her head to one side, as if giving one hemisphere more room to work. "Well, being spider-bit doesn't mean somebody killed him. Almost any time someone's bit by something poisonous, it's a young guy showing off."
Lau said, "Pope wasn't young."
Gretsch said, "Not to you, sweetheart. Most men don't grow up until they're your daddy's age. You know the joke about the redneck's last words?"
Tan drawled, "Hold my beer and watch this."
"But he was alone in his house in the middle of the night."
Baumgartner said, "Far as we know."
Falkner asked, "Is there a reason someone would want to kill him?"
"There was, once. He did time for selling meth, but when he came out, he started bouncing at Road Rabbits, out on I-90."
Chaz blinked. "He what, where?"
Baumgartner grinned. "Road Rabbits is a bar."
Gretsch added, "Where the dancers are not exactly rated by the quality of their dancing, if you know what I mean."
Baumgartner said, "Pope was a bouncer, so maybe he bounced the wrong person. But Road Rabbits is pretty nice as strip clubs go--" He glanced at Gretsch and added, "Or so I hear. The manager said Pope was polite and discreet and dependable. But you never know who's going to get a hate on for you."
"Got any theories yet about how this spider ended up in Rydel Pope's house?" Gretsch asked.
Baumgartner raised a cautioning hand. "We didn't find a spider in the house, or any sign there'd been one."
"I've studied that body, Mike. There was a spider."
Falkner looked to Tan, Lau, and Villette, and could see they'd all gone for the same speculation she had. Mythology. If a gamma believed there was a spider, would the results be the same as if there really was one? "It's possible there was a spider, and it was there by accident. Not likely, I admit. But stranger things have come home unnoticed in vacationers' luggage."
Gretsch looked thoughtful. "If this thing were exclusive to the Wisconsin Dells, sure. But around here, a big vacation is Disney World, or Branson, Missouri. If Pope or any of his pals had gone to Australia, you bet it would have come up."
Falkner laid her palms on the table, preparing to rise. "We'll start with victimology, now that we have more than one possible victim. Lau, Villette, get what you can on Kirkland and Fernandez. Agent Tan?"
"Let's have a word with Rydel Pope's employer."
It took a second to sink in, but when it did, Tan's blank face was everything Falkner had hoped for. "Oh."
It cost her even more effort than usual not to grin. "If I bring Chaz, they'll card him."
"I resemble that," Chaz said.
"Go on, New Fish," Lau crowed. "Just remember, the boss is watching."
Ten minutes after Falkner and Tan went out the door and Baumgartner and Gretsch left them to their preliminary digging, Lau's phone blared the "dot-dot-dot-dash" of Beethoven's Fifth. Across the table, Chaz raised his eyebrows.
"V for the win," Lau told him, and tapped the screen. "Hey, Hafs."
"Hey, you. How are the cheeseheads?"
"We haven't lost any since we got here. Though we do have two more possible victims. Hang on, let me put you on speaker."
"Hey, sis," Chaz said to the air.
Hafidha's tiny digital voice said, "Hey, baby bro. Eat something."
"Yeah, yeah. What have you got?"
"I have a Wisconsin connection for your eight-legged pals."
"Not that I mind, but why not call Mom?" Lau asked.
"I did. She's got signal dropout. I had no idea you were leaving civilization. Shall I FedEx you sushi? Besides, I think you secretly like spiders."
"It's not a secret. Just don't tell Brady, or he'll call me every time he finds one in his house."
"I heard that!" Brady's voice echoed faintly through the phone speaker.
Hafidha ignored him, apparently. "Okay, the Sydney funnel-web spider put a Wisconsin date on its world tour. To wit, Dr. Jon Jablonski, professor of invertebrate biology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was one of a few people studying them for, okay, I'm not sure what. But he raised some in a lab on campus."
"Are they still there?"
"No, and neither is he. He got bit by one of his subjects and died before help could get there."
"Another good reason not to study invertebrate biology," Chaz said. "When did he die?"
"Fall of 2011. So, bit of a gap between him and your maybe-victims."
"What else do we know about him?"
"He and his wife were in counseling."
Lau sighed. "Okay, HIPAA violation much?"
"He's dead, he won't care. The wife still lives in Madison, and works for a health insurance firm. No suspicious blips relating to her. I'm thumbing through the records for the rest of the zoology department now, though."
"E-mail what you've got so far?"
"Oh, honey, I did that nanoseconds ago. Keep me on speed dial, babies.
The figure on the sign looked like a bunny-eared Jessica Rabbit riding a chopper in a bikini. Underneath her, in purple neon: "Road Rabbits. Where the fun's always hop-pening." The building's gray cinder-block walls made Arthur Tan say, "When the zombie apocalypse comes, a person could do worse than hole up here."
Parking by an old Jeep in the snow-splotched lot, Falkner glanced at him. He said quickly, "I meant, it's seriously defensible. Solid doors, hardly any windows--"
"If you say so."
"You're enjoying this."
A hint of a smile touched Falkner's lips.
Tan said, "I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?"
Falkner shook her head as they got out of the car. "I would never embarrass you that way."
"I would embarrass you long after you'd forgotten about it. Probably at the next Christmas party by telling Padma about that time we were in the field together--"
"Note to self: use Buddhism to avoid Christmas party."
"Oh, look, here we are. At the place we're going."
The building's black steel door swung wide just before they reached it. A blank-faced man in a parka and business suit walked quickly toward a black Lexus, never looking right or left.
Tan said, "Huh. Maybe the zombies are already here."
Falkner looked from the businessman to Arthur Tan. "I never thought zombies would make me feel old. They're supposed to be slow and in black and white."
"As long as they say, 'braaains,'" Tan replied, "they're all good."
As they stepped into a cool, dark hall that smelled of liquor and lavender air freshener, the bouncer's voice cut through Pitbull's "Don't Stop the Party": "Welcome to Road Rabbits." He looked like a potbellied Viking in black jeans and a charcoal gray T-shirt with the club's logo in pink. "See some I.D., please?" He stared narrow-eyed from Falkner to Tan. Ah, right--bad form to bring a date to a strip bar. Customers were supposed to pay for company.
Falkner flipped her credentials into view. Tan followed with his. Her flip was much smoother than his. "We'd like to speak to the manager," she said.
The bouncer squinted at her and Tan. Tan stared back. He had to admit, they were all nicely unperturbed. Finally the bouncer, deciding on the path of least resistance, said, "I'll let him know you're here. Unless you tell me not to."
"That'll be fine," Falkner said. "We've just got a couple of questions."
After another squinty look that might be the result of wondering what his boss had been up to, the bouncer snagged a phone receiver off the wall and thumbed a button. "Jack? You expecting the FBI? Two of 'em want to see you." He listened for a moment, then said, "Yessir," hung up the handset, and told Falkner, "The office is at the back, past the restrooms."
Falkner said, "Thank you," and led Tan inside.
The main room was a little sharper than the outside suggested. The walls were matte black. The bar, stage, tables, and chairs had all started life elsewhere, then been painted purple, pink, black, and gray, which either meant the owner was more creative than Tan had expected, or someone had seriously lucked out at a paint sale.
A small crowd of men sat at the borders of the long rectangle of stage, watching a dancer shimmy out of her bikini bottoms. Tan thought, Huh. I have a type now. And it's not that one. Would Padma be pleased if I called her an Indian Betty Page?
The tinsel curtain that led off the stage to the dressing--undressing?--room was framed by a pair of airbrushed cartoon rabbit women, like the one on the sign outside but without the bikini, all wink and red lips and a cottontail that looked like a ski cap pom-pom. Above, two-color script along a flying curve shouted, "This place is HOPPIN'!"
In the low light at the edges of the room, other women drank with customers. Tan saw them as flickers of reflected light: a sequin here, some glitter, the glint of an eye or a strap buckle. As his vision adjusted he realized the women, while seeming to focus on their customers, were watching Falkner and him. Because they were a novelty? Or because they might be a threat? And if the latter, what were they afraid of?
A small man waited for them at the end of the hall. He wore black trousers and the Road Rabbits T-shirt, and his hair was dyed dark purple. Tan couldn't decide if his thick-lensed glasses were too conservative or too hipster. "I'm Jack Wendt," he half-shouted over the whomp-whomp of the music. "What can I help you with?"
Falkner showed her credentials again. "Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner, FBI. This is Special Agent Arthur Tan."
Tan inclined his head, said, "Sir," then wondered why he had begun to imitate Brady. But then, who did the strong backup role better than Brady? Tan was the new kid. Copying was how newbies learned.
"Do you have an office where we can talk?"
Wendt frowned for an instant behind his glasses. "Sure, sure. This way." He pushed open the door behind him, painted black and marked "No admittance," and waved them in.
The furniture here was secondhand, too, but the walls were gray. Wendt sat down behind a scarred steel desk and waved Falkner and Tan to a pair of molded plastic chairs on metal legs. They were almost as uncomfortable as Tan had expected.
Falkner said, "We'd like to ask a few questions about Rydel Pope."
Wendt's eyes narrowed. "Rydel? The FBI? Even Rydel didn't think he was that big a noise. What was he into that the FBI cares about?"
"We're looking into his death."
"I heard he got bit by a spider. Found him on the bathroom floor." Wendt grinned suddenly, and Tan wished Baumgartner hadn't mentioned Batman villains, because Wendt could have been one, for just that instant. "Damn, did somebody dose him? Was he murdered by drug dealers or something?"
Falkner said, with the straight face that strangers interpreted as humorless, "We haven't established the source of the toxin."
Wendt nodded. "He was a bad boy years ago, I guess, but I never heard he used the stuff he sold. No, he was solid. A guy you could trust. I used to give him the bank deposits, even."
Tan asked the official next question. "Did he have any enemies? Did he quarrel with anyone? Maybe have trouble with a customer?"
"Nothing that lasted after the guy sobered up. No, everybody liked Rydel."
"What about the other employees?"
"Sure. What, the girls? Oh, the girls loved him. Rydel always looked out for 'em. The bouncer's a dancer's best friend." Wendt leaned back in his desk chair, as if this speech was a La-Z-Boy and he was settling in. "We're family here, agents. Some people find that hard to believe. They watch those shows on cable where it's all sleaze and mob bosses and girls shooting up, but we all show up for work every day. We share pictures of our kids. We look out for each other. It's a good place to work, and we try to keep it that way."
Falkner said, "Rydel wasn't married, and didn't have children. Was he dating anyone?"
Wendt turned his head to one side, then shook it slowly. "I never saw him with anybody. But he was here to do a job, you know? Professional."
So family didn't extend past the parking lot. "Might one of the bartenders or the dancers know?"
"No, probably not."
Tan fielded a significant glance from Falkner. For whatever reason, Wendt wanted to control the information. "We'll need to interview your staff. We'll do our best not to interrupt your routine, of course. Can we use this room, or is there somewhere else you'd prefer?"
Under the clown-wig purple hair, Wendt's face was stiff, pouting in spite of his fixed-looking smile. "Sure. Sure, right here is fine." Wendt sprang out of his chair. "I'll let everybody know you want to see them."
"No, thanks," Falkner said, bringing the words out bright and crisp like the crack of a bat. "We'll take care of that."
Tan wondered if Wendt was actually starting to sweat. He said, "We prefer to handle these things ourselves. You never know where a lead may come from." Especially if no one tells them what to say before they talk to us.
He followed Falkner back down the hall, wondering how this would work. Start with the bartender? Ask one of the women to gather the others? They stepped into the main room and the full throb of the music, and Tan nearly ran into his suddenly stationary boss.
"The dancer," Falkner said, just loud enough to reach him.
The skinny dancer was still on stage. In a display of surprising strength and agility, she was hanging upside down on the pole, her thighs closed around it, her hands clenched on it as if she could strangle it, pushing herself up toward the lights and sliding slowly back down, rising and falling to the beat of the music. Her blonde ponytail swept the floor; her skin shone with sweat.
Etched on the ridged and knotted muscles of her back across their full width was a tattoo of a black widow spider.
The music ended, and the dancer peeled off the pole in a slow-motion somersault. She swept up a clutter of one- and five-dollar bills from the edge of the stage, hooked the parts of her bikini off the floor with her other hand, and strode, high-heeled and haughty, through the tinsel curtain.
"I refuse to believe," Tan said, after he got his breath back, "it can be this easy."
"Hang onto your doubts, agent, but if the solution falls off the tree into our hands, I'm not going to glue it back on the branch."
They'd come out of the hallway at the end of the bar, almost in front of the server's station. Tan waved the bartender over.
"What can I get you?"
"Tell me about the dancer."
The next woman's music started, and the bartender had to shout. "She'll be out in a couple minutes, and you can buy her a drink."
"No, thanks." He flashed his shield, which made the bartender literally step back a pace. "Don't worry, we're just after background info. Has she worked here long?"
"Spider? Couple years, I guess. I couldn't tell you exactly."
"She's...got an unusual build for a stripper."
The bartender snorted. "You could say that. She got better tips when she had some weight on her. I don't know what the fuck she's on."
"You think she's using?"
The bartender remembered he was talking to a law enforcement officer. "I didn't say that. If she is, she don't bring it here. Jack gets along fine with the cops, and he wants to keep it that way."
"Maybe she's sick."
The bartender shrugged, and Tan knew he wasn't going to commit himself to any more speculating. "She could do better someplace else, maybe. Chicago might have guys who go for her type. But we get truckers, farmers, guys from the Hormel plant. You know, all-American guys, want a nice rack and a big smile." He wiped the dry bar top vigorously. Busy man, work to do. "Anything else?"
"No, thanks." Tan turned to see Falkner walking into the room, charting a path to intersect with the dancer with the spider tattoo who, bikini back on and makeup freshened, was winding slowly between the tables, trolling for an offer to buy her a drink. At least, Tan thought that was what she was supposed to be doing. But her chin was lifted and her gaze skimmed the top of every head in the room, and she was definitely not smiling.
He hurried to catch up to his boss before she had to bring their first suspect into the back room all by herself.
He caught the last words of Falkner's standard introduction: "--gent Arthur Tan. May we ask you a few questions?"
"Sure," the dancer called Spider replied, smiling widely with her lips only. "The answers are no, I don't remember, and they must be mistaken. Put them anywhere you like."
"This isn't about you," Falkner said. "It's about Rydel Pope."
"Has he risen from the dead?"
"Not so far as we know."
"Then who gives a fuck about him?"
"That would be easier to answer in the office."
Tan followed Spider's gaze from the Viking bouncer near the front door, who held up his hands in a gesture of complete cluelessness, to Wendt at the bar, who might have just jerked his head in a tight "no."
Spider said, "Sure, I'd love to talk about anything you want. Jack's office, you say?" She turned on a heel and led them back. Tan tried to decide if the tattoo was beautiful or creepy and decided both applied. Was she gamma thin? Druggie thin? Anorexic thin? Would-be model thin? Being thin was hardly the same as casting no reflection in a mirror.
In the office, Spider claimed Wendt's chair behind the desk, swirled around once, and said, "So why the fuck does anyone care about Rydel Fucking Pope?"
"He may've been murdered," Falkner said quietly.
For a moment, Spider's persona faltered, and something almost like pity showed on her face. Then she said, "Why the fuck would anyone bother to kill a worthless piece of shit like him? The world's full of assholes no better and no worse."
"We were hoping you might have an idea," Tan said.
Spider studied him, and he tried to soften his face. Time to play Chaz, not Brady. She's used to being tough at work.
Falkner said, "It's possible he wasn't the only one. Do you recognize Jean Marie Fernandez's name?"
If Spider was acting, her timing was perfect. She thought for a moment, then said, "No."
"Or Louis Kirkland?"
Again, the pause, and then-- "Looney Lou! He was hilarious!"
"You knew him?"
"Just from TV. Why would anyone kill him?"
"We don't know that anyone killed any of them, yet. Getting back to Rydel Pope, why were you pleased he was dead?"
"You mean, did I kill him?"
Falkner clasped her hands in her lap and studied them. Then she shocked the daylights out of Tan. She raised her eyes to Spider's heavily painted face and smiled like a co-conspirator. "Have you ever wondered why cops do that on television, ask someone if they committed murder? Do they really expect the answer to be 'Yes'?"
Spider forgot to look hard in her confusion, and Tan revised his estimate of her age downward. "I don't know. I guess people confess sometimes."
"If they did it very often, I could spend more time home with my kids."
"You have kids?" Spider asked, as if Falkner had said, "I breed Martians."
Tan waited, as Falkner did, for a confidence in return, but Spider's confusion didn't go that deep. She sat silent, staring at a bare spot on the desk.
"You must be cold," Falkner said, and shrugged out of her suit jacket.
"Huh. You really are a mom." The sarcasm was back in Spider's voice, but not the hostility. But when Falkner moved to drape the jacket around Spider's shoulders, the woman held her off with one hand. "Glitter," she said, and pointed to the sheen that highlighted her protruding cheekbones, her knobby shoulders, and the tops of her meager breasts.
"Don't worry. It's seen worse." Falkner handed Spider the jacket. After a moment, she tugged it around her.
"Now, let's start from the top. Spider isn't your legal name, is it?"
"Anna Krol. Two Ns, one L. Age? Address? Driver's license number?"
"Maybe later. Now, why did you dislike Rydel Pope?"
"Because he was a thug, and he was okay with that." Her expression was sharp as a knife edge as she jerked her head toward the door. "Ask any of the girls. They'll say the same."
Tan said, "According to your boss, a bouncer is the dancer's best friend."
"You see Jack out there wiggling his bare ass? Then assume he's full of crap about a dancer's best friend."
"Did Pope...physically intimidate the women here?"
"You mean hit us, or rape us? Oh, hell, no. If Rydel damaged the money factory, Jack would have put his fat ass on the street. No, Rydel was Jack's tax collector." She said the last two words as if they tasted too bad to keep in her mouth for long.
"I beg your pardon?" Falkner asked.
Anna Krol turned to Falkner with something like relief. She's wanted to say this for a long time, Tan thought. Finally, someone wants to hear it. "Jack takes ten percent of our tips for-- He calls it an emergency fund. We all kick in so any girl who gets in the shit will be able to count on some help. But Jack never pays it out. He won't even say how much money there is."
Tan asked, "Can't you refuse to pay in?"
Anna rolled her eyes at him.
It was Falkner who answered. "If she does, she's seen as refusing to support the other women. Because the money might be there, and Wendt might pay it out. Hope can forge a hell of a chain."
"But if all the dancers refused to pay in--"
"I was working on 'em. Somebody must have told Jack. Rydel started waiting for me every time I came off stage. I had to hand over my tips while the other girls watched. Not like I had a place to hide anything, right?" Anna flipped Falkner's jacket aside to flash her bikini. "Rydel would count my money and take Jack's cut." Anna smiled savagely. "He always rounded up."
The words "You could have quit" almost made it out Tan's mouth. He was proud of himself for swallowing them. "It sounds like you had a case for embezzlement. Did you report Wendt or Pope to the police?"
He couldn't figure out the expression on Anna's face when she stared at him, then dropped her gaze to the desktop again. "People say, 'Oh, call the cops, they'll help.' I grew up here. The guys in that black-and-white? They're the same guys who drove around in their fucking muscle cars in high school and yelled 'bitch' and 'lesbo' at me out the windows. The exact same guys." She met Tan's eyes again, and the hard resentment she'd worn when she came into the office was back and then some. "So no, I probably wouldn't call the cops."
Falkner stood up. "Agent Tan will take down your information, Ms. Krol. We may need to talk to you again--"
Anna rose from the desk chair, leaving Falkner's jacket behind. "So don't leave town. Just like on TV."
Even Falkner had fallen from grace, it seemed. Tan entered Anna Krol's data on his phone and escorted her into the hall. As she sauntered out into the main room of the bar, Tan realized what that indecipherable expression had been. Surprise into despair into disillusionment. Hope forged chains even when you tried not to hope.
Falkner and Tan interviewed five dancers, two bartenders, and two bouncers. They all said the same thing: Anna Krol was a troublemaker. She was trying to organize the women, who didn't want to change anything. She threatened them if they didn't join her (though only one woman cited an actual threat: Krol would tell the woman's boyfriend she'd slept with someone else). She was trying to squeeze more money out of Wendt, who was always nice to her. And Rydel Pope was without question a dancer's best friend.
Falkner sipped coffee from the Styrofoam cup Lau had set before her on the table of their makeshift war room at the county sheriff's office. It tasted almost as bad as she'd expected.
"So Wendt got them coached after all," Lau said.
"We might have believed it if they hadn't all said the same thing." Tan swallowed from his cup and made a face.
Outside in the hall there was a low-level furor of thumping and rustling before the door opened on Chaz, his hands and arms full of bags. "Oh, good, you're back. I've got dinner and information." He handed a plastic bag to Tan. "Wash these out, will you?"
Tan opened the bag. "Mugs."
"Dollar store. Styrofoam plus hot liquid equals poison." He handed another bag to Lau. "Real coffee and snacks. I don't know how we'll keep the milk, though."
"There's got to be a fridge in this building somewhere," Lau said, and snagged the bag.
"Aaaand," Chaz announced, holding out the bulging paper sack he'd carried in the crook of his elbow, "Indian food. Certified kosher--I asked."
Falkner inhaled the fragrances of rice, garlic naan, and dal makhani. "You're a mighty hunter."
They cleared the table and covered it with containers of food, then ate dinner while Lau and Villette shared what they'd learned.
"Jean Marie Fernandez may have been the best clerk in the county assessor's office at one time." Chaz interrupted himself with a forkful of chickpeas, but didn't let it stop him for long. "But six months ago her supervisor fired a warning shot over her head. She got involved in her sister's divorce and custody battle and let her work slide. The capper was when her boss found what looked like a week's worth of incoming paperwork stuffed in the bottom of a drawer, including several checks for property tax payments still in their unopened envelopes. There was definitely a span of time when she may have pissed someone off."
"What do we know about Kirkland?" Falkner asked Lau.
"Well, the first thing you should know is, I've now watched some of his ads on YouTube, and if he weren't already dead I'd kill him."
"He did his own commercials?" asked Tan.
"With all the painful that implies. However, his hardware and lumber stores were showing some growth even in a bad economy. He was going ahead on a fifth location at the time of his death."
Falkner nodded. "People fix up instead of buying, and do their own repairs. No Australia trips for either Kirkland or Fernandez, I take it?"
"As close as they got," Chaz said, balancing a forkful of rice and dal, "was the Outback Steakhouse."
Falkner's cell phone began playing Tommy Shaw's "Girls With Guns," so she answered it with, "Hafidha. You're on speaker. How goes the data mining?"
Hafidha's phone voice mixed boredom, amusement, and respect with a tiny dash of contempt. The first time Falkner noticed that, she was annoyed for about thirty seconds. Then she realized Hafidha's contempt was for herself, and now she listened for it, to gauge whether this was a good day or bad. Today seemed to be good.
Hafidha said, "No diamonds, but the ore is shiny. Potential victim numero uno, Professor Jon Jablonski, had a rep for providing after-hours counseling to young female students, which did not amuse Mrs. Jablonski. Whether she made sure his last affair was with one of his spiders, I can't guess, but the electronic record suggests she wanted him to clean up his act rather than close the show. Now, here's everyone's cue to lean closer."
"Leaning," Falkner said dryly, because Lau, Tan, and Villette already had.
"A dozen spider eggs went missing from Jablonski's lab around the time of his death. I'm compiling the list of professors, staff, and students who had key cards for the lab."
"Eureka," said Chaz.
"But we still don't know where the eggs ended up. Hafs," Lau asked, "any links between Jablonski and--"
"Our other dead people? Not online. From the Jablonskis' credit card records, they never so much as bought gas on the interstate in Janesville. And the Jablonski property is in Madison, which is Dane County, so no contact with the assessor's office in Rock County."
"Any social connections among the victims?" Tan asked hopefully.
"The ones who lived in Janesville might have been in the same place at the same time now and then, but not the way you mean. I've got one hit connecting all three of them, besides the fact they lived in the land of cheeseheads: sometimes they bought Girl Scout cookies. But they got them from different troops, and they liked different varieties--as in, they came from different bakers. So I, at least, plan to keep eating Tagalongs without looking in the box first."
"Praise Jesus," Chaz said.
Falkner winced. "Speaking as the mother of daughters, the image that conjures makes me uncomfortable. Hafidha, did you turn up anything on Anna Krol's background?"
"With disturbing ease, Fearless Leader. And I'd say she makes my spider-sense tingle, but this is maybe not the time or place."
Everyone around the table knew what that meant. Trauma. Trigger. Crack. "Give," Chaz ordered.
"Anna Krol, daughter of Christopher and Thea Krol of Janesville, older sister of Erika. Christopher died in a car wreck when Anna was eight and Erika was five. Her mom went from housewife to working mom, raising two kids on a waitress's pay. On and off food stamps, a car repo, landlord troubles-- There is hardship and woe in this tale, no shit."
Falkner heard the anger that Hafidha's offhand tone couldn't quite hide. "So, childhood loss, and subsequent stress."
"And that's so not all. Thea Krol remarried in 2004, one Aidan Hewell of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Construction worker, good salary. But that's when Anna goes from being a well-behaved B student to what they used to call a juvenile delinquent. Dropped out of high school, got busted for prostitution in Minneapolis. Turned up in kink films in San Francisco, plus another arrest for punching a cop who was putting her boyfriend in the back of a squad car."
"Never a good idea," Tan said, poker-faced.
"We are reaching a crescendo, my darlings," Hafidha said, and Falkner could imagine her leaning back in her chair directing an imaginary orchestra with a crochet hook. "Two years ago, Mama Krol dies--heart attack. Anna returns to what's left of the bosom of her family for the funeral. Three nights later, stepdad Aidan Hewell is killed in what appears to be a break-in at the family home."
All was silence around the folding table in the sheriff's office. "Cause of death?" Lau asked finally.
"Blunt-force trauma to the head. Many blunt forces. Because of the number of blows, and Hewell's long-standing friendship with people who move stolen stuff for a living, local police believe he pissed off the wrong dude."
Chaz got to it first. "Believe? They don't know who killed him?"
"Unsolved. The daughters alibied out--a friend down the street, Lorayna Brobich, said they were staying with her that night. But they were never seriously suspected."
"You want me to ask 'Why not,' don't you?"
"Of course I do, baby bro. Aidan Hewell was a skinny bastard, but friends and coworkers testified that he was very, very strong." Falkner could hear the inferences in the way Hafidha's voice went silky and smiling. "And even if he was blitzed, the blows that killed him had some muscle behind them. Neither of the Krol sisters looked as if they could open a tough jar of pickles."
"'Looked' being the crucial word," Lau mused.
"And maybe they couldn't." Falkner knew it flew in the face of good sense, but she didn't like to think of Anna Krol, with her mask of disdain, her defensiveness, and her fierce foul-mouthed intelligence, bludgeoning a man to death.
"What happened to the younger sister?" asked Lau.
"Nothing, as far as I can tell. No police record, no fuss, nada. Hewell adopted her shortly after he married her mother. She still lives in Janesville, in the house Hewell bought for the family when he married Mama. I'm e-mailing the address."
"Thanks, Hafidha," Falkner said, and disconnected. "Finish eating and pop your breath mints, agents. After dinner is a good time to find our witnesses at home."
Lorayna Brobich was a round woman, round on round. Her smooth, glowing cheeks were half-spheres; her chin was a jutting dome; her breasts and backside were generous near-globes. In the yellow glare of the bug light in her front porch fixture, she looked grayish. One more reason to take the bug light out for the winter, Lau thought.
"FBI?" Brobich repeated, skeptical. "Terrorists or serial killers?"
"Excuse me?" Chaz asked.
"Well, that's what you folks chase, right? And this house isn't no way big enough for both, so which are you after?"
Chaz still looked wary. But Lau felt a wholly inappropriate giggle working its way up her throat. "Ma'am, you'd be amazed how many terrorists can fit under a bed."
"Now, see there? Eternal vigilance, that's what I'm talking about." Brobich still hadn't smiled, but Lau thought she saw one in the lines around her eyes. "What can I do for you?"
"We're investigating an unsolved case, and we think you might be able to help us."
And like that, the suggested smile was gone. "I'd invite you in, but I just put my little boy down for the night. He wakes easy. How about we talk tomorrow?"
"We'd prefer now, Ms. Brobich." Chaz drew himself up a smidge, and even though Brobich was three Chazes wide, she leaned back a little. "There may be lives at risk."
"All right," Brobich said. "Don't mind the mess." She stepped aside to let them pass.
It was reasonable mess: a toddler's toys on the furniture and wall-to-wall carpet, magazines heaped on the couch, dishes from dinner still on the table in the dining alcove. Brobich swept a few action figures off two upholstered living room chairs and claimed the sofa for herself.
Under the circumstances, they'd probably earn more goodwill by getting straight to the point. "Ms. Brobich," Lau began, "You lived down the street from the Hewells at the time of Thea Hewell's death, correct?"
"It was my mama's house. I lived there until I got it sold back in April, when I moved here. Didn't get what it was worth. That street's gone to hell. Everybody's selling out."
"Did you know the Hewells well?"
Brobich fixed Lau with a long, considering look. "Are you working your way up to asking if Anna and Erika were with me when it happened? Because I think I already said so to the police."
"No, ma'am." It was Chaz who answered, sounding almost like an apology. "We really do want to know about the family."
"We're not here to investigate Aidan Hewell's murder," Lau added, trying her best to sound like Falkner at her most austere. Because it wasn't going to help if Brobich asked what they were here to investigate.
Brobich studied Chaz, then Lau. "Anna and I were best friends when we were kids. Same age, same school. Hell, our Barbies traded clothes even if we didn't. We were in and outta each other's kitchens up into high school, so yeah, I knew her family pretty well. We let Erika hang with us sometimes even if she was younger. And Anna's mama always had cookies and shit for us, even though they were poor as dirt."
"What happened when Mrs. Krol remarried?" asked Chaz.
"Well, I was happy--he bought 'em that house right down the street from my mama's. When we were little, me and Anna would talk about how we'd grow up and have babies, and our babies would grow up and they'd get married to each other, and we'd all live next door. Now we were next door, near as anything."
"But Anna wasn't happy."
Brobich scowled at the memory. "She wouldn't tell me why. We told each other everything, but now she was keeping secrets. We had a big damn fight about it. We made up, but I knew it wasn't all cool with us."
Lau hitched forward a little on her chair. "Did you know Aidan Hewell before he married Mrs. Krol?"
"I'd seen him over their place, but that was about all."
"Then Anna left home?"
"It was a little noisier than that, but yeah."
"Noisy?" Chaz thrust his head out on his long neck, like a microphone on a boom.
Brobich shook her head, and Lau thought regret threaded her voice when she said, "Anna and Mr. Hewell had yelling, breaking-shit fights every couple-few days. Sometimes outside in the yard. Man, they hated each other. I'll say this, though: that man never hit Anna, not even a slap. But yeah, she ran off." Brobich looked away, and Lau wondered if she was facing toward her old house and the past. "She didn't even tell me good-bye. I didn't see her again till her mama's funeral."
"But you still lived down the street from the Hewells."
"Did you see much of them?"
"Oh, yeah. Mr. Hewell was always around, shoveling sidewalks for the old folks or mowing their lawns or offering to take shit to the dump for people in his truck. He was a scrawny little fart, but when you needed to move a sofa, he'd be there. My mama thought he was just sweet."
"What did you think?"
She was about to give the pat answer, but Lau saw her shelve it and start over. "My girl hated him, you know? And Anna could get all up in her head about some shit, but I didn't think she'd hate like that for no reason. And then my Uncle Bee came by when Mr. Hewell was helping Mama fix the fence gate, and after he left Uncle Bee said we should stay clear of him."
"Why?" Lau asked.
"Uncle Bee said he had some badass friends. Then Mama said right back at him that so did Uncle Bee, and he dropped it. But after that I didn't go in their house."
"What did Erika think of Hewell?"
"Me and her were never close, so I don't know. But I know he thought Erika walked on water. He gave her presents, drove her anywhere she wanted, talked her up to anyone who'd stand still long enough. 'My girl won that prize in school,' he'd say, or 'My girl sings like an angel.' I guess she was his girl, since he adopted her. She got a scholarship to UW, got it when she was just a junior, free ride, and you should have heard him. Like she was smart because of anything he did." Brobich snorted.
Lau tried to watch Brobich closely without seeming to. "A few years later Mr. Hewell was murdered. Were Anna and Erika upset?"
"They didn't know right away, of course, because they were over to my house visiting with me all night. But sure, they were upset. I mean, guy gets beat all to shit in your house? Doesn't matter if you hated him, that's awful."
Lau exchanged a quick, speaking look with Chaz, and they both rose. "Thank you very much, Ms. Brobich," said Chaz. "May we call you if we have more questions?"
"What am I gonna do to stop you? No, go ahead. I don't know what else I can tell you, though."
As they walked away from the house toward the car, Chaz said, "I have two questions. Not for Brobich, though."
"Bet I can guess the first one. Do we think Aidan Hewell was a jammer?"
"We'll never know for sure, but it sounds suspicious, doesn't it?"
"It's looking pretty certain that there is an actual spider, or spiders, poisoning people. And it can't be random escaped spiders, because they'd behave like spiders, and probably even be spotted in the homes of the victims. So the person we're looking for has some way of remotely controlling the spiders after releasing them. Lets 'em go, gets them to bite the target, brings them back. Are we looking at mind-controlled spiders?"
Lau walked around the rental to the driver's side door. "Oh my God, I hate you right now," she said, and unlocked the car.
"Seven," Tan said as he and Falkner drove toward the Hewell home.
"Sorry. Inflatable Santas in one yard. Did I miss a Christmas movie where Santa gets cloned?" Falkner was driving, so Tan had been able to indulge in decoration-gawking. He wondered if the amount of outdoor Christmas lighting made Janesville visible from space. "And what's with the penguins? Does Santa have a summer place at the South Pole?"
Falkner hunched one shoulder, her eyes on the road. "Don't ask me. I was in high school before I realized flying deer aren't in the Christian bible."
"Padma thinks he's the modern incarnation of the Holy Spirit, so she's very pro-Santa. But at her church-- Oops."
"So you don't have an excuse to skip the Christmas party."
The Hewell home was close to the end of its block, next to a vacant store that had probably been built as a mini-mart. Christmas had avoided the area. From the street, the 1950s rambler simply looked quiet, but as they walked up to the front door, Tan noticed flaking paint on the trim and a gutter spout hanging awkward as a broken arm.
A young woman opened the front door and left its glass storm door fastened. She seemed smaller than Anna Krol in every way, short and narrow-shouldered, but the family resemblance was unmistakable if you looked for it. Her jeans were baggy and her sweater was large, which did not necessarily mean anything--in a Wisconsin winter, revealing clothes were for people whose concept of cool was too literal for Tan's taste. She wore no makeup, and her lank beige hair was pulled back in a ponytail in an artless way too severe for artifice. Her little triangular face, exposed, belonged on a fairy in a cage.
Falkner said, "Erika Hewell?"
"Yes?" She stayed behind the glass, watching Tan, and asked him, "What do you want?"
He glanced at Falkner, who held out her ID. He did the same as she said, "Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner, FBI. This is Special Agent Arthur Tan. We'd like to ask you a few questions. Do you mind if we come in?"
"What? No." Unlocking the storm door, she asked Tan, "Did something happen to Anna?"
"Your sister's fine," Falkner said. Erika looked at her, then at Tan, and he nodded. Falkner added, "We saw her earlier this evening. But we think you can help us with an inquiry. This should only take a few minutes."
"Well, okay, I guess," Erika replied, and led them inside.
The interior was much like the exterior: a middle-class home that was lived in, but not loved. After the crackling cold of the December night, the room felt heavy with warmth and moisture. The house plants seemed happy about it; they filled the front picture window, and anyplace else in the living room that might get a little light. The building seemed older than it was, and at last Tan realized why: it smelled like age.
"Do you want coffee?" Erika asked Tan. "Or I could make tea. I'm pretty sure I have some. Sit down if you like."
Falkner said, "Thank you, but we shouldn't take the time." She held out her phone and asked, "Do you recognize this man?"
Erika stepped closer to peer at a photo of Rydel Pope. "No." After a moment she looked up from the phone, into Falkner's face, then over to Tan's. "He looks like kind of a jerk, doesn't he?"
Tan wondered if he was supposed to answer that. But Falkner turned to him as well, waiting. So he said, "It's hard to tell from a photo. He died recently."
"He worked with your sister," Falkner said.
"I don't go there. I mean, why would I?"
Again, Tan had the feeling he was supposed to reply. "They probably water the drinks."
Erika grinned, blushing, and skated her eyes down to the floor.
Falkner clicked her phone. "What about this one?"
Erika looked again, squinted, then said, "Loony Lou Kirkland. Ugh."
"Did you ever meet him?"
Erika turned beseechingly to Tan. Tan said, "If there's something we should know--"
"Not in person." She shook her head, as if verbal negation wasn't enough to dismiss Lou Kirkland. "I always changed the channel when his ads came on."
"You seem to dislike him more than I'd expect for a guy you could get rid of with the TV remote."
She looked around the room as if hoping for rescue from the house plants. Finally she said, "A while ago I got a letter from a lawyer wanting to buy my home. I called the number to tell them no, and the woman who answered said it was Kirkland Lumber. I thought maybe I'd called the wrong number, but no, it was a lawyer working for them, and she put me through. He kept saying the property wasn't worth much, and this was a really good offer because they owned all the land around mine and I wouldn't be able to sell this little bit to someone else. But I didn't want to sell it to anyone. Then he said he'd ask Mr. Kirkland if he could go higher, and I just-- I hung up."
"When was this?" Falkner asked.
"July, I think. Yes, it was."
The month before Kirkland died. "Did you ever hear from them again?"
"There was another letter a week later. Louis Kirkland signed it. It was a lot like the phone call, except... He wrote as if he knew me. As if we were friends." A little shiver passed across her shoulders. "I tore it up and threw it out."
"Did you tell anyone about the offer?" Tan asked her.
"My sister, Anna. The house belongs to me, but she's family. You know?" She looked hopefully up at Tan, as if she wasn't used to people understanding the concept, and expected better from him. "And I was really upset. Anna said they couldn't force me to sell, but it's not like she's an expert."
Falkner said, "One more photo, Ms. Hewell, and then we'll be going." She brought up a photo of Jean Marie Fernandez.
Erika stared at it without expression. "No."
"I'm sure I didn't know her."
"Jean Marie Fernandez. She worked at the Rock County assessor's office."
"I've never been to the courthouse."
Falkner nodded, put away her phone, then said, "You used the past tense when speaking of Fernandez. 'Didn't know,' not--"
A sudden flash of amused superiority crossed Erika's features. "The other two were dead, weren't they? Duh!" Then she looked to Tan, and something like shyness returned.
They gathered in the empty breakfast room of their hotel, around the corner from the front desk and the night outside the front doors. In the morning the counters along the walls would be full of too-soft bagels and too-sweet muffins, pre-measured cups of bland waffle batter and a self-serve waffle iron. Now it was cool and bare as a hospital morgue, and lit with a single strip of fluorescents overhead to save energy in the off hours.
Falkner listened to Tan summing up what they'd learned at the Hewell house. He did good work. Where could she get three more of him?
"She mostly paid attention to you?" Chaz asked, frowning. He'd brought a jar of peanut butter and a box of graham crackers from the groceries they'd left at the sheriff's office, and had been determinedly wielding a plastic knife since they'd settled in to share information. He tossed the wrapper from the first stack of crackers as she watched.
"Creepily much. Young woman, alone in her house with two strangers-- I would have expected her to distance herself from the male of the pair."
Chaz bolted another cracker, tried to talk around it, and was defeated by peanut butter. His teammates waited until he swallowed. "Did she defer to you and not Falkner? I mean--"
"Yes," Falkner said. "We established at the front door that I was in charge, but she kept ignoring me and looking to Tan for cues and validation. She answered his questions in preference to mine."
Lau opened her mouth and closed it again. Chaz raised his eyebrows and nodded to her.
"It's sometimes a pattern of behavior," Lau said slowly. "In abused children."
Tan rocked back in his chair. "You mean she was abused by her mother?"
Lau shook her head. But it was Chaz who said, "The male abuser may treat the child like a love object. He earns his or her trust and affection. The abuser makes the child feel special. Meanwhile, the child sees the mother can't protect her, or doesn't notice what's going on. She learns to see women as insignificant."
Tan turned to Falkner, as if he hoped she'd tell him something different. But all she could say was, "That sounds about right."
"It fits what we learned from Brobich about the relationship between Hewell and his stepdaughter," Lau said.
"So," Tan said on an outward rush of breath, "the Hewell-Krol household was one big nasty pot of awful, to use the technical term."
"I think I'm too tired to figure out what we're looking at," Lau sighed. "It's turning into a football play diagram in my head."
"Circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one," Tan drawled in someone else's voice. It was an instant before Falkner realized it was from Alice's Restaurant. That told her how tired she was.
"Pack it in," she ordered. "We'll start over first thing in the morning."
"Want me to call the office?" Lau asked.
"I'll do it." And Ben, too, of course, and the girls if they were still up. No, it would be almost midnight at home. "Good night, all."
She dialed Brady's cell as she walked down the corridor to her room. He picked up on the first ring. "We're in for the night," she told him.
"Good. Hafs has the data from the interviews with Brobich and Erika Hewell, so we're up to speed here."
Falkner made end-of-phone-call noises and disconnected. Inside her room she sat down heavily on the end of the bed and called Ben. All fine, give my love to the girls, I miss you, I don't know when I'll be home but I wish it could be right now. Right now.
Anna and Erika Krol, three years apart in age, separated and trying to survive a world that wanted to mash them flat. Why weren't they living together? If she and Ben died after the girls were of age, would Bekk and Deborah live together in the house in Silver Spring? They'd have to make the mortgage payments, and pay the property taxes.
Property taxes. Had Erika Hewell paid the property taxes on the family home, or had Anna? Had there been a check in Jean Marie Fernandez's desk drawer with one of their names on it? Lou Kirkland had made an offer on the Hewell house. Kirkland Lumber was planning a new location. A thriving business in an economic slump. A county employee whose sister was fighting an expensive custody battle. Follow the money. Could it be that straightforward?
She was staggering-tired, but she pulled out her laptop and made notes. Please, God, don't let someone else die from a spider bite tonight. This has to wait until tomorrow.
Finally she crawled between the sheets and turned off the bedside light. She was sliding into sleep, her subconscious already constructing towers of irrational images, when she heard a noise.
She was fully awake in an instant. Awake, she couldn't describe it. A brush against something? A rattle? A scrape? She lay motionless, listening past the sound of traffic from the interstate, the hum of the heater, her own breathing. Direction--where had it come from? Down or up? Should she move?
She shifted slowly, slowly, onto her side, reached, and turned on the bedside light.
She was the only living thing in the room.
Still, she got up and turned on all the lights, then got the LED flashlight on her key ring and searched all the corners, the undersides of the desk and chair and nightstands, under the bathroom sink and in the folds of the shower curtain. Finally she turned off the lights, left the flashlight on the bedside table, and got back under the covers.
We better solve this case in a hurry, she thought, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling.
"Do you ever sleep?" Brady asked, then had to smother a yawn. He set a cup of coffee within Hafidha's reach, but safely away from the electronics. This dog's been well-trained, he thought with an imagined snort.
"I'll sleep when I'm dead." Hafidha reached for the coffee without looking.
"No, seriously. I'm here for you, but midnight's circling the drain."
"Thrill of the hunt. It keeps me awake." She slurped coffee, then seemed to remember that Brady was an actual human actually in the same room and not a chatbot. She turned an apologetic smile on him. "Also, I've learned some stuff since the Bug ate my brain. I take five-minute micro-naps to get my edge back."
It made Brady a little nervous, the idea of the anomaly having once called the shots of Hafidha's consciousness. Sometimes it still did, he supposed. But he'd watched her wrestle the evil angel and pin it. It might follow her around all day every day demanding a rematch, but Brady thought she could still make it tap out. At least if she couldn't, someone could give her a hand.
"Besides," she added, "you weren't going home until they called in, so why should I?"
Well, hell, somebody had to be at the end of the column, to watch their backs, to cover a retreat. He figured this was the remote version.
"Oh," Hafidha said. Her voice was small and clear, the kind of delivery that would carry to the cheap seats but come off as a whisper.
"What? What is it?"
"I have a-- I've got-- Okay, wait, wait. Let me get it all. It's too fast right now..."
Brady hadn't the faintest idea what she meant. But she sat upright and rigid in her desk chair, and her displays flung images and information like confetti bombs, too much for Brady to parse.
And that wasn't his job, was it? Brighten the corner where you are, he thought, a little sourly, and clenched his temporarily useless hands between his knees.
At last she flopped against the chair back and sighed, and her monitors fixed on a set of pages layered like a stack of pancakes. "Oh, I am good," she breathed. "Not that this was impossible, but still."
"So make a guy happy and share."
She spun the chair once-and-a-half around and stopped facing him. "I blame Wauwatosa, for having such an awesome name that I failed to automatically Google-map it. It's a near suburb of Milwaukee. Who do we know came from Milwaukee?"
"Tim Miner," Brady said promptly, since he'd been reading over the case notes since the team left. "You pretty much itched to hang my ass on a pike after that one."
"That was when you wanted to shoot my little brudder. Now that you only want to shoot me, I like you fine."
"For the record, I refused to shoot you when, strictly speaking, I was supposed to."
"I know, honey, but I forgive you for that. Enough memory lane shit. I have a story to tell you. The late Aidan Hewell moved to Janesville from Wauwatosa, but he grew up in Milwaukee. Milwaukee's a big city, though, you were going to say."
"I used to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, so no."
"Shush. Spoilsport. Also, Aidan Hewell was significantly older than Tim Miner. So probably no direct contact between them. Because that would be silly. And a coincidence."
"I hate to rush you when you're having so goddamn much fun..."
"Oh, for crying out loud." Hafidha somehow managed to tuck her long legs under her without a struggle. "All right. Let's go back in time to 1987, when hair was big and sixteen people died in a train wreck in Maryland, and yes, that second one is significant. Because it happened the day after a Milwaukee bus driver freaked out, took a bus full of kids hostage, killed a couple of them, and drove off I-794 onto the frozen surface of Milwaukee Bay and subsequently through the ice. The train wreck ate it in the news cycle."
On the screen behind Hafidha's head, a page shuffled: a local news video of a bus being lifted out of smashed ice and water.
"The bus driver, Samuel Oskol, had been acting erratically for months, according to his family. Erratic included intermittent zone-outs, compulsive eating, and complaining of hearing unexplained noises." Another image popped up on the monitor, a snapshot of a middle-aged man in front of a Christmas tree with what were probably his grandkids. Sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked, skin loose on his throat. "On his regular route to school one morning, Oskol picked up his last passenger, shut the bus doors, and drove to the lake. He then proceeded to methodically shoot school kids. A jogger heard the screaming and called the cops."
"Jesus," Brady said. Because you never really got used to hearing stories like that.
"He must have been on a coffee break, honey, because Mr. Oskol snuffed six kids before one of the snipers got a clear shot. Even so, Oskol made it back to the driver's seat and drove the bus into the lake."
"Tell me that finally killed him."
"And three more kids. But here's where it really gets good. They never found Oskol's gun. His family insisted he didn't own one. And a few of the surviving kids said they never saw him holding one."
"Sounds like our kind of psycho." Hafidha stretched in her chair like a satisfied cat. "Now let me point out that at the time in Milwaukee, the school district buses picked up all the kids in an area regardless of grade, so you got a range of ages on any given bus. The driver stopped at the elementary school, the middle school, and the high school, or wherever he was dropping kids off."
"Hewell and Miner were on the bus." Brady felt as if his chair were gently rocking, like a rowboat. "Oskol was a gamma, and Hewell and Miner were there when he lost his shit."
"When he died, in fact. They were among the kids pulled out of the water. Aidan Adolphus Hewell, age fifteen, and Timothy John Miner, age nine."
Their school photos from that year were on Hafidha's monitor. Even at nine, soft-faced and grinning, with his hair combed severely back, Tim Miner resembled his adult self.
Then the pieces fell--really fell--into their proper places. "Holy shit," he said.
"You got it, did you?"
"The contagion theory. Hewell and Miner are present when Oskol converts under conditions of, well, everyone-shitting-themselves terror. Miner goes on to convert years later after suffering brain damage. Hewell converts--does he? We don't know, but at the very least he's a carrier. Did he pass it on to Anna Krol before she left home?" Was it possible the anomaly could be passed on by contact? No, it couldn't be. If it could, we'd be facing gamma-pocalypse.
Hafidha was watching him, a fixed gaze that reminded him of an NCO he'd once had. The guy would wait, and stare, until you finally worked out that whatever you were doing, you were doing it wrong. So he went scrambling back through the story, and found--
"Oskol had already converted. When he died. Hewell and Miner were there when he died. Anna Krol was there when Aidan Hewell was beaten to death. Wasn't she?"
"It doesn't seem to be the only way to catch the Bug," Hafidha said dryly. "But I believe it worked in my case."
"But she alibied out."
Hafidha smoothed the cloud of her growing-out hair back from her forehead. "Maybe someone should check into that."
Stephen Reyes swallowed his bite of cheese and grits before he answered the call. "Falkner," he told the man on the other side of the restaurant table, and thumbed the green button. "Reyes here."
"You don't answer the phone like a retired guy," Falkner said.
"If I weren't retired, I wouldn't be having a leisurely breakfast at Highlands with a celebrity author. Rupert Beale's in town for a signing."
Beale smiled and waved across the table.
"Put him on speaker, and I'll talk to both of you," Falkner said, in the brisk style that always reminded him of his eighth-grade social studies teacher.
"Good morning, Esther," Beale said. "Where are you?"
"Wisconsin. We have--no, we may have--solid evidence for the contagion theory."
Reyes found he'd swung forward in his half of the booth. For years they'd searched for the nature of the anomaly and how it moved through the human population. It might not be his Grail, but it would be fair to call it his Spear of Destiny. "Tell me."
"Hafidha's e-mailing you documents on a Milwaukee school bus hijacking in '87. The driver was almost certainly a gamma. And Tim Miner and a teenager named Aidan Hewell were on the bus. Hewell was the stepfather of our two current suspects."
Reyes remembered to breathe. "Hafs found this?"
"Using the Miner case and the geographic connection to our current one."
Reyes whistled. "Tell Hafidha she just delivered Christmas."
"Call and tell her yourself. You're the one with time on your hands. Oh, how's the adoption going?"
"More complicated than you'd expect, given that all the parties agree."
"Same thing I thought when we adopted Deborah. Amber still wants to give her daughter up?"
He wanted to say "Yes" and leave it at that. But Falkner deserved his confidence. "She's...not ready to be a mother. Strangely enough, I seem ready to be a dad."
"In more than name at last. Give Autumn a hug from Aunt Esther."
"Will do. And thanks, Esther."
"The missing link," Beale said, as Reyes disconnected. "Or is it the gamma Typhoid Mary?"
"Neither, exactly. We've been narrowing down the possibilities for how the anomaly spreads. I don't think we'll ever identify a Patient Zero, but this could be very strong evidence for a contagion mechanism, without any blood relationships to confuse the findings. We haven't been able to track back more than one such transmission before."
"And even that, not very often." Beale chased a bite of muffin through the hollandaise with his fork.
Reyes wondered if he was thinking of Chaz and William Villette, or Hope Mitchell and her unknown father. "And if we find the mechanism for transmission, we're that much closer to finding the thing itself."
"The organism. The anomalous superbug."
"If you're trying out sound bites and chapter titles, could you please not do it out loud?"
Beale threw back his well-groomed head and laughed. "No, no, I promised. No outright breaches of confidentiality without official authorization. Besides, if I stopped hinting and started telling, my readers wouldn't love me half as much. I don't want to kill that goose before I have to."
"Good. Let me bridge this awkward moment by showing you my kid's artwork."
"My God, you really have gone in for fatherhood, haven't you?"
Reyes drew his new Nexus 7 from his coat pocket, opened the photo gallery, and passed it to Beale.
The picture was a drawing in bright crayon. Under a wide blue sky, a small girl in a hat and coat was holding the hand of a man with skin as dark as Reyes'. They stood beside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument. The figures were clumsy, but the proportions and perspective were almost perfect.
Reyes said, "She has the fine motor skills of a little kid combined with the observations of an adult. It frustrates her sometimes, but I tell her her hands are playing a game with her. She's amazing. And no, I do not mean as a subject."
Beale said, "You really expect me to believe she's not your dream study?"
"Oh, I'm keeping a journal for the Idlewood staff. But this time, if there's any conflict--any hint of conflict--between what she wants to be and what anyone wants to make her, the kid comes first, and the mission can go hang."
"Let me get the check," Beale said, looking for it amid the plates and crumpled napkins.
"No, no. The local guy buys," Reyes answered, pushing aside the coffee carafe. It nudged the Nexus, which lurched, tilted--
Before it was completely off the table, Beale caught it and put it back in front of Reyes, further from the edge this time.
Reyes laughed. "Pretty fast for an old guy."
"We may not be all we used to be, but we're still all that." Beale grinned. "Not that I'd want to go up against someone like Chaz."
"There isn't anyone like Chaz."
Beale studied him for a moment, then pushed the tip of a piece of whole wheat toast through the last of his eggs Benedict. "It's good you got out when you did, Stephen."
"You've lost enough. There's only so much a person can risk in a lifetime." Beale pointed at the Nexus and grinned. "Including his fancy-pants tablet with his kid's artwork on it."
Reyes gave a snort of laughter. "The real reason why I'm adopting: not enough terror in my life nowadays. Here, Autumn drew this one of us trick-or-treating."
Beale laughed. "Nick Fury and the Black Widow. What was that about people trying to make her into something?"
Reyes smiled sheepishly. "She was the one who said I had to shave my head."
When they arrived at the county sheriff's office in the morning, Baumgartner met them at the door again. "We've been upgraded," he said with a grin, and led the way back.
What he led them to was obviously the squad room: two long tables, cushioned stacking chairs, a projector, a whiteboard, video gear, another coffee pot, a mini-fridge, and a row of long, narrow windows looking out on the snow-dusted parking lot.
"I'll go get the good coffee," Chaz said, and disappeared down the hall.
Falkner selected one of the looks she usually saved for her daughters and gave it to Baumgartner.
He surveyed the room. "I might have mentioned something about you having a person of interest in the Pope case. Hell, it's not as if it cost the county money."
They settled in, and Falkner brought Baumgartner up to date on the case so far. Everything except the connection with Tim Miner and Samuel Oskol, of course. Her team had consumed that with their breakfast, and the ramifications were the exclusive topic of conversation over the lousy waffles. Falkner hoped briefing Baumgartner would get them focused again on the gamma at hand.
When she finished, Baumgartner slumped back in his chair and chewed his lip. "Sounds like I need an arrest warrant for Anna Krol."
"No," said Chaz.
Baumgartner stared. Lau and Tan also stared, but only the way they might if they were waiting for a Blue Angels flyover.
"Go ahead," Falkner told Chaz.
He flushed. "Right. Sorry. The psychology isn't right. Anna Krol doesn't like men."
"Then why does she work at a titty bar?" Baumgartner said. "And two of our vics were men."
"There are a significant number of lesbians among female sex workers," Lau told him. "It's a provider and customer relationship, not an affectional one. The gender orientation actually helps maintain that boundary."
"Besides," said Chaz, "I don't mean she doesn't sleep with them. I mean she doesn't like them. She was hostile to Tan, but not to Falkner. She feels solidarity with the other dancers. She won't flirt with male customers even if it means she makes less money. And her tattoo is of a black widow."
"Killer spider," said Baumgartner, but he was no longer insisting. He was interested.
"The myth of the black widow spider is that the female kills her mates. That's not actually always true, but it's what people think. The idea is that it's the female that's powerful."
"And with the Sydney funnel-web spider, it's the other way around," Lau broke in. Falkner could see Chaz's idea blooming in her head.
Chaz beamed at her. "In this spider--the only source of the poison that killed Rydel Pope--it's the males that are venomous. The females are no big deal. The males have the power to kill. And we know whoever's using them isn't treating them as disposable, because there hasn't been one left behind to starve or freeze or get squashed with a hammer. They're valued."
"Anna Krol may not value men," Tan said slowly. "But her sister does."
Chaz nodded. "We need to know what happened in that house the night Aidan Hewell was killed."
"Wait, what?" said Baumgartner.
Falkner drew a breath. Time to explain without explaining. "That night made both Anna Krol and Erika Hewell what they are now. We have some information not directly relevant to this case that suggests Krol, and probably her sister, were there when Hewell was murdered."
"Pope's death is connected to the Hewell murder." Baumgartner said it less as a question than as something he wanted to roll around on his tongue.
Falkner stood up and stepped to one of the long windows. The sky was showing pale blue through the cloud cover, and the sunlight turned the cornfield stubble into dull gold. "Send a marked car to pick up Brobich, and put her in an interview room," Falkner said. "I want her to know we're serious."
"Ms. Brobich," Falkner said gently, "tell me what happened when Anna Krol and Erika Hewell came to your door the night Aidan Hewell was killed."
Falkner preferred to do this interview alone, though Chaz and Detective Baumgartner were watching through the glass.
The woman kept her hands under the table. "I hadn't hung with Anna for years, so, you know. We got a pizza, I think. Talked a whole lot, watched some chick movies."
"Hell, I don't know." Her voice was cheerful, hearty. "It was like a grown-up sleepover. Just old times shit."
Falkner folded her arms on the table and leaned forward. "Ms. Brobich, I understand you have a little boy."
"That's right." Falkner thought she saw surprise cross Brobich's face in spite of the guard she'd placed on herself.
"Is there someone he could live with, who would take care of him, if you were in prison?"
Yes, that was surprise, and fear. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I know you want to protect your friend. I respect you for it. But if you continue to tell that story, you're opening yourself to charges of accessory to as many as four murders. And you will get prison time for that."
"It's not a story!"
"I think Anna and Erika did come to your house that night. Sometime after 12:30 a.m. they came to the back door. They were frightened and upset. You let them stay. Anna asked you, if anyone questioned you, to say they'd been there all night."
Brobich was silent. Her chest rose and fell, and her breath whistled in her nostrils.
Falkner concentrated on matching Brobich, inhale for inhale, exhale for exhale. Now for the chisel. "They were hungry, weren't they? They were starving."
Brobich's eyes flew wide.
"They ate anything you could give them. Dry cereal. Frozen peas straight from the bag. Raw eggs. Pancake mix."
"I don't-- How did you--" Brobich managed to bring herself to a stammering halt. But the lock was broken, and Brobich knew it as well as Falkner did.
Falkner let the silence creep in before she said, "Anna didn't tell you why she needed you to lie, did she? If you'd been certain, it would have been harder to stick to your story. But when you heard Aidan Hewell had been killed, you wondered."
Brobich said, gravel-voiced, "My girl didn't do murder. I know she wouldn't do that. I think maybe she saw it. Maybe she knew who did it. I said they'd been at my house all night so whoever killed him wouldn't come looking for her."
Falkner leaned back. When they give you what you ask for, take off the pressure. "But that's not what she told you."
"She didn't tell me anything. Erika, she was just gone to pieces. She was crying, and sometimes she'd kind of scream at Anna and start beating on her. Anna was scared, but she was angry, too. Bottled-up angry, like she was going to burn up from the inside."
"Why do you think that was?"
Brobich frowned, tilting her head as if listening. She's never asked herself that. "I don't know. Why would she be mad that somebody killed that sonofabitch? She wouldn't have crossed the street to piss on him if he was on fire." Brobich lifted her eyes to Falkner's face, still frowning. "I don't know."
"Thank you, Ms. Brobich," Falkner said, and stood up. "I'm very glad you told me what happened. I'll get an officer to drive you home."
She stepped into the hall, flagged down a sheriff's deputy, and asked him to give Lorayna Brobich a ride. Then she went into the next room and closed the door behind her.
Chaz looked grave. "You used her son."
"You would have done the same thing," Falkner said.
"Oh, yeah. I just wasn't sure you would."
"Do you think I crossed a line?"
"No," he said, immediate and firm. "I guess I just don't fully appreciate my friends' ruthlessness."
Baumgartner cleared his throat. "One of those girls beat Aidan Hewell's head in."
"Almost certainly Anna," Chaz said. "But there's still no proof."
Chaz turned to Baumgartner, and Falkner winced inwardly and in advance for Baumgartner's disillusionment. "Because Erika loved Aidan Hewell, even though he was her abuser. And Anna tries to protect victims."
"Goddamned fucking garbage in!" Hafidha screamed, and Brady banged through the bullpen doors and into Hafidha's sanctum with his heart around his Adam's apple.
"Jesus fucking piss-drinking fumble-fingered drunk-ass student work-release dipshits!" Hafidha, her fingers clenched in her hair, was yelling at her monitor, which as far as Brady could tell displayed an innocent list of names and numbers.
Brady clutched the door frame to stay upright while the adrenaline pumped away. "Damn, woman, you could give me lessons."
"They typoed her name! They fucking typoed her name!" Hafidha jabbed her finger at the screen.
"What are you--"
"It's the list of people who had keys to Jablonski's lab at UW-Madison. She's listed as Erica-with-a-C Howell. So she didn't show up on my search motherfuckers!"
"Girl, I'm just glad to know you're still not God."
"Yeah, wait till the next time I write search parameters."
"So Erika Hewell had access."
"But she wasn't one of Jablonski's students, because, believe me, I did search his class enrollments. He taught some upper-level courses, and in the grad school. She dropped out in her third year."
"So why did she have a lab key?"
"Let's find out." Hafidha flicked her right hand upward at the wrist, then poked the air with her index finger. With each poke, the computer gave a touch-tone beep. "Promise to stay quiet," she said as she dialed, "and I'll put this on speaker."
Brady lifted his empty palms in the universal gesture of "what the fuck."
"Zoology," said a young woman's voice from the speakers.
"Oh, hi!" Hafidha's voice was half an octave higher than usual, and produced from somewhere between her upper palate and her nose. "Look, I need to find somebody, and there's gotta be someone in the department who knows her. This is--" She tapped a name on the key card list. "--Nina Padget. I graduated last year. Is there anyone around who knows Erika Hewell?"
After an instant that seemed weeks longer, the woman said, "I just started this semester. Jason, do you know an Erika Hewell? I've got somebody who wants to find her."
A man's voice, at a distance, replied, "Kiss of the Spider Girl! Sure, I'll take it."
Brady and Hafidha rolled their eyes at each other.
Hafidha bubbled, "Hi! This is Nina Padget."
"Nina... Yeah, I remember you. Jason Sugarman."
"Jason! Hi." Hafidha sounded deliriously happy. "Oh, man, this takes me right back. Look, I want to get in touch with Erika Hewell. She said something once about a grant program, and I forgot the details. Is she around the department?"
"But she said she was going to-- Oh, gawd, did the Jablonski thing blow up on her?"
Jason sounded a little more confident. "You could say that."
"Everybody knew he wasn't going to leave his wife."
"Apparently, not Erika."
"Oh, gawd. She made a scene, didn't she?"
In the silence that followed, Brady felt certain, Sugarman was reminding himself that he was an adult, in a respected institution of higher learning, entrusted with the reputations of distinguished professionals.
"In the lab," Sugarman said, his voice lower and breathy, as if he was trying to stay out of earshot of anyone else. "It was pretty ugly. Stuff about being his unpaid assistant, and how he took her for granted. She said his spiders were nicer to her than he was."
So much for maturity and professionalism, Brady reflected.
"No, in the lab?" Hafidha gasped.
"They were alone, but you know those doors. You could hear 'em down the hall. The worst was when she said she was counting on grad school, and he said she couldn't make it past the first cut."
Hafidha took that in. "He was going to sponsor her application."
"She thought so, anyway."
"Poor kid," Hafidha murmured.
Hafidha reassumed the voice. "And then he died, right?"
"Like a week later."
"What happened to her? Where did she go?"
"Home, I guess. You wanted to get hold of her?"
"You know what? I think maybe I shouldn't bother her. Thanks, though, Jason. It's been great catching up."
Hafidha killed the connection in the middle of his good-bye. "The primary currencies of academia: publishing and gossip. Damn, Jablonski didn't just fuck her. He fucked her. She thought she'd found another daddy figure. Then it all went boom."
"And she stole his spider eggs and got one of his test subjects to bite him," Brady said, partly as a reminder of which side they were supposed to be on.
"Or it bit him, and that's what gave her the big plan. She couldn't count on the men in her life, so she'd breed some she could count on."
Brady sighed. "You know that phone conversation was what a judge would call 'false representation,' don't you?"
"Knowledge is power, sweetie."
"We're not exactly empty-handed."
Hafidha looked over her shoulder at him, and he thought, The shooters. It was always Sol or Hafidha. Her face said she'd weighed the options and decided it was reasonable to take the shot. "There are two people the information in that phone call might hurt. One of them is Jablonski, and he won't care, 'cause he's dead. The other one might be about to try to kill my family."
Brady pushed away from the door frame. "Then you better call 'em and pass it on."
Tan squirmed in the passenger seat of the rental, trying to find the spot where the lumbar support and his back would quit arguing the details of human anatomy. "Is there an unspoken policy that men in the ACTF can't drive?"
Lau kept her eyes on the road. "Have you ever ridden with Chaz? And Brady's a Texan. Enough said."
"I'm a very good driver. Ask Padma."
"Reyes is a good driver. So's Duke. No one's saying men can't drive."
"You just want all the fun."
She smiled. "Took ya long enough."
Lau turned off County Road G into what looked to be a cross between an aging suburban housing development and a mobile home park, and pulled up in front of a lime green double-wide trailer. Icicle mini lights dangled unlit from the edge of the roofline. Fake pine garland coiled around the wrought-iron railing of the front steps, studded intermittently with red plastic bows. The holiday decor combined oddly with the human-high palm tree made of rope lighting that pretended to grow from a cut-down barrel beside the gravel walk.
"Okay, then," said Tan. "Not what you expect from a potential arch-criminal."
"I want the palm tree." Lau shut off the engine and clicked her seat-belt latch. "Goes with my skeleton flamingos."
Tan buzzed the front doorbell twice, and was almost convinced no one was home. Suddenly the door opened a couple inches, and a young woman with cherry-red hair in a thick pink terry-cloth robe squinted through the gap at them.
Lau showed her ID. "Special Agents Nicolette Lau and Arthur Tan of the FBI. Is Anna Krol here?"
The red-haired woman blinked twice. A mild funk of day-old marijuana smoke leaked out past her. "Nope. The fridge is empty, and Spider lost the coin toss. Try back in half an hour."
"Are you her housemate?" Lau glanced at the notes on her phone. "Stephanie Schulketz?"
"I prefer Stevie, and sometimes we mate outside the house. Why?"
Have they stopped circulating the memo? Tan wondered. The one about the FBI having no sense of humor of which we are aware? "Do you mind if we come in and ask you a few questions?"
Stevie frowned. Before she could speak, Tan said, "If you want to do a quick tidy-up before we come in, that's fine. We're trying to learn what happened to Rydel Pope. We're not interested in anything else, honest."
Stevie stared at him for a long moment, then said, "Fuck, I'm not going to be able to fall back to sleep. Want some coffee?"
"Thanks," Lau said. "But we tanked up at Mocha Moment."
"And didn't bring me any? Bitch." She grinned and held the door open.
The trailer appeared to have been decorated via Craigslist in an attempt to re-create the 1960s. The papasan chair cupped a faded red cushion, the humdrum sofa wore an Indian bedspread disguise, and a gold bottle-glass lamp hung on a bronze chain from the ceiling. The string of multicolored lights crisscrossing the acoustic tile overhead were too dusty to be seasonal. If he didn't look out the window at snow and pine trees, Tan would have expected to walk out the door into Haight-Ashbury. Which was one way to survive a Wisconsin winter, he suspected.
As Stevie started the coffee in the kitchen nook, she said, "Hey, if one of you is in charge, does that mean the other is the junior G-man?"
Tan said firmly, "No."
"As Agent Tan said, we're investigating the death of Rydel Pope." Lau's deadpan could rival Falkner's.
"Spider mentioned that. The whole 'special agents' thing cracked us up. It sounds like you ride the short bus."
"You know. The bus for the special needs kids. Like when the regular agents are too busy, they send you."
"In the FBI, we're all special--" Tan began, then finished, "I can't believe I said that."
As Stevie laughed, Lau asked, "What do you think happened to Pope?"
"Serious bad luck. His fifteen minutes of fame came from being bitten on the wrong continent. Do you think a customer lost a pet spider at Road Rabbits, and it went home with him?"
"It's too soon to speculate."
"Spider said he was a bastard, but that's not enough to make anyone put a poisonous spider in his socks."
Lau nodded noncommittally, then looked around the trailer. "This must be convenient for getting to work, but isn't it a bit of a drive when Anna wants to see her sister?"
Stevie opened the refrigerator and took out a quart of milk, which, Tan noticed, was literally the only thing in the fridge. "Does Erika have something to do with this?"
"We check out plenty of dead ends," Tan said. "Fat reports make bosses happy. Could she have something to do with Rydel's death?"
"No way. Erika's freaky, but she's not Addams Family freaky."
"How freaky is she?"
"Um. Hoarder freaky?"
"I talked with her yesterday at her house," Tan said. "I didn't see hoarding."
Stevie flipped hair out of her eyes. "Well, not hoarding, exactly. But you try to change one thing there, and it's like you're killing a baby. Whose name is Jesus."
"She keeps the place pretty warm."
"You think? And did you notice the smell? Spider and I tried living there for a while, before we got this place." Stevie shook her head at the memory, then poured herself a cup of coffee and splashed milk into it.
"What sort of smell?" Lau asked.
"Mildew. I fucking hate mildew."
That was it, Tan realized, the smell he'd noticed. A smell he associated with feeble old men and damp carpet.
Stevie added, "Erika ran the humidifier all the damn time, and kept the place super warm. All the towels and rugs got mildew, and stuff went moldy. I kind of lost it when I realized the salt shaker had rusted. Rusted. I mean, seriously?" She carried her brimming cup past him and plopped down on the sofa without spilling. Waitress, he thought with half his attention, and shooed it away. More important things...
"Lost it how?" Tan asked, as casually as something like that could be asked.
"Oh, you know. There was yelling." Stevie gave him a lopsided smile. "I got all up on my high horse and said shit was going to change or Spider and I were out of there. As soon as the words were out of my mouth--I didn't even have to see Spider's face--I realized I didn't get to speak for her."
Tan nodded and sat down on a round, fat ottoman near the sofa. "You were asking her to choose between Erika and you."
"Yeah. Except it never got to that. Erika blew the hell up and said she wanted us to leave. Said she never wanted us there. And that Spider had always hated the place anyway, so why was she living there?" Stevie sighed and shook her head. "I wanted to fucking shoot myself, I really did. It hurt Spider so much that Erika said that, and it was my fault."
"So you moved out," Lau said gently.
"After that..." Stevie pressed her lips closed. "They made up. It's okay now, pretty much. We visit her."
Lau asked Stevie, "Do you go there often?"
"It depends, I guess. And I try to keep to the living room and the bathroom. If her water heater broke, I don't know what the hell she'd do."
"The water heater?"
"If you open the basement door, it's like you're killing Baby J and Baby Krishna, too. She takes the idea of personal space way too far."
The sound of a holed muffler made all three of them look up. "There she is," Stevie said, jumping up and hurrying to the door.
An old Honda with a swarm of bumper stickers on its tail had parked next to the trailer. Stevie flung open the front door. "Hey, Spider! The G-men are here! The G-woman's kinda hot!" She glanced at Tan and added, "You're also hot in a guy way."
Anna Krol, in a long black parka with her hands full of Pick 'n' Save bags, stood at the bottom of the front steps, looked at Tan, and said, "What the fuck did I not fucking answer fucking yesterday?"
She stamped up the stairs and pushed through the door. Stevie stepped back and looked from Tan to Anna, then stepped back again.
Lau said, "Ms. Krol? I'm Special Agent Nicolette Lau. We're here to ask you a few questions about your sister."
Anna dropped the bags on the counter and turned. "Erika? You think Erika had something to do with Asswipe's death?"
Tan was impressed. He hadn't thought Anna Krol could look more disdainful, yet he was clearly wrong.
Lau shook her head. "We just--"
"She's a scared kid who barely leaves the house. The only things she knows about Rydel are what I told her and what she's seen on TV."
"What've you told her?" Lau asked.
"That he was an asshole."
Stevie said, "And about that time he shoved you against the wall."
Anna glared at her. "Stevie, shut up."
Stevie said, "When he said you should look up some of the shit that happens to union organizers."
"Stevie!" Anna turned on Tan and Lau. "This interview is over."
Stevie frowned. "Spider, it's like being on Bones. If they want to waste time, so what?"
Anna pointed at the door and glared at Tan and Lau. "Fucking go already!"
Stevie put her hand on Anna's shoulder. Anna jerked away from it.
"Anna," Lau said, "at least three people have been murdered. There will be more."
"It's got nothing to do with Erika."
"I think you know it does. When Lou Kirkland died after your sister told you about his letter, it crossed your mind, but you didn't believe it."
"Get out of my house." Anna grabbed one of the bags off the counter and took a step toward the refrigerator.
"But when Rydel Pope died-- You've been trying to ignore what you know. What happens when the next person dies, Anna?"
"God damn it, are you deaf, or just fucking stupid?"
"We'll bring her in for questioning--"
"No! Stay away from her!"
"-- and if we find evidence, she'll be under arrest for--"
"Don't you touch my sister!"
Tan's hand was on the grip of his weapon under his jacket, and he wondered how it had got there. The brown paper grocery bag was crushed between Anna's hands, and a dark stain spread across the bottom, dripping yellowish liquid. He remembered the sound, part pop, part crack, like a breaking bone. A glass bottle of orange juice.
"Oh, baby," Stevie whispered, then louder, "Oh, baby. It's okay." She put her arms around Anna's shoulders and kissed her cheek.
Anna stood motionless as juice puddled on her boots and the floor. Only her lips moved, twisting and squeezing as if they wrestled with something inside her mouth.
Lau stepped forward.
"Nikki," Tan warned.
But Lau kept going. She laid her hands lightly over Anna's, then gathered the wreckage of the bag, slid it out of Anna's grip, and set it on the vinyl floor of the kitchen.
Anna's legs folded under her and she sat down hard, dragging Stevie with her.
Lau wiped her hands on her coat and crouched next to Anna. "That's what you said to your stepfather, isn't it?"
Anna raised her face. It was blotchy, as if she were crying, but her eyes were dry. "What?"
"What you said to your stepfather the night he died. 'Don't you touch my sister.'"
When Anna didn't reply, Lau continued softly. "You knew Erika worked with spiders in college. You knew she kept something in the basement she wouldn't let you see. You wanted to protect her, but you couldn't figure out how to protect her from herself. So you pretended there was nothing to see. Because you would have gone crazy otherwise."
Anna began to rock a little. Stevie hugged her tighter and stroked her hair. "Shhh, shhh."
"I want you to leave now," Anna said, flat-voiced and grating. "Please."
Stevie looked from Lau to Tan. "I think maybe you better."
As they went out the door, Tan saw Lau lay one of her cards on the kitchen counter, beside the surviving grocery bags.
In the car, Tan said, "The world's full of people who can't catch a break...and then the anomaly shows up. Is that how it usually is?'
Lau kept her eyes on the road. "Sometimes." After a moment, she added, "Most of the time."
They traveled in silence through the winter landscape, gray and tan and pale blue. Fix this, he ordered himself. So he sighed theatrically. "Wisconsin. Basements. What is it with Wisconsin and basements?"
"You and Duke can argue about which is scarier, Wisconsin or Texas."
"Hah. I've got Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Barry Petrewski. And now, mind-controlled poisonous spiders in a basement! Does the new guy go in first?"
Lau grinned. "If I have anything to say about it."
Esther Falkner gathered her team and Detective Baumgartner for what she hoped would be their last conference around the squad room table.
Chaz told the room, "The Sydney funnel-web spider is usually up to two inches long. If Erika's been breeding them, it's possible she's figured out how to increase both the toxicity of the venom and their size."
Baumgartner rubbed his eyes. "When I said you guys did the Batman cases, I really didn't expect giant super-spiders."
Chaz shrugged. "Possibly giant super-spiders. They deliver a full dose when they bite, usually striking repeatedly. In extreme cases, symptoms appear in less than an hour--one study found a median time of twenty-eight minutes. There's a case of a small child dying within fifteen minutes of a bite. But that was before the development of an antivenom."
"Which, if we need it, may arrive at the hospitals in time," Falkner added.
Baumgartner said, "So we're going in with rabbits' feet and our fingers crossed hoping we don't get bit?"
Falkner turned to him. "Do emergency services in the area have Level B hazmat gear?"
"Janesville Fire Department. They're the only Level B team in the county. You want 'em to go in?"
"No, we need to borrow their equipment. I'm sure they're good at their jobs, but they're not trained to do what we do."
Falkner considered his round, pink face, and wondered at the firmness in it. "Erika Hewell is not...an ordinary person. We're trained in the psychology of criminals like her."
Baumgartner stuck out his lower lip. "You mean the kind that tell spiders what to do?"
No one tried to answer him. Because what could they say?
He added, "I never thought this was somebody who dropped a damn spider down the chimney and hoped it bit the right person. Everything pointed to it not working that way."
Falkner drew a long, slow breath, which was as much stalling for time as anything else. "There are things we're not allowed to tell you." Over Baumgartner's shoulder, she saw Chaz wince, and Lau give him a wordless sympathetic glance.
"That's okay," said Baumgartner. "I'd rather have silence than bullshit."
"Then I promise that whatever I say, it won't be bullshit. Here's what we're going to do. I'll go up to Hewell's front door looking as harmless as possible and ask her to come with me. If she comes peacefully, we bring her in, seal the house, and wait for specialists to come in and deal with the spiders."
"If she doesn't?" Baumgartner asked.
"Then my team will be ready with hazmat suits and spray tanks of insecticide. We'll do a hard entry, take Hewell into custody, and neutralize her livestock."
"Do we have to kill the spiders?" That was Lau.
"With more resources and information, maybe we wouldn't. It's possible the cold alone would keep the spiders contained. But you know I can't call it that way."
Tan raised a hand. "The profile says she's more likely to defer to a man."
Falkner remembered being the new guy, what it was like to balance caution and the need to prove yourself. "No one expects you to volunteer for this."
Tan blinked. "I...am, though. Yes. I am."
Baumgartner said, "Hell, if you just need a dumb guy to tell her she's under arrest--"
Chaz said, "If you're taking volunteers--"
Falkner stared at Tan until she saw him twitch. "She seemed to make a connection with you."
"I think so."
Baumgartner was sitting next to her; she shouldn't speak too freely. But she owed him the warning as much as Tan. "Remember, Erika Hewell is potentially dangerous herself, aside from the spiders. She'll be abnormally strong and fast, and her motivations may be unexpected. Don't drop your guard." She surveyed the faces around the table. "Any of you."
And that, short of an FBI white paper that wasn't forthcoming, was as far as she could go. "Tan, you'll take point. If she doesn't come willingly, walk away from the house and let the rest of us handle it. For all we know, she may keep a few friends in her pockets."
Baumgartner pushed himself away from the table. "I'll call East Side Station and get 'em to meet us out there with the Hazardous Materials Response unit."
I'll have to tell Padma I volunteered, Tan thought. I may be lucky if the spiders get me.
While the others gathered gear and arranged tactical support, he found a quiet corner of the station and called Padma, wondering if he would be happier if she picked up or he got voice mail. When she said, "Hey, Wart," he knew the answer.
"Hey, Peanut. Just checking in with my favorite girls."
"One's napping. The other is very glad to hear your sexy, sexy voice."
He felt a pleasant shiver course his nerves. "I'm afraid someday you'll wake up and realize you married the vice president of the AV Club."
He could hear her smile. "Of course I did. This way I never have to program the DVD recorder. You realize I know what you're up to with these phone calls."
"You're about to do something dangerous, and you want to make sure you've told me you love me before you do it."
He considered denying it, but not for long. "...Maaaaybe."
"Well, keep it up." When he didn't answer immediately, she said, "What?"
"I volunteered for something. It was the right choice."
"How much more should I worry?"
"Hardly at all."
"I don't know how to measure it."
She didn't pause. "Home watching TV is one. Running into a burning house is ten."
"What did you think it was before I called?"
"Five. I'll always think it's at least five when you're on a case."
"Then it's six."
"Never a lie."
"If it's ever ten and you can call, I still expect it."
He laughed. "You expect, 'Hi, honey, running into a burning house, love you, talk later'?"
She said, perfectly seriously, "Not having time to call is an excuse. Anything else is just being an asshole."
"You are a hard woman."
"Which is why you love me."
"It's on the long list." He glanced around the room. His teammates were almost ready. He said, "Gotta run. Main tumse pyar karta hoon, bunch of honey."
"Wo ai ni, sweet thing."
"Tap, tap, tap. Is this thing on?" Tan asked the air as he looked across the street at the Hewell house. In daylight it looked swaybacked and weary, its siding faded and stained with rust and mildew.
"You sound just like you," Chaz Villette's thin tenor sounded in his earpiece.
"Remember," Falkner chimed in, "try to talk her out. Don't go in the house."
"Got it," he said, and started walking.
He wasn't alone. Police and sheriff's deputies were watching from cover on all sides of the house. The trailer beside him, that looked as if it might be loaded with construction gear, hid his teammates in Tyvek, heavy boots, gloves, and breathing equipment. Plenty of backup.
Okay, Erika. Let's leave 'em with nothing to do.
He pressed the doorbell. In one of the door's side lights the curtain twitched; then Erika Hewell opened the front door.
Her thinness screamed "gamma" to him now. Innocent until proven anomalous. If the world knew about the anomaly, mobs would hunt down and kill people with overactive thyroid glands. Her smile said "shy girl" and that was who he needed to reach.
She wore a red cardigan, white crewneck, and gray jeans. Her hair had been washed and carefully braided. He could imagine her stepfather telling her she looked pretty, and his heart broke a little as she pushed open the storm door. "Special Agent Tan! Would you like to come in?"
The entry area behind her had been tidied and vacuumed. The bit of the living room he could see looked as if it had been cleaned up, too.
He could grab her wrist and jerk her out of the house. Were there spiders in her pockets? What was the line between practical and paranoid? Who did he fear disappointing more, Falkner or Padma?
Orders are orders. "I wish I could." He made himself smile, which felt fake and shiny. Chaz should have done this after all, with his cautious grimace that fit into every situation. But her smile widened. He said, "Would you mind coming with me to the station? We've got a few questions we'd like to ask."
Her pleasure stayed on her face as her mouth opened. Behind him, from the street, he heard a resonating thunk, hollow plastic on something hard. Erika's gaze left him and focused over his shoulder. For an instant her eyes narrowed. Then they flew back to his face, and her smile looked the way his felt.
It just went pear-shaped.
"Sure," she said. "Let me get my coat."
She stepped back and closed the inner door. He heard the deadbolt thud home, and her quick steps fading in the hall.
"We're blown!" he said for the microphone. "She's running!"
"Tan, pull back," Falkner ordered in his earpiece, as Baumgartner said, "All units, suspect on the move. Cover the exits."
"Erika, wait!" Tan shouted through the door. "We're not going to hurt you. Erika!"
A stranger's voice crackled in his ear. "No movement on the back door." Another voice: "North side, no movement." And another: "South side, nothing."
Tan looked over his shoulder and saw his teammates, like rumpled astronauts in their hazmat suits, jogging across the street. The plastic spray tanks of insecticide hung from slings across their bodies, a bandolier without cartridges supporting a sci-fi movie mystery weapon.
A mystery to him. But not to Erika, who studied insects.
Who would have seen the tank that had fallen in the street, that still rocked against the curb.
She wasn't afraid they'd hurt her.
Falkner felt isolated in her suit and mask. Her breathing sounded more immediate than the voices over her earpiece; those voices connected to the baggy white forms of her team only because she knew they must. Reflections glancing off the clear plate before her face gave everything she saw a televised, two-dimensional quality. The filtered air had no smell and didn't move against her skin.
"Clear!" said Chaz from the far bedroom, and Lau repeated it from the kitchen.
Daylight, too, contributed to the unreality of the house's interior. It was shabby and ordinary, and except for the houseplants, impersonal. Falkner searched those plants with a high-powered flashlight and the end of her sprayer wand, but nothing moved among them but the leaves she'd disturbed.
"I'm going into the basement," Lau said.
"Wait for backup." Falkner got to the kitchen in two accelerated heartbeats and found Lau's small white-suited form at the basement door. "Chaz, we're going in. Heads up, everyone." Because proximity was pressure, and they didn't know what Erika could do under pressure.
According to Anna Krol, there were no guns in the house. Baumgartner had found that reassuring. To her team, it was almost irrelevant.
There was light downstairs, but not the shadowless brilliance of the laboratory. They descended slowly, watching in spite of the protection of the suits for scurrying motion along the stair rail, underfoot, overhead. Would they hear them, as Falkner expected to in her motel room?
While they were watching for spiders, would Erika ambush them? A gamma would have the strength to rip Tyvek.
The basement wasn't a laboratory, but a nursery. It had been cleared to make room for an old Ping-Pong table covered with assorted aquarium tanks, heaters, and water misters. The screen covers were pulled away from about half the tanks.
Erika Hewell stood against the wall across from the foot of the stairs. Her arms were half-extended, as if in welcome. A spider nestled in each bare palm; another half-dozen crawled over her sleeves. The bare bulbs in the ceiling fixtures shone on each glossy purple-brown body. A cluster of them clung to her sweater, circling her neck like a dark mockery of a garland. One scuttled across her smooth hair and stopped above her ear.
"Put them back in their homes, Erika," Lau said, strong in her ear. "You're in charge here. We know that. We don't want to harm you or your spiders, but you're the one who has to keep them safe by putting them back where they can't be hurt."
Erika's chest rose and fell as she looked from Lau to Falkner and back. Nothing in her face said she was listening.
We're enemies. Monsters. Shapeless, faceless things with amplified voices. Falkner turned down her radio and raised her voice to be heard past her faceplate. "Erika. This is Esther Falkner. Agent Tan and I were here yesterday evening."
Erika's head swung toward her, and her living necklace shifted. "Get away from me."
"Erika, I can't imagine how you feel. I know you've been hurt, that you've suffered. I don't want to make it worse."
Erika didn't speak, but in her face Falkner saw a subtle change. Interest? Curiosity? Lau shifted slightly, to move Falkner into the foreground.
"Maybe I can help. It must be hard to trust people. They fail you, don't they? Your mother should have protected you. Dr. Jablonski betrayed you--"
Erika's snort of disgust startled everyone in the basement, including the spiders.
"That's why you killed him, isn't it?"
"Killed him?" Erika was shocked, outraged. "I loved Jon! He died by accident. And after he was gone, I knew they'd destroy the eggs, and all his work would be gone, too, so I took them. I was the only one who cared as much as he did!"
The spiders scrambled over her, perhaps disturbed by her emotions.
"I'm so sorry." My God, how do I negotiate from inside this thing? Voice, expression, body language, all muffled. "Erika, I understand how much you care. Let us help you. Let us take you to your sister. She's so worried about you."
"You don't understand anything." Erika's chin lifted with what looked for an instant like pride.
It was also what people did when they prepared themselves for fear and pain.
Erika smiled. For the first time, she looked cruel. "Tell Anna I forgive her."
Falkner jammed her thumb down on the sprayer button and pointed the wand at Erika. Lau was almost as quick. Insecticide beaded on Erika's hair and clothes. Erika raised her hands to shield her face, heedless of the spiders in them.
The spiders still clung. And they began to bite.
Lau lunged forward, trying to knock spiders off with the end of her wand. A few fell off. It wouldn't be enough. Falkner closed in and sprayed each spider, close-range. Some dropped. Some were stuck in the yarn of Erika's sweater, twitching as the insecticide reached their nervous system.
Erika's eyes and mouth were squeezed tight closed. Falkner couldn't tell if the moisture on her pale face was insecticide, sweat, or tears. She swayed, slipped down the wall, and sat on the concrete floor, drooping sideways.
"We need a medic team in suits in the basement! Now!" Falkner shouted. Lau repeated it, and Falkner remembered she'd turned her radio down. She sprayed every spider still moving, then sprayed them whether they moved or not, then brushed their bodies off Erika's slumped form. By the time the paramedics got down the stairs, they needed the hazmat gear to protect them from the cloud of insecticide. But the liberated spiders were dead.
Arthur Tan sat on the back bumper of a sheriff's car in front of Erika Hewell's home. He'd decided several minutes ago that he was about as familiar with the events of the very recent past as he was likely to get. Still, he kept checking them over.
The car sagged a little under a second weight, and Tan looked up to see Chaz Villette beside him, shoulders hunched up and in, long thin legs thrust out in front of him. He wore the nonsmiling version of the expression Tan had judged, standing at the Hewell front door, as more effective than whatever he himself was doing.
"You okay?" Chaz asked. Then, as if the words were a bad idea, he grimaced.
"Yeah," Tan said. "Just thinking."
"It'll still come back at three a.m., you know."
Tan nodded. He'd planned to leave it at that. But he found himself saying, "I keep going over it. Things I could have done or not done."
Chaz leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, and didn't say anything, let alone the things Tan expected, like "You followed orders" or "You did everything you could."
So Tan said, "It went south when somebody dropped that tank. I saw her reaction. And I know... If I had been more inside her head, seen it the way she was seeing it, I could have done the right thing. I'd have been on her side."
"But we're not," said Chaz.
It stopped him; it was a thought from the present, not the recent past.
"Which would you rather live with," Chaz continued, "that you were honest with her, or that you lied to her? You have to pick one or the other."
"I'd pick the one that doesn't end with her in the ambulance."
Chaz shook his head. "I don't think that one was ever on the table."
Falkner walked toward them from the hazardous materials trailer. Her suit was wrinkled, wisps of her dark hair fell loose around her face, and the lines around her mouth and eyes seemed to have multiplied since yesterday. When she reached conversation distance, she held up her phone. "Erika started seizing in the bus. By the time she reached the ER there wasn't much they could do."
"Antivenom?" Chaz asked. "Did they have it?"
Falkner shook her head.
This is what we do, Falkner thought. We save them when we can, and we mourn them when we can't, but the logic of survival says we have to watch a broken girl kill herself. We watch, and remember. Because that's what life expects of us.
The I.D. was a formality, but formalities were most important in the face of grief and loss. They straightened the corners of life where it had been knocked askew.
Anna Krol walked out of the morgue in the basement of Mercy Hospital head down, hugging herself. Falkner didn't think that was just from cold.
"I'm so sorry," she said, stepping forward.
Anna stopped and looked up. She seemed to struggle for the response to that. "Thank you," she said at last, mechanically.
"I think you loved your sister very much."
Anna looked back at the door she'd just passed through. "I would have done anything for her. But she never really gave a shit about me."
You don't believe that, Falkner wanted to say. You just want an excuse to not hurt. "She killed Rydel Pope for you."
Anna's face was hard, but her eyes were red and bright with tears. "You think? Or was she just looking out for her meal ticket?"
Falkner gathered her coat off a chair and slung it over her shoulder. "Would you mind if we talked a little? Off the record. I'll buy the coffee."
"This had better not be a pass," Anna said, trying for her old caustic tone.
"We're both taken, remember?"
Falkner led the way to the hospital cafeteria, which served Starbucks and what looked like decent food. She left Anna at a table while she bought two cups of coffee and a turkey sandwich. When she came back, she set the sandwich in front of Anna.
"You have a disorder that, among other things, causes you to metabolize calories too quickly. You need five to six thousand of them a day just to maintain weight, and if you're active, you need more."
Anna's mouth hung slack.
"Eat, please," Falkner ordered. "I'll talk." Falkner sipped the acceptable black coffee in the china mug. "Your sister had the same disorder. In her case, it also allowed her to control the spiders she raised. We don't know exactly how. I hoped she'd tell us."
Anna stopped chewing and struggled to swallow. After a moment she took another bite, swallowed it, and said in a fairly steady voice, "So we inherited it."
"No. We believe you caught it, probably from your stepfather on the night he died."
Anna held perfectly still, the second triangle of sandwich suspended in both hands over her plate. Falkner longed to tell her not to bother, that her very stillness said she was trying not to give herself away. "Erika and I weren't there," she said at last.
"Lorayna Brobich told us the truth."
Anna's eyes closed tight. "That stupid bitch," she sighed. The words were absurdly gentle.
"You killed him, didn't you? To protect your sister."
"No," Anna said. "I didn't kill him."
"Erika wouldn't have done it."
A muscle popped in Anna's lean jaw and her eyes narrowed. But she only said, "I didn't kill him."
"Unfortunately, even in the absence of an alibi, there's not enough evidence to convict you. I say 'unfortunately' because if you were incarcerated I might be able to keep you safe."
Anna ate doggedly through the last of her sandwich. "That's supposed to scare me," she said when she finished.
"Why should it? You don't know what I'm talking about."
Anna pushed her plate away and slouched back in her chair. Bring it, her posture said.
Falkner kept her voice matter-of-fact. "My team specializes in finding people like you and your sister. When they've broken the law, we try to take them into custody and get them help. But recently we've discovered there's someone else who finds people like you. Whoever he--or she--is, he doesn't deal in prison and treatment. He's an executioner. And if we've found you, there's a very good chance he'll be right behind us." He had found Drew Pennicuik in Boston, who broke his victims' hearts for pleasure. He had found Viv Paliotto in Seattle. He'd strangled them.
"You want me to say I committed murder so you can protect me."
"There are several options I can recommend. Yes, that's one. If you confess to the murder of Aidan Hewell, you'll be taken to a secure facility in Virginia that specializes in criminals with your disorder. It's more a hospital than a prison in most cases. You'll get excellent care, education, and therapy. And the food is good." Falkner let a corner of her mouth twitch as she nodded at Anna's empty plate.
"Well, wow. I bet they're lining up for that deal." Anna bit her lip.
"It wouldn't be my first choice," Falkner admitted, which made Anna snort and visibly relax.
"What else have you got?"
"We can find you housing on the grounds of that facility, and a job there. You'll be free to come and go, but it will be easier for us to protect you. And to be honest, to study you."
"Oh, fuck that shit," Anna said.
Falkner fingered through her card case, found the right one, and passed it to Anna. "That's the contact information for the director of the facility, Casey Ramachandran. Call him. I think you'll find he'd mostly like to talk to you about yourself."
Anna picked up the card and studied it, as if she could read secrets in the texture of the paper. "There's nothing to talk about."
"You and your sister were exposed in the same incident. She went on to commit serial murder. Your impulses were so different that you risked your job and possible injury to stand up for other people. I think you may have a lot to tell Dr. Ramachandran."
Anna puffed through her lips in dismissal. But she shoved the card in the pocket of her jeans.
Falkner leaned back from the table and folded her hands on its edge. "I can think of only one more alternative: to disappear. It's difficult to construct a false identity, but you may be able to do it. The key to success is to cut every tie: geography, friends, job, hobbies, habits. But if you do, any help you can give people like you and your sister will be lost."
Anna picked up her napkin and began to tear strips off one end. "Cutting all the ties. That means Stevie."
"That means everything. Unless Stevie is prepared to become someone else, too."
"I'm pretty sure parts of that fake-I.D. thing are illegal." Anna raised her eyes from the napkin just enough to stare at Falkner from under her eyebrows.
"Then it's a good thing that if you do it right, I'll never know." Falkner pushed her chair back and stood up. "Take a little time. Consider the options. Talk to Ms. Schulketz. But the clock has started."
Anna balled the ruined napkin in her fist. "You guys sure know how to bring the fucking party."
Esther Falkner focused on fishing the rental's key out of her pocket. "Get your coat. I'll give you a ride home."
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Anomalous Crimes Task Force
J. Edgar Hoover Bldg., Washington, D.C.
To: Rock County Sheriff's Department
We appreciate your department's swift and appropriate response to the unusual circumstances surrounding the murder of Rydel Pope. Thanks to the awareness and prompt actions of Detective Michael Baumgartner, we were able to prevent the suspect from taking additional lives. Her accidental death was a terrible and regrettable circumstance, but it in no way reflects on the exemplary conduct of your office and Detective Baumgartner.
We hope you won't hesitate to bring cases to our attention should they seem to warrant it.
Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner