"Bulletproof" - by Emma BullAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Washington, D.C., August 2011
Such a short distance between far enough and too far, between just right and too much. A twitch of the hand is all it takes.
Her fingers are barely inside the curve of the handle, but it's enough that when she reaches toward the counter for her ringing phone, she snags the mug. It skates across the kitchen table and over the edge. She doesn't have a grip and can't get one in time. With a pop, the mug hits the floor and breaks. China, white and screen printed, scatters like leaves.
"Lau," she says into the phone, out of habit; who else would answer her cell? At her feet she can see a triangle fragment of the cartoon on the mug: the head and neck of a vulture in a cowboy hat.
"You know the first thing I'm going to say is 'Sorry.'" Esther Falkner's mellow voice is thinned by the phone speaker.
She considers pointing out that the first thing Falkner said was "You know," but time is probably of the essence. "Emergency?"
"Work, at least. I wouldn't ask you to give up a personal day, but..."
"We're shorthanded." It doesn't need saying. How much of the glue of the universe is composed of things that don't need saying that get said anyway? And how many of those things are said in spite of pain like a jabbed bruise? "I'll be there in an hour."
"Thank you, Nikki." The clatter on the other end of the line is Falkner's desk phone dropping back into the cradle.
Lau thumbs the power save on her phone and lays it on the kitchen table beside the box and the gift wrap. She squats to gather the big pieces of the broken mug: handle, a wedge of base, the triangle with the vulture.
Before she knows it's coming, she bursts into tears.
I know what happens in these stories at the end, so I know what to expect. In fact, I'm counting on it. That probably makes me a cliche, but I get why my fellow cliches want this ending, and maybe other people will get it, too. I want somebody to pay attention, even if it's just this once.
And I know it worked because you're reading this. You're a total stranger, but you already know more about me than my parents and teachers and acquaintances. So I'm writing this for you, as if it's a prize for getting this far. Maybe you won't believe any of it, but I don't care. If you think I'm crazy, that's even more attention. Crazies get headlines.
I have brain damage. But since nobody noticed until I went to kindergarten, the doctors don't know how it happened. I may have had it since before I was born. It affects my ability to think abstractly. I had to learn to use a mirror. Paintings are flat boards with colors on them. I don't watch TV or go to movies.
If that was all, it would be okay. You can sort of get along without those things.
But I also can't do math. I mean, if you put four apples on the table in front of me, then take two to the kitchen and ask me how many apples are left on the table, I can give you the right answer. But if you write "4 - 2 = _" and tell me to fill in the blank-- It doesn't make sense.
Can you get along without that? Make a list of the jobs you can get without doing math, and without visual abstraction. Now check off the ones you'd actually want to go to every day.
There's your answer.
One could do a lot of things with a master's degree in electrical engineering, Special Agent Arthur Tan reflected. None of them involved much public speaking. And when he'd decided to parlay his M. Sc. into a place in the FBI (and disappoint his parents as a regrettable but inevitable side effect), he'd certainly never imagined himself speaking stuff like this to people like these.
"Go ahead, Agent Tan," said Stephen Reyes, at the far end of the table in the Anomalous Crimes Task Force's briefing room. The overhead fluorescents gave his brown skin a tarnished-brass tint, and his lids were heavy over bloodshot eyes.
On his right, appropriately, sat Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner, her dark hair pulled back so tight and smooth it might have kept her from frowning. The source of her legendary poker face, maybe? On Reyes's left, Nikki Lau sat with her elbows on the table. She was sharp-dressed and immaculate, and thank Dog for it, because the day she wasn't would be the day the world ended. Even so, she looked as if someone had scoured the shine off her.
As if in intentional contrast, Chaz Villette looked as if he'd taken to sleeping under bridges. His eyes were sunken in dark halos of skin, his shirt was wrinkled, and he needed a haircut more than Tan needed a raise, which was rather a lot. Danny Brady, in the chair across from Villette, might have been trying to hold everyone at the table upright by remote control, his spine was so close to vertical. He was almost as sharp as Lau, and might have had about as little sleep.
But I just met her, Padma had said when he brought the news home, in that way a person says the first ridiculous, illogical thing that comes into one's head when shocked. You met people, and sometimes, right after that, they died, and you never saw them again. Because the world was ridiculous and illogical.
The elephant in the room was good-sized, but it wasn't as if they hadn't already talked it to death. Now they had to clamber over the corpse and move on.
"Three bank robberies in the greater St. Louis area in the past week and a half," Tan said, and was glad when his voice came out steady and appeared to make it to the other side of the room. "All at branches of the Overland State Bank. All involved three gunmen wearing ski masks and carrying handguns. two of whom were masked. They hit the banks at the noon hour, moved fast, and took cash from the tellers and the customers. Nobody saw what they were driving."
"Why is this ours?" asked Falkner. Tan knew what she meant: What's the impossible freaky weirdness that makes this an anomalous crime, instead of a regular FBI investigation?
Tan drew a breath so big he could feel his shirt pull around his ribcage. "During the third robbery, one of the robbers pulled off his mask and began to shout at the customers and tellers. An off-duty police officer among the customers fired at him. The shot hit and killed a woman kneeling on the floor nearby. The officer was suspended and is under investigation, but she swears her aim was accurate and her line of fire was clear, that she couldn't have hit the bystander."
At that, Brady folded his arms across his blue dress shirt. "Well, she would."
"Yep. Except one of the bank guards swears to it as well. He says he saw the officer aim at a point a good thirty degrees from where the victim was kneeling."
"How does all this look on the security footage?" Lau asked.
Which brings us to our next freaky weirdness, said the voice of Egon Spengler in the back of Tan's head. "We don't have it," he admitted.
Two deep vertical lines appeared between Reyes's eyebrows, and he leaned forward so fast he might have landed on his face if the table hadn't been there. "Why not?"
"The president and CEO of Overland State Bank," Tan said carefully, and stopped to make sure he had the facts lined up before he continued, "refuses to hand over the footage from the security cameras in the third robbery."
Reyes, still frowning, sat back in his chair, and Tan would have sworn he was disappointed. The other four agents stared at him as if his last sentence had been spoken in Urdu. Oh, yeah, like you haven't heard stranger things around this table.
"And he says that's because why?" Villette asked.
"He says he's protecting the privacy of the bank's customers."
"Warrant?" Lau's voice had a failing tone, as if, once something as odd as a bank president refusing to share security-camera footage with law enforcement had happened, nothing could be relied on.
"Yeah, there was one of those. Mr. Eriksen went to jail rather than cooperate. His attorneys, when they bailed him out, framed the refusal as a blow for civil rights in a nation, I think it was, 'under ever-increasing electronic surveillance.' They also mentioned 'habitual and unquestioning compliance with police demands' and 'the corporate-customer relationship should be protected from third-party intrusion.' It's all in the case jacket."
His summary was received with appropriately stunned silence. Tan felt almost proud of having brought the report that produced it. "Speaking as someone who has on occasion questioned authority," he added, "this doesn't seem like the ideal moment for it."
He got an appreciative snort out of Villette.
"Not to get too technical," Brady spoke up, "but that's some highly questionable fucked-up shit. Has anyone called the guy on this?"
Tan shrugged. "Apparently he's much respected and very well liked locally. The sort of person who gets to be the face of fund-raising drives for children's cancer centers."
"He's a banker," Lau said, the way she might say, "He's a plague-carrying giant rat covered in puke."
"Apparently you can still get away with that in parts of the country."
Falkner coughed. Tan wished he knew whether it was a "focus, people" sort of cough, or the kind that pretended it wasn't amused. Pete Pauley had bet him twenty bucks Falkner wouldn't smile where Tan could see it. "For the time being, we'll have to settle for witness descriptions of the robbers," she said, level-voiced and grave.
"And look a little further into Overland State Bank and its employees." Reyes laid his palms on the table and nodded. "Thank you, Agent Tan, we'll follow up. You'll forward the case files?"
"Already on your desk, sir."
They all rose, and Brady held the door open and looked at Tan. Courtly, old-fashioned, and an unmistakable invitation to skedaddle back Down the Hall and leave the bug-hunters to get down to work.
So he did. He was relieved to wash his hands of the case. Of course he was.
And annoyed that he wouldn't get to watch.
I had a nanny when I was little, from when I started to talk to sometime in second grade. My mother called her "the au pair." Her name was Mari, and she was from Norway. She had short hair the color of straw baskets and pale gray eyes that were so deep-set they almost disappeared, and her cheeks were always flushed. She was shorter than all the other adults I knew, and she seemed soft and strong at the same time.
Mari read to me at bedtime. I didn't like fairy tales or picture books or anything that wasn't real. Maybe that was part of the brain damage, I don't know. She started to read from a kid's book of Norse mythology, and I said I didn't like it, because it was made up.
Mari asked me if I thought God and Jesus were made up. I knew the right answer was "no," even though I'd never seen them, because I'd get in trouble if I didn't believe in God and Jesus. Well, said Mari, that book was about people who were just like God and Jesus in the country she came from. So I let her keep reading.
That's when I learned about Balder. Balder the Beautiful. He was gentle and kind and everybody loved him and nobody would hurt him even if they could, which they couldn't. Except Loki, of course.
There's always a Loki.
"What strikes you about this?" Reyes asked when the door was closed and Brady was back in his chair.
Professor mode, Lau thought, which slowed down her response. So it was Chaz who said, "Why would one robber take off his mask, when he hadn't in the first two robberies?"
"And he's the one the off-duty cop took a shot at," Lau added. "Why?"
"Two 'whys,' to add to the one about the bank president withholding the camera footage." Reyes nodded. Lau felt a surge of satisfaction, and tamped it down. The side effect of professor mode: her undergrad reflexes came right back.
"No 'how'?" Brady asked. "As in, how did the cop manage to hit the victim if the robber was the only one in her line of fire?"
Falkner raised an eyebrow at him. "We don't know that yet."
"We need to know more about Overland State Bank and its CEO, as well as the officer." Reyes rolled his chair back six inches, which was all the room allowed, and slid out of it. "I'll call Todd and see if he can work the paper trail for us. Esther, I know St. Louis is your home turf, but would you mind if I took this?"
Falkner smiled. "Not a bit. I'm the one with kids, remember? And school starts in a week and a half."
Reyes ducked his chin in acknowledgement. "Villette, Lau, you'll go with me."
The sneaky team, Lau observed, and approved. They were the ones people tended to underestimate.
She caught Brady's eye across the table, and he nodded. With Todd retired and Hafidha in Idlewood, he was their shooter now. If they handled this right, it needn't go that way.
She was last out the door that Brady held, and they walked back to the bullpen together. "I'm a moron," she told him. "I got you a birthday present, but I broke it while I was wrapping it."
"The best present you can get me is to keep Chaz in the field until my birthday is over." A grin twitched at his lips, as if it had wrestled him and won. "As it is, I have to survive Todd. I'm gonna have desk drawers full of Jell-O or something."
"If you do, I want photos. Damn, I need to call Tricia right away," Lau said. "We were going to try out a new yoga class tonight."
"Tell her I'm bringing ribs over instead."
"Because that's so much like healthy exercise."
She expected him to zing her. Instead, after a moment, he said, "She still doesn't want to go out to eat."
Tricia had told Lau that, too. She never knew when something would remind her of Daphne, and she hated to break down in a public place.
Kind of like Lau after her father died. She swallowed the sudden tightness in her throat. "I'll let her know you're taking care of the cholesterol."
"In the hands of an expert." When they reached his desk, he touched her shoulder, and she stopped. "Hey, stay in touch, okay? And don't walk into anything."
That was Brady code for "Don't fucking die." Not something they used to have to say to each other.
"I'm on that, bro." She held up her hand, palm and fingers flat, and he high-fived her with his usual restraint.
I wanted to be Balder. I'd be embarrassed to admit that, but there are worse things to want to be, and I was a little kid. I got over it. You know, if I said I wanted to be just like Jesus, you wouldn't think that was weird. Even as a kid, I could see that Balder was the Norse equivalent of Jesus, the good guy with the tragic death. Frankly, I liked Balder better.
So I would stand as still as I could in the backyard for what felt like hours, hoping the birds and squirrels could tell I was gentle and kind, and would sit on my shoulders. Didn't work.
It didn't work on humans, either. Maybe I just didn't know, at age four or five or six, how to show I was harmless. But at no time could I say that everyone loved me and no one would hurt me.
Reyes was glad the jet was in use by some other department. The three of them would have been dwarfed by the half-empty cabin, and there would be nothing to fill the extra space but ghosts.
Too late to get adjoining seats on the commercial flight. Villette was two rows ahead on the aisle, putting virtual push pins into maps of greater St. Louis on his laptop. If the robbery locations suggested a pattern, he'd find it. Meanwhile, he had to risk either his kneecaps to the seat back in front of him, or his feet to the beverage cart in the aisle. At least he was young and flexible.
Lau was five rows behind Reyes. He wasn't sure what she'd be doing now; her gifts tended to call for boots on the ground and a powered-up cell phone. He hoped she was catching a nap, but none of them ever slept on the way to the scene.
Today's goal: don't get anyone killed, he told himself. The IA investigation into Worth's death had cleared him of wrongdoing, or as he thought of it, let him off the hook. Did that make any real difference to anyone in cases like this? Celentano was watching him--with Esther's help, most likely--for signs of failure of nerve.
Reyes was certain there were some. He wasn't a psychopath, after all.
He unfolded his tray table, took a notebook and pen out of his suit coat pocket, and began to list facts and questions about the three robberies.
I got put in special ed, of course. Except I was even an outcast by special ed standards. I couldn't draw pictures, I couldn't add and subtract...but I could memorize the multiplication tables, and I could read and write just fine. I was too screwed up for the normal kids, and not screwed up enough for the developmentally disabled kids.
In junior high I tried out for football, and made the team. Then we discovered I couldn't understand the diagrams for the plays. I wasn't a good enough player to make up for it. You'd be amazed how many sports and other extracurriculars use the kind of abstract thinking I didn't have the wiring for. It's a you-don't-miss-it-'til-you-haven't-got-it thing.
I wanted to be Balder, but that was never my destiny. My wyrd, it's called in those stories. I was born to be Loki: the one who can't fit in anywhere, the one nobody wants.
They reported to the local field office for form's sake, and to get access to cars and computers. Then they checked in to a pretty decent Marriott on the west edge of town. Lau tossed the relevant contents of her go bag on hangers, grabbed a bottle of water from the vending machine in the hall, and knocked on Reyes's door.
Chaz was already there, his laptop on the desk. Reyes occupied the not-very-comfy comfy chair, with a mug of tea on the table beside him, so she dropped down on the end of the bed, kicked off her loafers, and tucked her feet under her.
"Three points, two possibilities," Chaz said, and slid the laptop to where she and Reyes could see the screen. The robbery sites were dotted in blue. "Either this is a triangle, and the robbers' comfort zone is inside it, or it's a line leading toward or away from something."
"Or something else entirely," Lau said, since someone had to.
"Quiet, you. I'm good at this. Three robberies isn't a big enough sample to be sure, but it's significant that all the banks hit are Overland branches. There are plenty of other banks within the triangle--in fact, in two of the cases there was a competing bank across the street--but no other branches of Overland State Bank."
"So they're targeting Overland," said Reyes.
"Likely. So I mapped all the Overland branches, of which there are ten." Chaz tapped the keypad, and red dots bloomed on the satellite view of the St. Louis area. "And if I connect the dots--" He tapped again.
A solid yellow line zigzagged through the robbery sites, then split into three dotted ones. "Those are the three next closest branches to the last robbery. But only this one," he said, pointing to the red spot where the middle line ended, "moves them closer to here." He pointed to another red dot. "Which is the main banking location and central offices of Overland State Bank."
Lau considered Chaz's artwork. "They don't just want money, they want Overland. But they didn't hit its headquarters right away. They're advancing on it."
"They want Overland to know they're coming." Reyes frowned and sipped at his tea. "Hell of a risk. Someone has a grudge."
"Which is a little surprising, at least at a glance." Lau pulled her phone out of her pocket and called up the pages she'd bookmarked. "Jon Eriksen left Citibank to found Overland. Their focus is on local investments, keeping home loans within the community, supporting regional small business. They have a successful foreclosure prevention program, and an in-house credit counseling and debt reduction staff. Overland was a big sponsor of last year's Pride Festival, and collects donated food and clothing for the homeless every December in all their branches." She looked up from the display. "Basically, they're the most wonderful bank in the world."
"Too good to be true?" Reyes asked.
"Probably." She pulled up another bookmark. "Eriksen lives with his wife, Samantha, and their handicapped son, Luke, in a big giant house in Warson Woods, a far west suburb. He's a member of the Old Warson Country Club, and Concordia Lutheran Church, and is on the board of four St. Louis-area charities--miscellaneous, no single unifying interest there. He's a pretty mainstream guy. I wouldn't have expected civil disobedience from him."
"Can he be protecting the robbers?" Chaz wondered.
Reyes laced his fingers over one knee. "Or somebody, or something. Tell me about the shooting victim."
Lau's display showed the photo the newspapers had run at the time of the shooting: a round-faced, dark-haired woman in cute narrow glasses and bright lipstick, holding a plastic cup and smiling. From the lights in the background, it was taken at a Christmas party. "Lisa Hinata, twenty-four years old, married two years ago, receptionist at the service desk of a local Chevy dealer."
"Sounds innocuous. And the police officer who fired the shot?"
"Alma Herrera. Oh, bless you, Arthur Tam--he sent the interview transcript from after the shooting, and her career jacket with the police department. Good grief." She looked up to meet Reyes's raised eyebrows and Chaz's focused shoulder hunch. "She's a competition pistol shooter with the police team."
"Which makes it even harder to convince anyone she wasn't aiming at what she hit," Chaz observed in a colorless voice.
One day in second grade I came home from school and found my mom waiting for me with a glass of milk and a PB&J. It was always Mari who did that. Mari had had to go home, my mom said. Yes, it was very sudden. She was sure Mari would miss us. But now that I was at school all day, I didn't really need a nanny, did I? I think that was the first time my mother used the word.
I snuck into Mari's room before dinner. It was clean, tidy, and empty. The bedclothes were gone, including the pillow, everything down to the mattress. The drawers were empty. The closet didn't even have hangers.
Even the lamp on the bedside table was gone. Would you take a lamp to Norway, I wondered? Maybe they didn't have nice lamps like that one, with a yellow china base.
The room looked the way I felt. She could have waited and said good-bye, couldn't she?
Suddenly I wanted to find something she'd left behind. It was as if she'd never been there at all. She was like those paintings of trees and horses and sunrises that I couldn't see even though they were right in front of me.
I stuck my arm as far as I could under the bureau, and got nothing but dust. I crawled over to the bed and looked under it.
I found a broken piece of yellow china.
I still don't know what happened to Mari. Maybe you do.
Sergeant Alma Herrera looked uncomfortable in her comfortable clothes. Reyes knew enough about her background to sympathize: career law enforcement, commendations, promotions. If she was going to talk to the FBI, she wanted to do it in uniform.
Instead she sat in an untenanted office in the station house, her union-appointed attorney beside her. She wore yoga pants, a short-sleeved T-shirt, and sandals, and her chin-length dark red hair was half hidden under a lime-green bandanna. Her jaw worked, as if her tongue was probing a molar, and though her hands were clasped on the table, she picked at her cuticles with a thumbnail. Her eyes never left Reyes's.
"Sergeant Herrera," he said, after all the groundwork was laid, "I understand yours was the only weapon fired in the bank during the robbery."
A muscle stood out in the side of her cheek. "That's correct."
"According to witness statements, all three robbers were armed."
"Why did you open fire?"
She'd answered this before. But he could see her trying to return to the scene, to make sure what she said wasn't a photocopy of her statement on record. "The one guy took his mask off, and after that, he acted different. He was waving his gun around, pointing it at people. And he was saying things like, 'Are you scared? 'Cause I'm not.' I thought any minute he was going to start shooting."
"He was excited?"
"He was crazy. Like he was showing off."
Reyes admired the precision of the answer. "But not his partners?"
"They were collecting the money. But this guy acted like he only knew about firearms from watching movies." Her lips pursed. She disapproved. "He was the leader. I thought I could get control of the situation."
"You fired three shots."
She nodded. "I had a clear field of fire. He was against an outside masonry wall, away from the windows, and all the customers were kneeling on the other side of the tables. Every one of those shots was right on center of mass." She bit her lip. "They dug two of my bullets out of the paneling, and the third one... It hit that girl. They matched it to my service weapon."
"How did the other two robbers react when you fired?"
Herrera stared. Apparently no one had asked that. "They... They pointed their weapons at me, told me to drop my gun and kick it away. But they seemed-- I don't know, they seemed calm. And they kept looking at the leader, like they were checking to see he was still there."
"And their leader? How did he react to the shots?"
"He... He was smiling. A great big shit-eating grin, like, I don't know. Like he hoped I'd kill him. Except..." She trailed off.
Reyes leaned forward and peered into her face, trying to look as sympathetic as he felt. "Except what?"
"When the girl... When everybody saw she was hit. He was like a statue. And then he mumbled something, and I thought he was scared all of a sudden. Then he went crazy. He told his guys to move it, move it, and they all ran out."
In spite of the leader's sloppy gun-handling, he hadn't expected anyone to get shot. In fact, he sounded like an amateur...in charge of two pros. How would that happen?
Reyes asked her to describe the three men, and probed each description for details. But Herrera had already given everything she'd observed: the unmasked man white, in his early twenties, brown hair conservatively cut, square face, wearing grass-stained jeans and a gray hoodie, height about five-ten, weight maybe 145, 150.
"Skinny?" Reyes asked carefully.
"Yeah. The others were about the same height, maybe shorter, but they were built."
She thought one of the others had dark skin, but it was hard to tell past the ski masks and goggles and gloves.
"Thank you, Sergeant Herrera. You've been a great help."
And Reyes thought, but couldn't say, that he believed she was right. She hadn't missed.
I don't remember a time when my parents didn't fight. Or a time when I didn't know that was what they were doing. They have a master suite with its own den and bathroom, and sometimes--often when they came home from a party or a dinner or a trip--my mom would disappear into it, and my father would follow her and close the door. Then I'd hear their television or stereo, and the sound would swell as someone turned up the volume. I never heard their voices, just the TV or the stereo.
Maybe knowing about the Norse gods made me think that was normal. Those families fought all the time. They even killed each other. Since I knew from church that we were made in God's image, wasn't that normal?
So I didn't think much about it when my parents fought. What I feel stupid about was not noticing when it got physical. My mother would be stiff some mornings, or she'd limp, or she'd make an excuse not to get out of her chair, or bend over. From family photos around that time, it seems like she wore long sleeves a lot.
The Benedictine Monks hadn't made it past "Media vita" before Lau had pulled over to the curb of the winding shady road and thumbed the green button on her phone. "Hey, Chaz. Whatcha got?"
"The tech guy who handles the bank's security videos says Eriksen viewed the footage of the third robbery before he ordered it pulled off the servers."
Lau drew a satisfied breath. "So he knows what he's not handing over."
"Uh-huh. Not so happy is that the tech guy admitted he has no archive copies. Eriksen ordered them erased."
"Wait, he's refusing to hand over footage that has ceased to exist? While not mentioning that fact?"
"Makes it easier to refuse. Also to duck charges of destroying evidence and accessory after the fact." Chaz sounded grouchy. Was that caused by a shortage of lunch, or by Jon Eriksen? "The tech guy couldn't say whether the footage gives a good angle on the shooting. He only watched it through once, with Eriksen."
"But that means unless Eriksen knew what to watch for, he doesn't know where those three bullets went, either. So what's he hiding?"
"You notice none of us believe he's striking a blow for customer privacy?"
Lau snorted; inside her head it sounded like a soprano version of Brady. "We're damned cynical bastards. Though he could be protecting someone's privacy."
"But only for the third robbery?"
"He didn't achieve enlightenment until then?"
"Maybe. Uncle Duke is in the house back home and working on Overland's records, by the way. But he says financial institutions are, and I quote, 'harder to crack than George Bush Senior's online dating profile.'"
"Eew. Get that out of my head."
"Too late," Chaz crowed. "They say shared pain is halved. You at the Eriksen house?"
"The end of the driveway. So I'm maybe only, oh, a mile away."
"Reyes should be at Eriksen's office by now. Call if you get lost and we'll airlift you out."
Lau scowled at the perfect, dark-leafed maples and and oaks that shaded the curving drive. They reminded her of Ohio, of following Hafidha's faint trail and wondering which would be worse: finding her or not.
Daphne had been with her for that.
The house appeared between the trees as if a curtain had been pulled aside. It followed the contour of its rolling lot, with the double front doors on street level, a deck cantilevered off the back, and a lower-story patio opening onto a wide sunny lawn and the shore of a pond. It was made of gray stone and white-painted wood, and looked big enough to be the clubhouse for a good-sized golf course.
Lau parked in the paved turnaround that led to the garage and walked up the three steps to the entryway. Samantha Eriksen had promised her she'd be home all day, but Lau wondered if she'd thought better of that and used the length of time it had taken Lau to get there to duck out for an open-ended errand.
So she was almost surprised when the door opened. She was definitely surprised to see it was Jon Eriksen who opened it.
But this was not her first rodeo, thank you. "Mr. Eriksen. I'm Special Agent Nicolette Lau with the FBI." The flip of her ID folder was as smooth as a gunfighter's draw. "Your wife is expecting me."
Eriksen stood where he was, blocking passage and view both. "Yes, she called me at the office to tell me you were on your way. Why do you need to speak to my wife?"
"I'm investigating the robberies that occurred at three of your branch banks."
"Samantha has nothing to do with my business. She can't possibly tell you anything that could help."
Lau had always been good at improv. "Mr. Eriksen, our line of investigation suggests that these robberies might have had a more personal motive. We're concerned that someone is targeting you or your family."
She saw the instant when his eyes didn't quite focus on her, when his well-shaped mouth and chin went a little slack. Something in her speech had hit a nerve.
But Eriksen wasn't bad at improv, himself. He smiled when he said, "That sounds far-fetched, Agent. If someone wants to get at me, they can do it in much easier ways than robbing banks."
She returned the smile, tilted her head, shifted her weight onto her right foot. An off-balance stance was casual, intimate, nonthreatening. "You and I think so, Mr. Eriksen. But if criminals thought like us, they wouldn't be criminals. I know your time is valuable, but may I come in, just for a few minutes?"
He hesitated. Was he weighing what he had to lose, what she might see or hear, how cooperating or refusing could help or hurt him? He probably had his attorneys' number on speed dial.
A sensible man would use it. One who thought he was smarter than everyone else, though...
Eriksen's smile widened into a shiny white public relations campaign. "Very well, Agent...?"
"Lau. Thank you, Mr. Eriksen."
High school was better. My parents sent me to a school in Vermont for special needs kids. Sounds awful, doesn't it? But that was the first place where people took my screwed-up brain seriously, and didn't think that what worked for one of us would work for all of us.
They did tests and told me I'd already adapted a little to the damage. Neuroplasticity--as a baby, I'd been so desperate to learn to understand and talk that my brain had found ways around the messed-up parts. That was why I could manage abstraction in language. It might even be why I've been skinny all my life: the brain uses something like twenty-five percent of the body's calories, and mine was probably using even more to make up for the damage.
The doctor said I might still find ways to make my brain work more normally. But it would take a long time and a lot of training every day, and even then, "all better" wasn't a reasonable goal.
I didn't mind. The school helped me learn ways to cope. I got my first checking account, with a bank that wanted to expand its accessibility options. The occupational counselor said I could be a lawyer or a journalist if we could find a college that would wave the math and science pre-recs for graduation.
Good news, right?
The vestibule of the Eriksen house was a half-circle of slate-floored open space the size of Lau's bedroom and twice as high in the ceiling. Wide archways opened on the living room, the rear of the house, and a hall that must have led to the private areas. Eriksen led the way to the living room.
Samantha Eriksen sat on one of the low couches that bracketed the fireplace. Her face was as carefully arranged as a dinner table centerpiece, and about as mobile. Lau crossed the room to her and extended her hand. "Ms. Eriksen. We spoke on the phone."
Samantha Eriksen looked past Lau to her husband before she shook Lau's hand. "I'm sorry you came all this way, Agent Lau. There's really nothing I can tell you."
Over the fireplace hung a portrait in oils of Samantha and Jon Eriksen. It was a beautiful painting: impressionistic, with light flowing over the two figures from the window behind them. For all the loose treatment of the details, the subjects were perfectly recognizable. Lau thought it might have been done only a few years ago.
"Can either of you think of anyone who might have a grievance against you? Even if it's unreasonable. Someone you might have fired, or who claims you owe them money...?"
Both Eriksens shook their heads. Samantha said, "We have contracts with companies for housecleaning, lawn care, that sort of thing."
"I've never been comfortable with the idea of servants," Jon added. "As far as the bank is concerned, we have the highest employee satisfaction rating of any company in the state. Our people come to work knowing they're making a difference for their neighbors."
He sounded as if he was quoting from an ad. Lau nodded gravely, like Barbara Walters interviewing the president. "No unstable employees? Business rivals? Former romantic interests?"
A flash of anger in Samantha's face, but Jon only said, "No, nothing like that."
"How about your son?" she asked.
Jon Eriksen stiffened. "What about him?"
"Is there anyone who would want to make trouble for him? Has he had problems with anyone at school?"
"Agent Lau, perhaps you don't know, but my son is mentally handicapped. Of necessity, many parts of my life are public, but Luke is not one of them. We've tried to provide as much privacy and stability for him as possible, so he could live something close to a normal life. He has nothing to do with the bank."
"May I talk to Luke? Does he live with you?"
"He's living independently now."
"May I have his address and phone number?"
"No, you may not. I told you, his privacy is important to us. There's nothing to be gained and a lot of possible harm to be done by you trying to draw him into this."
Jon was getting louder and sharper with each sentence. And all the while Samantha sat silent on the couch, her hands clasped hard between her knees and her eyes on her husband's face.
"I see," Lau said, because she suspected she just maybe did. "Of course, you're right. You know best what your son needs." She watched Samantha's shoulders drop, watched a silent breath lift and lower her collarbones under her long-sleeved linen shirt. "Thank you so much for your time. I'm sorry to have disturbed you at home like this." She smiled from Samantha to Jon and back (again the head tilt, so disarming).
Jon raked his fingers through his thinning blond hair. "It's all right. We know you have a job to do." It didn't sound as if he believed it, but he was willing to say it to get her out of the house.
And get out she did. She maintained her body language all the way to the car; then she started it and rolled, gentle and unhurried, back down the drive. Once out of sight of the house she grabbed her phone and speed-dialed Chaz.
"Where are you?" he asked without preamble.
"Same place I was last time I talked to you. I've been nose to nose with Jon Eriksen."
"Tell you when I get there. Right now, call Todd and ask him to find out every little thing about Luke Eriksen, Jon and Samantha's son. Extra credit for a recent photograph. Extra extra credit for showing that photograph to Alma Herrera and any other witnesses to the robberies you can lay your hands on."
"You think his son is robbing his banks?”
"I think we need to find out."
You don't have to have brain damage to think differently from other people. I'd been so concerned with how differently I thought that I hadn't realized that. But when I came home from school and told my parents what I'd found out, my dad heard it as, "Your kid could be normal if he just tried harder."
So now I was retarded and lazy. Now I got the "You've always been a quitter" speech, and the "We paid a fortune for your education, and you wasted it" speech.
My dad, the motivational speaker.
My mom, in a half-assed way, tried to explain things. Fathers always identify with their sons. He was just frustrated that he couldn't help me. Because really, he loved me, and that's why he was frustrated, and when he was frustrated he got angry and didn't realize he was hurting me.
Yes, she was talking about my father and her. Because she started to have a real epidemic of bumping into things or falling down or spraining something or pulling a muscle about the time I graduated. I told her I knew where she was really getting the bruises. Then she yelled at me. How could I say things like that after the sacrifices they'd made for me, blah blah blah.
I wonder if she thought the yelling would keep me from noticing she hadn't denied it.
At the St. Louis field office, federal budget cuts had accidentally provided them with an empty room to use. Reyes sat on a corner of the bare desk and let Chaz and Lau have the tweed-nylon-upholstered visitors' chairs. They were probably marginally more comfortable than the file cabinets.
"Setting aside whether Sergeant Herrera should have fired at all," Reyes began, and Lau and Chaz winced in sympathy, "I believe her when she says she was aiming at her target's center of mass. I also believe anomalous activity was involved. Someone in that room was jamming."
Chaz's eyebrows twitched at Reyes's use of the word. It was what Chaz and Hafidha called what they did. Yes, he thought in Chaz's direction, I am teachable.
"Probably the unmasked robber," Lau added.
Chaz hitched himself up in his chair. "Given the likely mythologies, I'd guess the manifestation is either Force Field or Power to Cloud Men's Minds."
It took Reyes by surprise. But they'd been studying the anomaly the way the Behavioral Science Unit studied serial criminals back in the day, and for the same reasons. Anomalous abilities fell into categories, as did the circumstances prompting them.
And Chaz, who saw pattern the way most people saw shape and line and contrast, would have assembled those categories almost unconsciously.
Lau shook her head. "Force Field takes too much energy. He'd burn out."
"Not necessarily. He might have converted recently. And he'd only use it when he needed it. But it takes more energy than the alternative."
"Which would be," Reyes said, "that he made Herrera think she was aiming at him?"
"Takes less energy. But he'd need more understanding of perception."
"Empathy and abstraction," Lau summarized. "Remember the John Doe gamma in Chillicothe, the one who turned out not to be Lynn Van Metre? He could get so far inside someone else's head that he could use their eyes."
The phone on the desk jangled authoritatively. Reyes lifted the receiver off and clicked the speakerphone button. "Sol, you're on speaker."
"And a good afternoon to you, too, Stephen. I have treats for good girls and boys." Even his electronic voice sounded energetic and cheerful. Retirement, Reyes thought. Not such a bad idea.
"Give," said Lau.
"I'll start with Luke Eriksen. Twenty years old, attending Cahokia Community College. I'm sending his student ID photo to your phones and your nearest photo printer as we speak. He was diagnosed with a brain disorder at a very early age that interfered with his ability to understand visual abstractions and number relationships.
"He did well at Green Mountain Academy for Special Learning, however, where he was a resident student in tenth through twelfth grade. He wasn't insanely popular, but his teachers and fellow students seemed to like him. But counselors commented on his emotional immaturity. Apparently he was even more narcissistic than most teenagers, and had a hard time considering events from a point of view other than his own."
"Force Field," Chaz muttered smugly.
"Beg your pardon?" asked Todd.
"Never mind," Reyes told him. "Agent Villette was just patting himself on the back with his tongue."
"Ew?" Lau objected.
"What else?" prompted Reyes.
Todd continued, "He works for Stan and Sam's Yard Service when he's not in class. No record of a firearms permit or purchase, no criminal record. He lives in a rented room in the Sherman Park neighborhood."
Lau had produced her phone and poked at it. Now she turned the display toward Reyes and Chaz.
Luke Eriksen had conservatively cut brown hair, a square, hollow face, and a dissatisfied expression. He could easily be the man Herrera had fired at.
"And now," Todd chirped, "the financial news. Because information wants to be free, a trustworthy source leaked to me that JPMorgan Chase is in negotiation to buy Jon Eriksen's shares in Overland State Bank. Which will make them the majority shareholder."
Lau frowned. "But the whole draw for Overland is that they're locally owned and reliant on their community."
"That's very true," Todd replied. Reyes could hear the Cheshire-cat grin in his voice.
"Oh," said Lau, and slowly rocked forward with the pressure of the realization. "Oh. If word of the buyout spreads, the value of those shares could drop. At the least, the shareholders will freak."
With mock-gravity, Todd said, "At a time like this, the wisest thing a businessman can do is try to keep the waters untroubled."
Reyes wished Todd were in the room so he could throw something at him. "Up to now Eriksen has been so clean he might as well be Teflon-coated. But his son robbing his father's banks? That's messy."
"Hell," Lau replied, "that's national network news. Fox would freaking lead with it. This is why he killed the third robbery footage."
Reyes felt his smile pull at the scar tissue around his mouth. "You think Eriksen would be willing to talk to us again?"
Chaz stood up and reached a long arm for the doorknob. "I think he might if the FBI brings his son in for questioning."
People think my father is a great guy. Now there's a Balder figure for you: tall, handsome, distinguished, admired, everybody's best friend. But he's not Balder. He's Thor. He's the one with the temper that goes off like a crack of thunder, who'll kick a bystander into the fire to die just for walking in front of him at the wrong time.
I wanted to go to college, try to get into a degree program like the counselor at school suggested. But my father wouldn't pay for it. Good money after bad, he called it. And if I wanted to question his judgments about money, I should think about whose judgment had put food in my mouth and clothes on my back all my life. Now that I was eighteen, he didn't even have to do that, and I should be grateful...
Skip to the result: he registered me for vocational classes at the community college. A sampler, so I could choose which of the certification programs I thought I could pass.
Food Preparation Services. Correctional Officer. Landscape Maintenance. Oh, and my favorite: Social Services, where I might even get a special certification in Domestic Violence Intervention.
I was already employed in that, though. Because that's when he stopped hitting my mother and started hitting me.
Lau's phone shivered in her pocket during the report from the two agents who'd gone to bring Luke Eriksen in. She ignored it for the time being. Because Eriksen wasn't home.
"His landlady says he told her he was going to be out of town for a few weeks," Agent Clancy said, with the flawless skepticism of the career Fibbie. She rubbed at the freckles on the side of her nose and added, "So we phoned the yard service. He hasn't shown up for work the last two days. Want us to start canvassing known associates?"
"Please," said Reyes. "We'll help you find some."
So it wasn't until Lau got back to the Marriott that she had time to check her missed calls log. Her brother's number.
Good thing I had it on vibrate. The Air Force theme is a little disruptive.
She tapped in his number and got an answer.
"Hi, Bobby. Sorry for the delay."
"Where are you?"
She smoothed her hackles; he probably didn't mean to sound as if, wherever she was, she ought to be somewhere else. "St. Louis. And don't ask me how it is, because as usual I haven't had time to find out."
"You're in the middle of something, then."
"I'm off duty for the night. I hope, anyway. What's up?"
She heard him take a breath and puff it out. "I'm worried about Mom."
"Is she sick? What's wrong?"
"It's a lot of things. She's...not herself. It's hard to get her to leave the house, even to see the kids. I don't think she's eating right. And she cancelled her last dentist appointment, said she just didn't feel like it."
Lau weighed as much of that as she could. "A lot changed when Dad died. You say she's not herself, but, well, I think she's still trying to figure out who 'herself' is now."
"Look, Nikki--" He paused for long enough that she caught up to him. She knew what he was going to say. She shouldn't let him say it. "She's lonely. Someone should be there with her. At least for a few months, until she gets back in the groove. You know how she is--she won't take care of herself if there's nobody but her to do it for."
"By 'someone,' you mean me."
If they'd been in the same room, he would be shrugging. Maybe he was anyway. "I can't do it. And frankly, you and I are the responsible ones."
The implied compliment, the statement of solidarity. Bobby, don't try to play a player. "I'm busy right now, Bobby."
"Chasing bank robbers." She tried to make her tone convey the amount of patience she was drawing on.
"The FBI has lots of agents, Nikki. Mom only has one daughter."
"And three sons."
An impatient click of the tongue-tip off the roof of his mouth. "It's not the same."
"It doesn't have to be the same. It just has to be a human being who loves and cares about her."
He was too grown up, thank heaven, to say that ruled her out. "I'm not asking you to move in with her forever--"
"Bobby, are you afraid of her? Just...be her friend. She and I don't have a lot in common, but she thinks you're the coolest guy in the world. Go make her dinner. Bring the kids over and ask her to squirt 'em with the hose the way she used to do us. It's a hell of a lot easier than landing on an aircraft carrier."
He sighed. "Think about it, will you?"
"I have thought about it. I'm telling you the results. Go do this."
The call ended without either of them bringing up anything offensive the other had done during childhood. Lau considered that a win.
Brady would like this one. They regularly compared their families' expectations for them. Though lately Brady's focus had been more on his own expectations, and Gray's, and the process of bringing the two sets of expectations closer together.
Lau had already pushed the numbers to speed-dial Brady. She thumbed the hang-up. Brady was a grown-up with a real life of his own. She was still calling her friends to complain about her big brother.
"It's not faaiir," she whined, to make herself laugh. Her voice echoed in the tidy hotel room.
He started small. He'd give me a shove if he thought I wasn't going where he'd told me to fast enough. Or he'd give me a flat-palmed smack to the back of the head if I "smarted off," which was what he called it when I disagreed with him. Then there was grabbing, which left bruises on my arms, and throttling, and gripping the back of my neck and pushing my face into whatever he thought I wasn't paying enough attention to.
After that it's an easy step to slamming up against a wall, or the kind of backhand that knocks someone off his feet.
I was sort of glad he let up on my mother, but not that glad. I mean, Balder's mother went all over the world, getting everything in it to swear it would never do Balder any harm. She screwed up, true, but not for lack of trying. There was a distinct lack of trying on my mother's part. I know there are a lot of possible explanations for that. But I'm not Jesus, any more than I'm Balder. I feel sorry for her, but that doesn't mean I forgive her.
In the morning, a partial fingerprint found at the scene of the second robbery pinged the national database. It belonged to Shawn Lewis Clipman, who had been arrested at nineteen for a pair of unarmed robbery/assaults.
Unlike Luke Eriksen, he was at home in bed.
When offered a deal, he named his partners: Augustin Mercere, age twenty-six, and Luke Eriksen. The robbery had been Eriksen's idea, Clipman told investigators; he'd recruited Clipman and Mercere from their mutual workplace, Stan and Sam's Yard Service.
Clipman and Mercere were drawn in by the money. Eriksen told them anything the robberies yielded was theirs; he wasn't in it for gain. And though the other two men recommended going in very visibly armed, to subdue potential resistance, Eriksen insisted they not harm anyone. In fact, Eriksen's SW1911 wasn't loaded during any of the robberies.
According to Clipman, he and Mercere suspected a sting. But when they confronted Eriksen with their distrust, he insisted on a demonstration of his trust in them. He asked them to shoot him.
Clipman swore their shots couldn't hit him. He also swore that both he and Mercere were dead sober at the time.
He didn't know why Eriksen had pulled off his mask during the third robbery. Clipman was angry about it; in fact, he said the gang had split up over it. Eriksen would be recognized, Clipman told him, and they'd all be caught.
When Eriksen had laughed at that, Clipman decided he was too crazy to work with.
Reyes gathered a handpicked group of local field agents and police and, with Lau and Villette, outlined the plan.
"Luke Eriksen wants to be identified," Lau explained, her clear, carrying voice as authoritative as any news anchor's. "That's why he removed his mask during the third robbery. He hadn't gotten what he wanted out of the first two robberies; taking off his mask was a kind of escalation. He counted on being identified from the video footage. When Overland Bank refused to make that video available to the police, he must have been intensely frustrated."
Reyes picked up the narrative. "We can use that frustration to lure him out of hiding. Shawn Clipman's arrest is being kept from the news media. Instead, we're releasing a statement that we have no new leads in the robberies, and that without the video, we're unable to identify the unmasked robber."
Lau's eye-corner glance said she was ready to step in front of the cameras. They would need her; Eriksen's frustration could be split between his father and law enforcement, but he'd need a face to focus on. And Reyes was afraid of what Luke might do if his father bore the sole brunt of his anger.
Villette lifted his head in a way that shifted all the eyes in the room to him. "Eriksen's goal isn't robbery; it's humiliating his father. The robberies have failed to do that. We think Eriksen will escalate further and push his timeline. He'll try to confront his father directly, publicly, in the place where he's symbolically strongest: Overland State Bank headquarters."
They would keep the building under surveillance, Reyes told them; Eriksen wouldn't be long in coming. When he arrived, Reyes's team would be there. Reyes didn't mention one of his team was the Invisible Man.
He also didn't say that the other was Wonder Woman. Bullets and bracelets was the gamma's game this time, and he didn't want Lau playing.
It happened because I told them I was moving out.
It's crazy--I thought they'd be happy about it. I thought he would, anyway. If you smack someone around, doesn't that sort of suggest you wish they weren't there?
I told them I had a job with a yard-care service, and had paid the first month's rent on a room I'd seen posted on a bulletin board at college. I said I wanted to keep going to school, if they'd keep paying the tuition, but I'd cover my own living expenses from now on. I'd be independent.
My mom started crying. Why had I done all this without telling them? I didn't care about their feelings. I didn't love them. I didn't appreciate what I had. She ran off to that master suite and slammed the door while I was still trying to figure that out.
Then my father started yelling at me for hurting my mother's feelings. No, really.
At least I had a comeback for that. So we both raised our voices, and he knocked me down. But this time he straddled me and punched me in the face. He pulled his fist back to do it again.
I couldn't get away. My father's tall and strong, and you probably already know I'm a scrawny little jerk. I couldn't get out of range the way I always had before. My face hurt--my whole head hurt. Nothing was going to keep me out of the hospital or the morgue. I knew it.
His fist came down at me like a missile. It slid past my face, maybe half an inch away, and smacked into the hardwood floor. I felt kind of a pressure on my nose and cheek as it went by.
Weird how clear that is, because everything else for a while is confused. I think my father was screaming (maybe he broke something in his hand?). He might have tried to hit me with his other hand, because I felt that pressure again on the side of my face, and his fingers sort of flew by, as if they were skidding off something.
After that I don't remember anything until I was sitting at the kitchen counter, shaking and sweating. I'd eaten half a loaf of bread and a pound of frozen hamburger, and I didn't stop being hungry until I finished the rest of the bread.
"He's here," Chaz murmured in Reyes's earpiece. "Dressed as a bike messenger and carrying a shoulder bag."
On the other side of Jon Eriksen's half-open office door, Reyes saw Lau wipe her palms on her trousers and unholster her weapon. She still wore the navy jacket she'd had on for the news cameras; they wanted to make sure their quarry identified her.
He found he was clenching and unclenching his teeth. Luke Eriksen's not a killer. He's just a teenager past his sell-by date, who can't see that everything that makes him hurt isn't exclusively about him. It didn't keep Reyes from remembering New York, and Daphne.
Brisk footsteps in the hall. "Hey, Dad!" a hoarse tenor called from just outside. "I hear you're not cooperating with law enforcement--"
Eriksen was three steps into the room, his weapon aimed one-handed at the chair behind the desk, before he realized the chair was empty, and he wasn't alone.
"Luke Eriksen," Reyes said gently. "I'm Supervisory Special Agent Stephen Reyes of the FBI. I'm afraid we need to take you into custody."
Eriksen spun on one foot, staggering a little with the surprise. His gun swept Reyes and Lau.
He and Lau had the boy covered. Under the circumstances, how much difference did that make?
"You can put the gun down," Reyes told him.
Eriksen's face flushed mottled red, like a child working up to a tantrum. Then he clenched his teeth and grinned. "Can I?"
Lau said, "We know it wasn't loaded during the robberies."
"It is now."
And Reyes believed him. He hadn't come to this room to confront a crowd of innocent bystanders.
"I could say you don't want to hurt anyone, but I know that's not true," Reyes said, watching the pulse throb in Eriksen's neck, watching his gun hand swing its short arc between himself and Lau. "But Agent Lau and I are not your target. Harming us will only make it harder to get at your father."
Eriksen stood trying to decide if that was just talk.
"Mr. Eriksen," said Lau, "will you at least put down your bag?" Get him to agree to a small thing. Move on from there.
For an instant, Eriksen looked as if he'd forgotten he was carrying a bag. Then he glanced down at it, and an almost-smile moved his lips. "No problem," he said. He shrugged it off his shoulder and dropped it on his father's untenanted desk, all the while twitching the gun between Lau and Reyes.
"Why don't you shoot me, now that you've got the chance?"
Reyes felt more than saw Chaz step into the hall in front of the open door.
He answered, "Because we don't want to shoot you, Mr. Eriksen. We want to bring you in and talk to you. Please, just put the gun down."
"Really." It wasn't a question. "I think you haven't shot me because you know you can't. I think I'm gonna walk out of here."
They'd talked about this back at the field office. If Eriksen called their bluff, what would they do? Surely three of them could lay hands on him, bear him down under their weight.
It would depend on the manifestation. Their best bet was to talk him into surrendering.
Lau shook her head. "I think you won't do that until you know you've hurt your father as much as you can. If you make a statement to the police, won't that do the job?"
Eriksen's eyes narrowed. "You lied to the news on TV. You could be lying now. You could take me in and make me disappear, just the way my father wants."
There are my chickens, come home to roost, Reyes thought, his stomach sinking through the floor.
Eriksen was watching Lau's face; he smiled when she didn't answer. "I'm gonna go now. I really have to see my dad." He took a step toward the door. Reyes heard Chaz's weight shift, and wished Chaz was Brady, with Brady's size and leverage.
Then Lau stepped into Eriksen's path.
"Lau," Reyes warned.
"Lady, you don't get it!" Eriksen snapped. "You can't touch me!"
"Sure, I can." She lowered her weapon and pushed it into Reyes's hand as she went forward. He was too startled to do anything but take it. Then she stepped in, inside the reach of Eriksen's gun. She put her arms around him and clenched her hands on her wrists.
Eriksen staggered backward, but that only carried Lau with him. "Get the hell away from me! Are you crazy?"
"Lau!" Reyes said, but couldn't find anything to follow it with. She'd done this, and he had to back her up. Eriksen had to believe Lau was on script.
He had to believe Reyes wasn't afraid for her.
"Think of me as a reverse hostage," Lau said, her head tilted to see into Eriksen's panicky face. "You don't want anyone to shoot at you. They might hit me."
"I don't care if you get shot!"
"You cared in the bank," Reyes said, his voice clogged with tension.
"That dumb-ass cop! She didn't need to do that. Nobody would have got hurt!" Eriksen's voice was rising into a screech.
"The police and the FBI are outside. If you try to leave the building now, especially carrying a weapon, they'll shoot. People will be hurt. Agent Lau--a good officer and a good person--may die."
"Tell 'em not to shoot. Tell 'em there's no point. Don't you get it? I'm invulnerable!"
The boy was almost crying. Being invulnerable ought to mean that nothing could make you cry. Wasn't that so?
"Every invulnerable person has a weakness," Reyes told him. "Have you thought about that? Achilles and his heel. Superman and kryptonite. You have one, too."
"No. Nothing will hurt me."
"Yours is physics," said Reyes. He watched Eriksen's face. It showed a growing panic and sudden despair, but no comprehension.
Chaz spoke up from the hall. "He's right. Every blow you deflect uses energy. I can't hit you with a bullet, but I don't have to. If I keep shooting at you, how long can you keep deflecting them? It wears you down, doesn't it, until you can barely stay on your feet? How long do you think you could last?"
And from his face, Eriksen finally understood.
"Let us take you in, Luke," Reyes urged.
Eriksen plunged toward the door.
Lau lost her footing but not her grip; his charge pulled her with him. Gammas were stronger than they looked.
Reyes grabbed right-handed for Eriksen's gun arm. His fingers closed on a skin-warm surface that wasn't skin, but something hard and smooth and frictionless, an invisible halo half an inch from flesh or fabric. It was like trying to grip a melting sheet of ice.
Chaz leaped. He should have landed hard against Eriksen's chest and carried him back and down. Instead he skidded sideways across him--visibly skidded across Eriksen's unseen surface--and hit the side of the desk with a hollow thump.
Eriksen was in the hall, then through a fire-exit door.
And Lau was still with him.
I haven't seen either of my parents since that night.
I know this thing I have--it's crazy and impossible. But I've tested it. It's real.
Balder's gift, besides being beautiful and lovable, was to be invulnerable to (almost) everything. Since it was Balder, everyone was okay with that. But what if it was Loki who got that gift? What would he do with it? Especially after a lifetime of being the one nobody wanted?
You already know the answer to that, don't you?
Lau could feel Luke trembling under her arms, under the glassy shielded surface she slipped and slid against as he dragged her up the fire stairs. The concrete stairwell bounced the racket of their passage back into her ears as if the building itself was shouting.
"Luke, you don't need to protect yourself. You can let go of the..." She had no idea how he'd think of that surface. "I'm not going to hurt you."
She couldn't tell if he'd even heard her. She felt as if she was trying to stay on the hood of a moving car by hugging a side view mirror.
How many floors did the damned building have? She tried to remember the elevator panel. It didn't matter; she wasn't sure how many landings they'd passed.
Then Luke slammed into the red bar of the door at the top of the stairs and added the high-pitched blat of the fire alarm to the noise. Daylight, and a stiff breeze, and rolling pea gravel under her feet. They were on the roof.
She let go and fell to the gritty surface. She was between him and the door, and there was no one here to take a shot at them. Besides, her arms burned with fatigue.
Luke stumbled backward and fell on his ass. He dropped his pistol, crab-scuttled away from her, and stood. He scrubbed at his face with both hands. They left tarry streaks across his sunken cheeks and his forehead.
"Alone at last," Lau panted.
Luke stared, horrified. Maybe he thought she'd gone nuts.
"Luke, I need you to listen to me." She had to stop for breath, but not long enough for him to protest. "This thing you can do? That didn't surprise us, did you notice? We know what's happened to you. And you're not the only one. We can take you to a place where people know how to help you. What you've got can make you dangerous. But you'll learn to manage it, and get counselling to help you deal with your problems. You can even take college courses, I bet. Let us take you into custody, and that's where you'll go. You haven't done anything very bad. You're a good person. You deserve a chance."
With that, she really did have to stop for breath. She didn't think she'd ever talked that much in one go in her life.
"What's in it for you?" he asked at last. "If I do that?"
Oh, thank God, he'd listened. "You can teach us as much as we can teach you. And seriously, the thing that's made you invulnerable? It can do a lot of harm. I don't think you want that. If you're in Idlewood, you won't have to worry about it, and neither will anyone else."
"So I'll be safe..."
"Yes. You will."
He stared hard into her eyes. "But I'll be locked up. Maximum security."
She wished she could deny it.
"All my life, my parents kept me out of the way, out of sight. I bet if my father heard about this place you've got, he'd sign me up yesterday."
"It's not like that--"
"It's an institution!"
Suddenly he was standing over her. Gamma-quick, of course. He crouched down and grinned into her face. "Know what the state motto of New Hampshire is?"
She floundered. The non sequitur made him sound mentally handicapped for the first time. "It's... 'Live free or die.'"
Not a non sequitur.
"I always thought that was a good idea." He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. She tried to pull him off balance, but the gravel rolled under her shoes.
He dragged her to the edge of the roof. It had a masonry lip, knee high, and a lower projecting surface on the outside maybe two feet down. None of it was enough to break her fall if he threw her over.
It was his turn to hold her in a parody of a hug. "What are you planning to do?" she asked, and her voice wasn't steady.
"Eriksen!" Reyes shouted. He and Chaz stood in the open stairwell door, weapons raised. "Let her go!"
Luke ignored them. "Your boss and your partner think I've got a weakness." He stepped back toward the edge, and she tried to dig her heels in, to squeeze out of his hold. "They think they can find some mistletoe to throw at me."
What was it, ten stories? Twelve? "No. You can't survive a fall like that."
His arms clenched tight around her; she had to pant for breath. "No way to tell without trying, is there?" he asked brightly.
"You didn't want to hurt anyone. You still don't. You don't have to do this!"
"See you at the bottom, lady."
And the shove that pushed her away to stagger and fall to hands and knees on the gravel was equal and opposite to the force with which he threw himself backward off the roof.
She scrambled to the edge, and realized as she did that she was yelling, "No! Fuck. Fuck!"
Chaz was yanking at her shoulders, trying to haul her back. But she refused to yield until she was sure the little sprawled shape on the pavement of the courtyard below wasn't moving.
Reyes knew he was hovering, and was seriously fucking glad that nobody asked him to stop. And Lau was all right, except for the shocky horror that flicked across her face when no one had the decency to distract her with questions and demands.
Chaz brought her a paper cup of water from somewhere. It couldn't have been from Jon Eriksen's office, because that was full of police officers documenting the evidence of actions they'd already been told about. But Chaz's resourcefulness in matters of food and drink was legendary.
The surface of the water quaked, though Lau held the cup with both hands. Chaz helped her get it to her mouth.
"You did everything you could," Reyes told her. "More than anyone else could have, I think."
She shook her head.
"No, he's right," Chaz said. "You did everything right. It just...didn't work."
The plump, freckled agent from the local field office--Murphy? Casey? Clancy--came out of Eriksen's office and down the hall, into the little reception area with its caramel-colored couch where Reyes's team sat. She carried a manila envelope, unsealed.
"This was in his messenger bag," she said. "I thought you'd want to look it over before it goes into evidence."
Lau reached for it before either Reyes or Chaz could. She shook the contents into her lap.
White printer paper, maybe a dozen pages, with text in Courier. Lau stared down at the top sheet, then flipped to the next, then thumbed through the rest. Finally she raised her face, wide-eyed and blank.
"It's his story. For us."
The body was shipped to Baltimore, to the chilly, echoing autopsy suite at Johns Hopkins where Madeline Frost did her work. She did it again with her usual precision and thoroughness. No one could doubt she'd found exactly what she said she had: no broken bones, no damage to internal organs, no contusions or lacerations.
The deceased had probably lived for several minutes after impact. Even so, no amount of rapid response or medical skill could have saved him.
Luke Eriksen had died of starvation.
Nikki Lau sat in the breakfast nook of her mother's house in Reseda. Afternoon sun burned through the corner windows and onto her neck, but she stayed where she was. Her mother tugged the thermal carafe from its niche in the coffeemaker and refilled Nikki's cup and her own. Then she sat down across the table, smiling.
She did look thinner than Nikki remembered. "Have you lost weight?" she asked, before she realized the question might sound nosy and critical and any number of other things her mother might object to.
"Hah! You're the only one who noticed! You know, your dad and I always walked and played tennis and swam, but he loved his desserts. You'd be amazed how quick those couple extra pounds went off when I stopped keeping ice cream in the freezer."
Nikki decided not to tell her that Bobby had noticed, too, and thought she was losing her grip. "If I stopped keeping ice cream in the freezer, my life wouldn't be worth living."
Her mother snorted. "You and your dad. He used to take you to Dairy Queen twice a week in the summer, remember?"
"I remember," she said, and nodded and smiled while she swallowed down the tight hot feeling in her throat.
A week--she'd told Bobby it was all she could take off work right now. Reyes had more or less ordered her to take vacation time, but she felt guilty leaving even routine casework to be spread out among Brady, Chaz, Falkner, and Reyes. But she could spend a week in the Valley, mow her mom's lawn, take her out to dinner and a chick flick, whatever her mother wanted.
Whatsoever could be done, she would do.
You did everything you could.
"Bobby told me you practically ordered him to come see me," her mother was saying. "He and I have been having such a good time lately. I always left the boys to your father once they were grown up. I don't know why. But now I feel as if I'm really getting to know him as a person, and not just my son."
"He's a good guy," Nikki said, knowing it was inadequate. "And he loves you a lot."
"Don't say that in front of him. You know how men are about feelings."
She didn't--at least, not the way her mother meant it. But her mother had never met Chaz or Brady or Sol Todd or even Pete Pauley, who pretended to be the living embodiment of the Marlboro Man.
"That reminds me," her mother continued. "I need to get some things in order, and I don't know how the boys would feel about it. So I thought I'd see if you could help."
"I need to sort your father's things and decide what to keep for the boys and what to give away. I want you to give me a second opinion. And the computer--I never looked at his files, but someone should now. And go through the programs. I don't know what half of them do."
"I can start on the computer right now."
"Oh, good. I would have asked Bobby, but your father might have had things he didn't want the boys to see."
That was almost enough to make Nikki retract her offer to help. What did her mom think might be on the hard drive? Photos of her dad in women's underwear? And if so, why would it be better that Nikki saw them? But she gathered her courage and headed for the corner of the family room where the Dell tower lived, and left her mother to get to work in the bedroom closet.
Her father's files were the electronic version of a military man's new-made bed. If there were a way to introduce a quarter into the organization of labeled folders and subfolders and rigorously descriptive file names, it would bounce a yard high.
She found photos of fishing buddies, photos of a white-haired man she almost recognized standing next to a restored Corvette, and photos of the beach at Santa Monica and Malibu. She found copies of letters to old squadron mates, breezy and casual as a Christmas card note.
She was on the verge of deciding that her father had never committed a solemn thought to paper--or in this case, electrons--when she found the journal.
"Journal" wasn't the right word, perhaps; it was a leisurely, wandering meditation punctuated with dates, that began barely a year before he died. It was as if he'd been blogging for an audience of one.
He wrote with restrained disapproval about the gradual dismantling of the space program. He contemplated whether American military bases on foreign soil were an anachronism, or a way to shake young U.S. servicemen out of their preconceived notions. He observed that not only did SouthernCalifornia have seasons; it had rich, subtle, and utterly distinct ones.
And he wrote, finally, about his family. That he and his wife hadn't always understood each another, but he'd loved her unceasingly, and was humbled by her willingness to follow him into the upheaval of Air Force life and her ability to cushion that upheaval for their children. That he saw in each of his boys parts of himself, and often forgot they weren't merely copies until they did or said something he would never dream of, surprising and impressing him.
And he wrote about his daughter.
She said the Air Force wasn't for her. It felt as if she was rejecting, not just the Air Force, but me. But when she majored in Communications at UCLA, I imagined seeing my girl anchoring the local evening news, on her way to being the next Connie Chung. I could understand wanting that--that was a good career for a beautiful young woman.
When she took what she'd learned and wasted it, as it seemed to me, on law enforcement, I couldn't figure it out. If she wanted to keep the peace, why not the Air Force, where I could have helped her advance and kept an eye on her?
Now I see that's exactly why not. Nikki needed her own career, her own future, and her own path to it. She needed a trail I hadn't marked for her. My boys are brave and farsighted, but Nikki is braver than all three of them, in ways I can barely wrap my mind around.
Her hand shook as she slid the mouse and triggered the screen saver.
She'd always wanted her father to be proud of her. And he was--but she wanted him to be proud of her in more than just an I'm-proud-of-you-no-matter-what way. She knew he loved her. He loved all his kids. It would have been almost dishonorable not to love his children. But she wanted him to be proud of her the way she was proud of him.
Now she knew he had been. So why did her heart hurt so much?
Luke Eriksen had wanted his father to see him. "You know me," he'd written to unseen strangers in the pages he'd left behind. He valued that more than money. His father would have loved and understood someone just like himself; his own damage made it impossible for him to love anything else. But being just like his father was never a possibility for Luke. He would never have heard his father say, "I'm proud of you."
Nikki's father had typed out his pride. But he had never shared it with her.
Nobody was bulletproof.
You know how men are about feelings.
After a few minutes she wiped the tears off her face and woke up the display. She longed to delete the file, but she wasn't five anymore, cutting the blooms off her aunt's flowers because she was mad at her aunt. She turned on the printer and checked the paper level. Her mother would love to read this. Easier for her to reread it if Nikki printed it for her.
Luke Eriksen, who couldn't grow up. God help her, she did know him. But she was damned if she was going to be him.
When you punch someone, your fist hurts. --Gene Wolfe