Dark Leader - by Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, and Emma BullAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
"The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right." -- Mark Twain
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington, D.C., May 2013
Establishing shot, Brady thought. Interior. Briefing Closet. A full house, or as full as it gets these days.
Stephen Reyes is in his old chair, back to the wall, one leg stretched out to ease a gitchy knee. Hafidha Gates and her laptop command the foot of the table, though she makes it seem like the head. Esther Falkner stands beside the door like a sentry. Even Sol Todd is in the house today, and the rest of the team--Nikki Lau, Arthur Tan, Chaz Villette, and the ruggedly handsome Daniel Brady--are in their accustomed places.
Reyes was in the house because he was trying to sell them a case he had picked out of the chaff and noise of the news cycle. Todd was there--at least ostensibly--because they were paying him, but Brady figured the only way anybody was getting Solomon Todd to let go of the anomaly was via the Narnian Werewolf technique: Where I bite, I hold till I die, and even after death they must cut out my mouthful from my enemy's body and bury it with me.
The face on the screen was of a girl, just old enough to be starting school. Very pale skin, very dark eyes. She was grinning as she held a big plastic trophy in shining black and gold. One of her teeth was missing. Brady found himself wondering how much the tooth fairy had given her and whether Gray would want to adopt someday, then thought, If this is a case, it's going to be a bad one.
The silence in the room meant everyone was thinking their version of the same thought. Brady glanced at the parents first, Falkner, Tan, and Reyes, but they simply looked professional. Then he saw the most guarded expression was Chaz's. Maybe the blandest expression was Hafidha's, but Brady had accepted long ago that his profiling fu failed when he tried to apply it to her. So long as she wasn't freaking out, he trusted whatever he got from Chaz about her.
Reyes said, "I told myself when I retired I'd pay less attention to the news."
Todd exhaled, just loud enough to let everyone know he thought that was hilarious.
Reyes nodded. "Instead, I'm paying attention to different news. Local news matters more, and so do personal interest stories, like this one from Pittsburgh. It's the kind reporters hate to admit they love. Ten days ago, Amelia Weber won the second grade science fair at Eisenhower Elementary School with a project on cumulonimbus clouds. It made the local news that night. Her parents and teacher talked about what a precocious child she was. The next day, she was hit by lightning. Her death was probably instantaneous."
Falkner said, "Cumulonimbus clouds."
Brady was grateful that Tan was willing to be the most ignorant person in the room. "Thunderheads?"
Reyes nodded again.
Lau said, "Is there any doubt she was hit by lightning?"
Reyes shook his head. "Her father saw it. He said they were in the backyard so Amelia could check the barometer and take pictures. Her mother wasn't present, but she said that was what Amelia and her father loved to do when a storm was likely."
Chaz said, "Was the strike direct or indirect?"
"Direct. The ground was charred where she fell."
Sol said, "So far, this sounds like God's shitty sense of humor."
"That's what I thought," Reyes said. "But the news report included a short clip from Amelia's science presentation. Something about it--" He looked around the table, then said, "See what you think."
A YouTube page replaced the picture of Amelia Weber. Brady decided he hated this case even more than he expected to when he realized that "precocious" did not begin to describe Amelia Weber. She sounded like a child, lisping and excited and shy, but her sentences were complex and she did not stumble over a single word. She concluded her report, "Percy Bysshe Shelley said poetry is a sword of lightning. I think lightning is God's pen for poetry."
The video ended. Todd asked, "Who wrote her report?"
Reyes said, "Her mother says she asked for spelling help sometimes, but she wrote that herself. Her teacher says her work in class was just as polished."
Hafidha, studying the tablet screen in front of her, said, "The Shelley quote's from 'Defense of Poetry'. 'Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.'"
"God's pen," Sol said softly.
Yeah, this'll be a hard one. Focus on the case, Cowboy. Brady looked toward Chaz and Hafidha. "Smart, skinny kid. Remind you of anyone?"
Chaz and Hafidha rolled their eyes ceilingward almost in unison.
Reyes shrugged. "I don't know." Brady wondered if retirement had made him less decisive or more careful. Reyes continued, "I didn't dig deeper than the news reports. I don't want to trouble her parents unless the team decides it's necessary. Maybe she was a beta. Maybe she was just what everyone thought, a girl who deserved more future than she got. What I researched were people around Pittsburgh who've been hit by lightning."
Todd said, "Looking for more of God's poetry?"
The next face on the screen was a dark-skinned man with a tight smile and a close-cut moustache and beard. Reyes said, "The earliest possibility I've found is Russell Thorne, an atmospheric scientist at Carnegie Mellon, age 46 in the summer of 2007 when he was hit in the parking lot at a race track. He survived."
The next picture showed a woman with African-American features whose face was not pretty, but was strong. The shape of her nose and her cheekbones reminded Brady of a guy in Dallas homicide who'd claimed to be one-quarter Comanche. She wore a suit that was stylish, but conservative. "A year later, Suzanne Zettler, then 29," Reyes said. "Struck while bicycling home from class at Carnegie Mellon, where she was a grad student. Also survived. Now she's a television personality, host of a locally-produced PBS kids' show called 'Professor Suzi's Evil Science'."
Then a picture of a young couple, a woman and a man smiling at the camera. Reyes said, "Two years later. Kristen Ballott, 26, grad student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. Struck by lightning and killed in the summer of 2010, along with her fiancé: Jason Woo, 31, Ph.D. candidate in geology at University of Pittsburgh."
Then two more faces, both older. Reyes said, "In 2012, two deaths again in close proximity: Maurice St. Clair, 54, a TV weatherman, and the unfortunately named Candace Slaughter, mail carrier, 36."
Brady figured it was his turn to be the stupid one. "Mail carrier? How's that fit with science and weather types?"
Hafidha sing-songed, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Softer, she finished, "But lightning surely cramps their style."
Reyes said, "Slaughter was hit crossing the same park where St. Clair was struck three days earlier. Her death seems the most like coincidence, but..." He turned his palms upward.
Todd said, "Stephen, they all seem like that thing we don't believe in," and Brady wondered if Falkner had brought Todd in so she wouldn't have to tell her old boss he was suffering from apophenia.
Chaz frowned into empty air. "If we look at victimology, we've got three checkmarks next to Carnegie Mellon, three for meteorology more or less, four for university connections in general, and one as-far-as-we-can-tell total outlier. Kind of scattered for a profile, when thunderstorm buffs are likely to be outside in it, and Pittsburgh is a college town. But the university and meteorology connection is suggestive."
No one at the table was likely to check Chaz's figures except Hafidha, so Brady glanced her way. She was nodding.
Hafidha touched her tablet, which she did so rarely that Brady thought it must be a sign of respect. "Pennsylvania's in the top ten states for lightning deaths. They average two a year. This year, there are already four."
Todd shook his head. "The hardest rule for a journalist to accept is to never underestimate coincidences. A gamma throwing lightning bolts? By our current models, it's too much energy. He'd starve on the spot."
"Hmph." Chaz bent the edge of his notepad back and forth with the fingertips of his right hand. Whisk. Whisk.
"You disagree?" Falkner asked.
"Well--" Chaz scrinched up his face.
Falkner said, "Play devil's advocate."
Tan said, "And help the devil's audience as you go, Dr. Science."
Chaz's doubt broke into a grin. "Okay. A bolt of lightning's not a single thing. It's a complicated multistage phenomenon beginning when a negatively charged cloud passes over positively charged earth. Now, air's a lousy conductor, right? It has to 'break down' to really carry a jolt. When a strike begins, a negative charge descends in what's called a stepped leader. There are frequently multiple branching stepped leaders in a single strike. The stepped leader or leaders jump down about fifty meters every fifty milliseconds, give or take, which is why lightning looks so forky-twisty."
"That's a technical term," Lau whispered to Brady, sotto voce. Brady bit the inside of his grin.
Chaz flicked crumpled paper at her. Tan, making neat notes on graph paper with a Rapidograph, never looked up, though the paper almost parted his hair. There's a man with a young kid.
Chaz said, "This initial predischarge establishes an ionized path from the cloud to the earth."
"An ionized forky-twisty path," Hafidha corrected.
"Thank you, Professor Gates. These branches of ionized--broken down--air sort of grope their way downwards. They race, until one branch connects to another, positively charged, leader extending upward from a ground object. At this point, the return stroke, which is what we think of as a bolt of lightning, begins as a large equalizing charge zaps back along the path defined by the stepped leader at close to the speed of light. This generates a brilliant discharge as between two and twenty-five return leaders arc from earth to cloud--"
"Wait," Brady said. "It starts at the bottom?" He was proud of himself for thinking of that. For doing his job. It was taking all of his discipline to stay focused on the victims, on the discussion. His traitor brain wanted to race in circles, thinking about the morning, about Gray oh-so-casually pointing out that pretty soon, they'd be able to get married in Rhode Island, too.
The funny thing was Brady was pretty sure he was supposed to be panicking. Instead, he felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. The question is, is he hinting 'cause he wants me to ask, or because he doesn't want to ask if the answer's going to be no?
Gay people didn't used to have these problems. He bit down on that inappropriate smirk again. Until just recently.
Which made him think of Daphne. Which made any struggle he was having not to smile go the other way fast.
"Yeah," Chaz answered. "Technically it starts in the clouds with the stepped leader, but what you think of as a bolt of lightning bridges up. Anyway, each stroke lasts some sixty microseconds. The strokes are each separated by another sky-to-earth movement of charge, which is not luminescent. This is called the dart or sometimes the dark leader, and each iteration of that lasts somewhere around sixty milliseconds. So the dark leader is about ten times faster than the stroke."
"Insert Sith joke here," said Lau without smiling.
Chaz kept going without a skipped beat. "Thunder is generated from the shock wave formed by the rapid heating of air along the path of the return stroke, which reaches something like thirty thousand degrees Kelvin--hotter than the surface of the sun--which is also why you can see a lightning strike. Hot stuff glows."
"Chaz--" Falkner began in her we-understand-get-to-the-point voice.
"Sorry. So, God's pen? Assuming all of these people were struck at times when lightning was expected--"
"They were," Reyes said. "No unpredicted storms here."
"Then you wouldn't have to make the pen. You'd just have to suggest where to write."
"Meaning," Falkner said. "A hypothetical gamma wouldn't have to generate the actual current of a lightning strike."
Falkner asked, "And there may be cases where a suggestion didn't succeed in hitting anyone?"
"That'd explain the gaps between the possibilities you found," Todd told Reyes.
Chaz nodded. "The gamma would just wait for the right conditions and guide the positive leaders up from where he wants the lightning to go. Although unless he's a meteorologist or a physicist, I doubt if he thinks of it that way. He may just think of it as witching the weather down." He stroked his chin. "You know, I bet there's a fraction of a second's warning, too."
"Warning," Nikki said, leaning forward on her elbows. Her eyebrows rose.
A couple of years back, Chaz would have looked down and blushed when she made eye contact, but now he just smiled. They say nothing changes. It shook Brady out of his mood, just a little. "The target would be standing in the middle of a positive static charge," Chaz said.
Todd sat back abruptly, shirt pleated in ridges by the arms folded over his chest. "So you know you're about to die when every hair on your body stands on end."
"Figure you've got about three hundred milliseconds at that point," Chaz said. "Because the ground leader and the stepped leader will usually connect about three hundred feet up."
"Three tenths of a second," Falkner said, getting it into human terms.
"A second is a long time," Lau said, quoting Todd from way back. Todd curled one corner of his mouth, an expression so redolent of not-a-real-smile that Brady filed it away for his own use in the future.
"Yeah," Brady agreed. "But is it long enough to run? Or just to start to piss yourself?"
"In this scenario," Tan said, "the gamma's only dangerous during thunderstorms."
"Depending on his mythology," Reyes said. "If he can manipulate electrical charges in general, he's capable of considerable mayhem. But he could only throw lightning bolts during thunderstorms. And only at people who are exposed to the elements. A house, a car, would provide some protection."
Hafidha looked down at her hands. Brady recognized her expression. It was the one they took turns wearing, when they were filling in the thing that Daphne might have said. "Just being near a lightning rod might provide some protection." Then she added, "They're expecting thunderstorms in central P. A. tomorrow."
"Well," Reyes said. He leaned back in his chair and looked at Falkner. "Are you going to Pittsburgh?"
Falkner turned to Lau. "Nikki, what's your take?"
Lau pursed her lips, then said, "It would be nice to rule out coincidence."
Falkner smiled. "Then this one's yours. I'm thinking a team of three."
"Three can't split up without leaving somebody without cover," Lau said. Brady didn't miss the look Falkner shot Reyes, though, and he was confident Lau didn't either.
"Tan's week in the barrel," Falkner said. "Unpaid time, courtesy of the Fiscal Cliff. And me, too. So it will be you, Nikki, along with Chaz and Hafidha, and--" She gave Reyes the levelest of level looks. "Want to do some follow-up in the field? We can't pay you, but it won't take that much more aviation fuel to smuggle you onto the plane."
Reyes shrugged, rolling his indigo shirtsleeves down. Brady could never figure out how he kept the fabric so damned crisp when it spent half its time pushed up past his elbows. Someday the Pope could use it as a qualifying miracle.
"Autumn's in Chicago with her abuela this week. They're going to the Field to see Sue. And to the Chicago Symphony. And to Wrigley Field. It's hard to say which one of them is more excited." Reyes paused, lifted his eyebrows. "If I can help, I'm at your disposal."
How he kept the toe of one sharp oxford from tapping under the table, Brady would never know. Brady still wasn't used to seeing Reyes...relaxed. Well, not relaxed exactly, because he was just as intense as ever. Informal. Unwound.
"Oh, come," said Falkner. "Before you prove spontaneous human combustion exists."
Lau said, "We don't have an invite from the locals."
"Call it counterterrorism," Todd suggested bitterly. "It's not like anybody ever checks."
Hafidha scratched her nails through her tight curls. "When did our job turn into this?"
"Life is hard," Chaz answered. "Shower, eat, exercise, dress, earn a living, oppose the injustices of a fucked up planet, perpetrate a few of your own, and for what?"
"So you can get up and do it again," Todd answered.
Falkner nodded. "Wheels up in an hour."
Pittsburgh was four hours by car. Using the Gulfstream, it probably took longer to drive to the airfield than they spent in the air. Chaz took the flight time to bring Hafidha a coffee nonetheless, sit down across from her, and start scrolling through victim dossiers on his tablet. He needed to review the clip of Amanda Weber's presentation, but he found himself hesitating over the play button.
Be a cop, he told himself. Then he glanced over at Nikki and couldn't, quite. Yet. I'll watch it again before we land, he promised himself, and snagged Hafidha's coffee cup to bring her another round.
They'd been sitting in companionable silence. She looked up from her monitor and smiled; of course she knew what his tablet was displaying. Or not-yet displaying, as the case may be.
She said. "She was adorable."
He nodded. Held up the mug. "Want a doughnut?"
"Make it three." When he came back with food and drink, she lowered her voice. "Mom was crabby with Dad."
"She didn't have to send him along."
"I said crabby, not pissed."
"She didn't think he was going to lay off investigating just because he quit."
"I think she hoped. And this took some data mining, Chazzie. He didn't bring me in until the end. Do you know how many people are struck by lightning every year?"
Chaz grinned. "In the U.S., or around the world?"
She sighed. "Give me the airspeed of a European Swallow while you're at it."
"Just talking fatalities, around the world, twenty-four thousand. In the U.S., according to NOAA, the thirty-year average is fifty-four as of 2011. But it's been dropping off in recent years. Pennsylvania is number six in the nation for lightning deaths. People being struck by lightning and surviving--that's a lot more common..."
"My point is, a lot. A pattern takes a while to emerge."
Hafidha ate a doughnut while Chaz temporized. Then, because she knew him well, she said, "Out with it, little brother."
"I'm speculating. Wildly."
"Speculation allowed for. Spill."
"If our gamma is a weather witch, maybe he has it in for weather scientists? I heard the learn'd astronomer? Some things should remain magical, and not be dissected and known?"
"Weather doesn't get any less magical when you put science on it. The science makes it more good. More weird. Same thing. Science is weirdness." Hafidha tapped her forehead. "For example. The great irony of this thing in my head is that it's a computer. I could shut it off with a thought."
"Yeah," Chaz said. He'd realized that long ago. Some nights it kept him awake. But she hadn't brought it up to be reassured.
"But as long as it's working, I don't want to."
"Yeah," Chaz said. Then: "Or... want to, but don't want to?"
The flicker of her gaze, for him--between them--was as good as a nod. She pursed her lips. "If I start wanting to want to... I'll try to find a way to let you know."
"That'd be good."
She pointed imperiously to the galley. "Coffee, sir."
"Coffee, your majesty," he said, rising to obey.
It took extra effort to be good at things you hated. Danny Brady hated waiting.
Not the stillness required by surveillance; that was part of working, not waiting, and in its own way as active as any other part of the job. But being parked in the Hoover building waiting for new case files, for the away team to ask for something, for them to come home: he hated that like a possum hates oncoming traffic.
And like the possum, he couldn't change the circumstances.
"How'd you get roped into this boojum hunt?" he asked Solomon Todd, who was studying five years of meteorologists' reports for western Pennsylvania with apparent pleasure. He'd spread them out on the floor around the couch the team had recently moved in along one wall of the bullpen, in some sort of infographic that made sense only to him.
The couch was handy for those long nights... and there was the unspoken excuse it gave them to rearrange the desks and half-height cubes. They'd all been very careful to pretend to not keep track of which of the desks had been Daphne's when they pushed them back together in the new configuration, but Brady knew it was the one that had ended up in the copy room.
Sol raised his head, and the ceiling lights winked off the lenses of his glasses. "Besides being a known connoisseur of boojums?"
"A retired connoisseur."
"Like Reyes. Boojumland is no country for old men. But he called me, because I have a long history of being able to tell him when he's overthinking."
"And him listening."
"Usually. And now that I've given wise counsel, I could go home. But I miss the egg salad sandwiches in the vending machine." Todd fluttered a sheet of paper languorously.
"You still technically consulting, since the sequester? When was the last time you got paid, Duke?"
Todd shrugged. "I'm rolling in those fat stacks of publishing cash, don't you know? Besides, you need me to handle the research. How was it that you described your approach?"
"Dick-fingered," Brady said, hiding a smile. "You and Reyes between you are doing a shitty job of modeling a healthy retiree lifestyle. I don't expect to be lured back after I leave the WTF."
"You won't miss the excitement?"
"Nope. Gonna get my thrills watching the Cowboys on a big-screen TV."
Sol offered a raspberry by way of suggesting disbelief.
"What? Football, beer, a good gas grill in the backyard, maybe a dog-- I'm a pretty ordinary guy at heart, Duke."
"That's not ordinary. That's stereotypical."
"To-mah-to," Brady replied.
"Would you move back to Texas?"
Brady shrugged. "I'm not sure Texas is still Texas."
"There's always Austin."
"Do I look like an Austin kinda guy to you?" Galveston, maybe. Gray could have a sailboat. Was the Gulf of Mexico good for sailboats?
Goddamn, cowboy. When did you start planning thirty years ahead?
Lau and Reyes took meteorologist duty, heading out from the airfield in a rented SUV as Chaz and Hafidha went to the hotel. Hafidha had tracked down the survivors, Russell Thorne and Suzanne Zettler, while they were in the air. Thorne had office hours that ended at 3 pm: they were going there first. Zettler would be working late on a show that needed to air in two days, and had agreed to call Hafidha as soon as she was done.
To Lau's Southern-California-trained sensibilities, Pittsburgh was a city set in a dramatic landscape, even by East Coast standards. Its dominant feature was a trio of fast-running rivers at the bottom of an enormous gorge, and the city climbed the steep valley on either side, tossing bridges across the gap whenever the walls came close enough. The hills were green and leafing strongly after a hard winter, though spring was not as advanced as it would usually be for early May.
The Carnegie Mellon campus seemed familiar. Lau credited that to it being one of many private schools built at the end of the Gilded Age by robber barons trying to improve their reputations by becoming philanthropists. Then Reyes said, "I'm Batman."
Lau stared at the set of steps they were passing. "The Dark Knight Rises!" Location shooting was an L.A. stereotype, but in the rest of the world, it always reminded her of home. Did Kentuckians feel the same seeing a KFC sign? "Danny would have done the voice."
"I'm a competitive individual, but I know when I'm out of my depth."
"Heh. And if not Danny, then Art." She grinned at the memory of Arthur Tan in a cape, getting Dan Morrison to confess to the Alchemist robberies. "That's right, we went to Chicago without you."
We'll always go without you now. She fell into an awkward silence at the thought. It was easy to forget he wasn't back.
"It's all right," he said, because of course he'd understood what had gone through her head. "I really don't mind giving up the See America and Potentially Die lifestyle." He turned his face up to a particularly handsome set of window cornices. "Carnegie and Mellon only put their names on things that made them look good."
Lau wasn't sure if the subject change was for himself or for her.
Russell Thorne was with a student when they reached his office, so they spent a few minutes cooling their heels in the hallway. The experience, Lau noted, was no less awkward as an adult than it had been as a student. Reyes looked at home--hands in his pockets, head tipped back as he studied a giant map of the United States somebody had tacked to a corridor corkboard.
"Is it strange?" she asked him. "Answering to me on a case you found?"
"If I found a case," he said. "And no. You're the agent-in-charge." He smiled, and while there was nothing more than friendship in it, she understood why his problem was keeping women, not finding them. "I have the benefit of knowing you trained under the best in the field."
Lau covered her surprise by saying, "Yeah, I hate false modesty."
He tilted his head and frowned; the creases were pulled awry by the faint scar that disappeared into his hair. "Oh. No, I meant Esther. I was never more than a competent field agent, and my management skills..." He shrugged.
Lau thought, I wouldn't say it out loud, either, but finished, "And yet, there you were."
"I wasn't the right person for the job. But I was the one convinced it needed doing." Reyes smoothed the heels of his hands over his temples, as if the cropped silvering hair above his ears might be out of place. "And at least I was smart enough to drag Esther in. Todd... I couldn't have kept away with a shock prod. What's strange is Chaz being one of the people I answer to."
"Is that a problem?"
"Esther wouldn't've sent me if she thought it was." He smiled again. "Or maybe that's why you're in charge."
"Reyes. Not an answer."
"Fair enough. No, it's not--" He stopped as the office door cracked open, emitting a young Asian man from behind its frosted glass. He left the door open slightly and vanished down the hall, blue Chucks squeaking on tiles old enough that they left Lau wondering what the asbestos abatement status of this building was. She gazed after him in bemusement.
"What?" asked Reyes.
"It finally happened. That boy was twelve."
"Nineteen," Reyes said. "Welcome to your thirties. It's only going to get worse."
The brass doorknob had oxidized dark on the stem, but the bulb shone, polished and mellowed, smoothed by generations of hands. Lau pulled the door wide and knocked assertively on the frame, wearing her I'm from the Government and I'm here to help face and Esther Falkner's spare suit of body language, projecting capability and approachability in equal measure.
"Doctor Thorne? I'm Special Agent Lau. This is Doctor Stephen Reyes. We're here on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and we'd like a few moments of your time."
Thorne pushed to his feet and his square, strong face creased with a frown. He was a good-looking man, solid, wearing close-trimmed curls with a widow's peak that was only going to get more pronounced as he got older. He had a strong tremor in his left hand. He pressed it down on the desk to hide it.
His office was clear, spare, modern--not the map-feathered dusty den tradition would have dictated. Two golden oak and steel work tables dominated the rear wall; the desk was Swedish Modern. The display on the wall was a big, new hanging flat screen, with a whiteboard on either side. The boards were covered in multicolored scribbles, diagrams and equations. The desktop computer was a Mac.
Lau felt immediately at home.
And immediately unwelcome.
Hostile witness, she thought. Thorne didn't extend a hand. Or come around the desk.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm working. The department secretary has my appointment book."
"This'll only take a minute," Lau said, trying to walk midway between friendly and approachable and she who must be appeased lest she unleash the unbearable wrath of the Federal government.
"What's this about?"
"National security," Lau heard herself saying, and wished she could see Reyes' face.
Thorne stiffened. Friendly! Lau thought, and said, "It's probably nothing, but we hope you can help us look out for you."
Lau nodded. "In 2007, you were struck by lightning at a racetrack. Do you remember anything unusual about anyone you encountered that day?"
Reyes added, "Before or after the event. Don't censor yourself. Anything might be helpful."
Thorne said, "I can't say I do. I was simply there to have a good time." He pressed his left hand to the table again.
"Was there anyone who might've wanted to hurt you? Had you received any threats? Were you in competition with anyone?"
"Ms. Lau, you're not suggesting someone attacked me with lightning?"
She smiled as if that was the craziest idea she had heard in days, and didn't correct the prefix. There might be a time to push Russell Thorne, but this wasn't it. "The people we investigate don't necessarily think as you or I would."
"Should I be worried?"
"You're better able to judge that than we are, Dr. Thorne. We're following up on a very vague lead. If we thought you should be worried, we'd be talking about your protection first and what happened that day second."
"I see. I could name a few people who envy me, and a few more who don't know they should, but I can't imagine any of them would actually try to hurt me."
"Can you give us their names? Perhaps their addresses as well?"
"I can give you their institutions."
Lau nodded. Thorne leaned over his keyboard, typed, scowled, typed a bit more, then hit print. The shaking of his hand didn't seem to interfere.
Lau recognized none of the names and all of the schools. If one could know a person by his enemies, Thorne's had solid credentials.
"Were any of them at the track that day?"
"Not so far as I know." His voice carried a clear Are we done?
Lau folded the printout and put it in her jacket. "Thank you, Dr. Thorne. I hope you won't mind a personal question. I've heard that sometimes lightning changes people. Have you noticed--"
"No, Ms. Lau. I've never suffered fools gladly."
His pointed stare left her no choice. She said blandly, "Then we'll let you get back to work."
If Thorne noticed her choice of "let", his expression was lost in what might've been a curt nod as he turned to his computer.
Walking down the hall, Reyes told Nikki, "He's insecure in his expertise."
She wondered if she should've let Reyes handle the interview, older black man to older black man, then decided she hadn't seen any sign that Thorne had more respect for Reyes than for her. Never assign to misogyny what misanthropy explains. She said, "If Thorne's it, he's cramming carbs."
"You like him for our hypothetical gamma?"
She shrugged. "We need to find out whether he was as annoying before he was hit. If I'd just learned I could control lightning, he'd make a great first target. The hand tremor--I think that's typical for survivors?" Daphne would know.
Scanning the names on Thorne's printout, Reyes said, "Seven of these are teaching at schools in Texas, California, and Minnesota." He stabbed his finger at one name and held it up for her to see. "But Jim McAvoy's a local weatherman. He could have motive and opportunity."
"And possibly anomalous means?" Lau snagged her phone from her jacket pocket. "Maybe we should find out if the TV camera really does add ten pounds."
Sitting in her hotel room with six tablet computers propped up around her and flickering though web pages as quickly as the screens could refresh, Hafidha said, "It's nice to feel wanted, but Google was all you needed this time. McAvoy and Thorne are the stars of a YouTube video called 'Prof Pwns Weatherguy'. Thorne was doing an interview to promote a book he'd written about megastorms, and McAvoy clearly hadn't done more than glance at a crib sheet. Thorne rants for a solid eighty-four seconds about how there are no more village idiots because they've all found work in television, then tears off his microphone and stomps off the show."
From her speakers, Reyes said, "Before or after Thorne was struck?"
"Before. October, 2006."
Lau's voice had the same hard-surfaced hallway resonance as Reyes's. "I'm watching it now. Huh."
"Conflicting clues. On one hand, Thorne didn't tell us he lost weight after being hit. On the other, McAvoy's as skinny as Chaz."
Chaz popped his head up from behind the minifridge/microwave across the room. "Hey! I resemble that!"
Hafidha laughed. "Half the people in show biz could be Buggy. Who'd know?"
Lau asked, "Anything on the rest of the list?"
"I'll keep looking, but so far, there's nothing to place any of the others in Pennsylvania during the lightning strikes."
Reyes said, "I'm beginning to think I brought this to the team too soon."
Hafidha said, "Don't go all cautious on us, my ex-Capitan. This whole thing smells faintly of fish."
"And not the tasty kind," Chaz called.
Lau sighed. "I just hope we can sniff out more before bad weather hits. Another ironic death by lightning would be the worst confirmation."
Chaz had walked back to his laptop. Now his head came up. "Oh, hey, guys. Here's something interesting. So, Thorne?"
"Yeah?" Lau said.
"Before he got his Ph.D.--probably while he was working on it--he worked in the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania high school as an Earth Science teacher. And... he was there in 1991."
The monster in Hafidha's head might have shivered in recognition. Raised its head in silent regard and glanced around with luminous eyes. The late 80s and early 90s had been notable for a series of spree killings in schools, a meme that had seemed like it might blessedly have run its course until Delia, ND. Until Sandy Hook.
Mark DeGrasso, a non-graduating senior, had killed five and wounded seven in Chambersburg Pennsylvania in May of 1991.
"You're thinking crack," Reyes said, over the speaker.
"Twenty-two years," Hafidha said. "That's a long latency."
"First crack?" Chaz asked. "Anyway, 1991 to 2007 is sixteen years, and Zettler got struck only a year after Thorne. And From everything you guys said--and that video--I'd say he'd not real secure in his place in the world or his expertise."
Lau his a smile. "Reyes said more or less the same thing."
Chaz nodded. Once, Hafidha thought, he would have grimaced at the comparison to Stephen. Now he just said, "So what if he's killing off the competition?"
WQED was across the street from an Eastern Orthodox church and quite literally next door to Carnegie Mellon. How often does lightning hit crosses? Chaz wondered. And what do congregations think when it does?
Hafidha pointed. "Can we take that home?"
Chaz followed the line of her finger. Near the corner of WQED's grounds, an eight-foot-tall dinosaur was dressed like Mr. Rogers in a red cardigan, white shirt and tie, dark blue trousers, and bright blue running shoes. It was holding...yes, that was the puppets King Friday and Henrietta Pussycat.
Hafs added, "Archeologists are going to think we had the best gods ever."
Chaz parked the rental as Hafs looked at her phone. It dialed on speaker, and a woman with a pleasantly low voice said, "Evil Science."
Hafidha said, "Ms. Zettler. It's the men in black."
The woman said, "Agent Gates? I'll be right out."
Chaz slid out the driver's side door and shook his head at Hafidha across the car roof. "If Mom were here, she'd take you aside for a little talk about professionalism."
"Pfft. A good investigator knows how to develop a rapport with the interview subject. Have you seen the intro to her show?"
Chaz shook his head.
"Animated girl wearing a lab coat over a T-shirt that reads 'EVIL,' which had to be inspired by Narbonic, puts her hand on a Van de Graff generator and goes all Bride of Frankenstein. Also, her theme song is righteous, and she wrote the lyrics herself."
He opened the glass door for Hafs and followed her into the station lobby. "Does someone have a crush?"
"Not yet, anyway. But if she recommended any boy toys, I'd play with them."
Chaz put his fingers in his ears. "La-la-la-la."
Which was when Suzanne Zettler walked into the lobby.
Chaz jerked his fingers from his ears.
Zettler looked from him to Hafidha, who said, "I was giving him Too Much Information."
Zettler nodded. "The squeamish sex."
Her accent was middle-class East Coast. Her hair was tied behind her neck in a puff almost as large as her head. She wore a burgundy T-shirt, gray cargo pants, and black canvas commando boots. Her fingernails were silver. In the last rays of sunset, her dark-skinned face had an unsettling, asymmetrical beauty. It was as if she combined the features of two striking women, one on the left, one on the right, with the join blended into invisibility. The still photo they'd seen in the briefing room didn't do her justice. He doubted any still photo could.
Chaz said, "I'm Special Agent Villette. We just have a few questions--"
Zettler looked from Chaz to Hafidha. There was no wariness in her expression. "Any chance we could reschedule for tomorrow morning?"
Hafidha shook her head. "Sorry. This is kind of a run-and-gun job."
"Then what do you say we do this over dinner? There's a great barbecue joint nearby, and I need a break from the studio. There's a piece of voiceover that sounds awful, and I'm not sure if it's the actor's fault or the writer's, but I'm thinking a meal and a beer ought to give the producer the right perspective."
Chaz said, "Um--"
Hafs asked Zettler, "They serve sweet potato pie?"
Zettler blinked. "I did say it's a great barbecue joint."
"Dinner," Hafidha declared with a nod.
"And then you can ask me anything," Zettler said. "After being grilled by sixth-graders, the FBI will be a breeze."
Hafidha, what are you doing? But she gave him no chance to ask it out loud. Based on the grin she flashed him as he held the door for her, that was intentional.
The restaurant looked yuppie, but it smelled like the cook would recognize Arthur Bryant's name and could talk about the strengths and weaknesses of Kansas City barbecue. A waiter met them with, "Hey, Suze. The regular?" as he led them to a booth.
"Oh, god, yes. I haven't eaten all day."
Chaz asked, "What's the regular?"
The waiter said, "An Iron City Amber, half a smoked chicken, a rack of pork ribs, Jo-jo fries, collard greens, and corn bread."
Zettler said, "You can get a go box if there's too much."
"Too much barbecue?" Hafidha asked. "All three words are in English, but they make no sense together."
Chaz glanced at Hafidha for confirmation. All right, they'd eat like jammers in front of their interview. Who, interestingly, was also going to eat like a jammer. He should be wary. "The same all around."
Zettler's smile made his hands tingle. She looked grateful. He remembered being stared at for eating, for something so simple and ordinary. And he knew what a relief it was to share a meal with people who didn't treat him like a freak when he ate for three.
Suddenly he wanted Suzanne Zettler to be a beta. Not their gamma, not a killer. But someone who could say, "Oh, me, too," who could understand, who could relax and share and talk.
Hafidha met his eyes across the table. She blinked slowly, catlike, above a faint smile. Chaz swallowed hard.
As soon as the waiter left, Hafidha asked Suze, "D'you mind talking about the day you were hit by lightning?"
"You kidding? I talk about my big encounter with storm safety so much that school kids call me the Lightning Lady. Getting me to shut up is the challenge."
"What do you remember about that day?"
"The first thing that sticks with me? Something was about to happen, but I didn't know what. My skin tingled, and I heard a sound like kee-kee all around me. That's when you're supposed to do the lightning crouch, but I hadn't a clue what was happening. My hair felt wild--it was probably standing up. All I knew was that something I'd never experienced was about to happen. All I could think was, 'Here it comes.'" She seemed dazed at the memory.
She sighed and continued, "I don't remember the strike. A woman who knew CPR took care of me until the EMTs arrived. I was lucky I wasn't wearing much jewelry." She pointed at her silver earrings. "Burn scars on both lobes. I was in the hospital for a week. I had headaches for weeks, but now--" She shrugged. "I'm one of the lucky ones."
"What's the lightning crouch?" Hafidha asked.
"Squat down, feet together, your head to your knees, only touching the ground with your feet. It improves the odds the lightning will flow over your body instead of through it."
"Do you remember seeing anyone nearby?"
"We're curious about who might've been in the area that day. I'm afraid we can't be more specific."
"Ah. No, sorry. I was just walking. My mind was probably on my dissertation."
"The woman who did the CPR?"
She thought. "I don't know her name. It might be somewhere in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet somewhere? Or a newspaper morgue? Just a bystander... Wait, she was a kindergarten teacher! That's why she knew CPR."
Chaz made himself a little mental note, but he figured Hafidha was probably already checking online sources with some fragment of her attention.
As their beers arrived, Chaz said, "You were studying climatology? Did you know Professor Thorne?"
Zettler rolled her eyes. "When Russ Thorne comes your way, step aside fast. That ego crushes every obstacle in its path."
Hafidha said, "So you weren't the president of his fan club?"
"Good guess. I could've started a haters club, but that would've called for thinking about him too much."
Chaz asked, "Were you ever close?"
"God, no! He hit on me at a party, I made it clear I was a lousy candidate for that year's submissive student girlfriend, and we hardly ever talked after that. Why? The lightning coincidence? The odds for two black folks from the same school being hit within a year are wild, but God laughs at odds."
"When was that party?"
"Hmm. Sometime after he was hit by lightning, because he said something lame about electrifying possibilities. Maybe two or three months before I was hit."
Chaz said. "Was there anyone you were worried about then?"
"Did anyone around you seem threatening or unstable?"
"You do remember I was surrounded by academics."
"Unusually unstable," Chaz amended.
"No. Not really."
Hafidha asked, "Not even Professor Ego?"
"Are you kidding? By turning him down, I proved I was unworthy of him. Far as I could tell, he forgot I existed."
Chaz asked, "Was there any talk about his personality being affected by the lightning strike?"
"Someone said it was a shame it hadn't been, because any change would be an improvement. I'll deny that was me."
"What about yours?" Chaz said, before he could think better of the impulse.
Hafidha raised her eyebrows. "That's awfully blunt."
Zettler said, "I like blunt. Yes. Before the lightning, I was a fuzzy-brained college kid who thought she had forever to fix the world. I had a vague notion that maybe I'd help reverse global warming. But after..." Zettler frowned at her place setting. "Do you know the Gospel of Thomas?"
"I know of it," Chaz replied. This was probably not the time to say that things with "Gospel" in the name made him nervous.
Zettler drew a long breath and quoted, "'If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.' After the lightning, that was in my head almost constantly. My classes, my intended career--suddenly they were just noise. They didn't mean anything. Life looked so short. And everywhere I turned, I saw people who didn't realize how much good they could do."
"They disappointed you?" Hafidha asked. She sounded as if she approved.
"No, more like I was disappointing them. I wasn't helping, you see. That's when I realized my job was to bring out that potential in them. I dropped out, dreamed up Evil Science and pitched it, and I just...steamrollered myself into a whole new life."
"After wanting to fix global warming, 'kid's show host' seems like a pretty self-effacing career," Chaz offered.
Zettler grinned. "You think? PBS is negotiating to pick up Evil Science for national broadcast. Think of me as Big Bird with dry ice, and try saying 'self-effacing' again."
Hafidha nodded. "And you teach kids science."
"I get kids hooked on science. I'm making more scientists. I'm Bill Nye with natural hair. I can't think of a better way to save the world." She drained her beer, then glanced at Chaz. "The downside is friends and lovers have trouble keeping up with me now."
Don't assume she's suggesting anything, Chaz thought. She's just trying to be helpful. Maybe. He handed her the list of names Thorne had given Lau. "Do you recognize any of these names?"
Suze glanced at them, blinked, then said, "James McAvoy. The local weather guy?"
"Do you know him?"
"Jim and I dated for a couple of years."
"When was this?"
"There was a disastrous one-night stand before the lightning. Then after, he helped out a lot, and I thought I'd misjudged him. But it turned out my instincts were right. What Jim loved was being loved. When I got Evil Science off the ground, our paths diverged."
"He accepted that?" Hafidha asked.
"After a lot of late-night phone calls begging me to give him another chance. I remembered the definition of insanity and didn't succumb."
"Boys," said Hafidha, and Suze laughed, because she must have missed the undertone that Chaz caught.
He said, "What can you tell us about McAvoy?"
"He's kind of a human Collie. Nice cheekbones, very friendly, and extremely needy. His favorite subjects are weather, television, and running."
"Would he want to harm Thorne?"
Zettler poked the sheet of paper before them with a silver fingernail. "That's a list of people who want to harm Russ? If it was 'see him harmed', the list's too short. If it's 'harm him', it's too long. No one takes Russ seriously enough to want to hurt him."
"Well." She looked down, then shrugged. "When Jim was starting in TV, he interviewed Russ, and Russ treated him like a pretty face who couldn't understand words with more than two syllables. It made Jim internet-infamous."
"We saw the video," Hafs said. "Thorne was heavy then. Did he lose weight after he was stuck?"
Suze nodded. "He became a fitness nut. People say he was in love with his mind before, and now he's two-timing it with his body."
"And McAvoy? Was he always a lean love machine?"
Suze smiled. "One of the things Jim and I shared was a love of exercise. Running, dance, pretty much anything you can name. Burning calories wasn't a problem."
Chaz looked at Hafidha, who shrugged.
Chaz said, "You climb?"
Suze smiled. "Trad or sport? There's good crags around here. We should go out sometime."
"We should," Chaz said, resolutely ignoring the double entendre. "So can I ask you a personal question?"
"Why stop now?"
"Were there neurological effects from your lightning strike? Like, what's his name, the Lightning Sonata guy--"
Hafidha raised her eyebrows at Chaz's pretense of absentmindedness. She knew perfectly well that every conversation they'd had with Daphne about various unpredictable neurological effects was sealed in his memory, including the one about the lightning-struck mathematician who had woken up with the drive to become a pianist.
"Tony Cicoria," Suze filled in without hesitation. She got thoughtful. "I got a lot more focused afterward, I guess. It was clarifying. I wanted to stop preparing to live and start living, I guess." She pursed her lips and nodded. "Start living. Right away."
The waiter brought a tray with enough food for six hungry adults. Chaz's nose told him he could luxuriate for hours in the smell of hickory smoke and barbecue sauce. His stomach told him he should grab the tray from the waiter and bury his head in it.
Hafs pointed at the space in front of her. "You can unload that here. And bring another order of cornbread."
Zettler glanced sideways at her, and Chaz said quickly, "You wish."
"I do wish. Okay, let the peons have their plates. But I am prepared to throw myself on another order of cornbread."
Chaz took a bite of chicken, then announced, "This is not to die for. This is to kill for."
There was little talk during dinner. Most of the praise for the food came as moans of pleasure. Suze asked for two ribs and a chicken leg to be put in a go-box. After Chaz and Hafidha cleared their plates, Hafidha said, "I cannot eat another bite. So I'm only having one slice of sweet potato pie. Anyone who tries to steal any will be stabbed. Do not think I'm joking."
"The question," Suze said, "is whether you have it with coffee or milk."
Chaz said, "C. Both."
After dessert, Suze excused herself and went to the women's room. Hafidha told Chaz, "You like her."
"Which probably means she's a lesbian."
"Oh, don't be like that, baby brother. She could be emotionally unavailable in some other way."
He laughed, but it felt like a tight fit getting out of his throat. He was relieved when Suze returned.
Hafidha stood, held out her hand to stop him as he began to rise, and said, "Chaz, I know you were hoping to stop at a club or a coffee house before getting back to the hotel, but I should crash early. Very sorry."
He opened his mouth to say he hadn't hoped any such thing so she couldn't possibly know it.
But Hafidha had already turned to Zettler. "Would you be up for taking him someplace fun? He can catch a cab, so you wouldn't be stuck with delivery afterward, and as long as you don't bring up science fiction movies, he's decent company."
"Hey!" said Chaz, before he caught the look in Hafidha's eye.
Zettler's gaze settled on Chaz. "Do you mind if I explain why the best movie ever would be Sherlock Holmes vs. Iron Man?"
"Because Robert Downey Jr. would play both parts?"
"Leaving out Benedict Cumberbatch, or as I prefer to call him, my future husband? Are you mad?"
Hafidha said, "Don't worry about calling Nikki. I'll report to her when I get back."
As Hafidha darted out of the restaurant, Chaz said, "She made up that bit about the plans."
Zettler smiled. "Doesn't take a profiler to figure that out."
He should have left with Hafidha. A realization that could only be filed in the next-time box. It would have been the most professional choice. "So you really don't have to entertain me."
"No, I really don't have to." Her handsome two-person face shared a crooked little smile. "That makes me a volunteer."
But work was over for the day. His next professional obligation was to meet the team in the morning for breakfast. He felt profoundly shy, and was surprised at how normal his voice sounded when he said, "Thank you, Ms. Zettler."
"Dear God," she said. "Call me Suze, or I'll take you to a three-hour French film."
When Lau's phone blurted the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth on its little speaker, she scooped it off the table top and skidded her finger across the screen. "What's up, Hafs?"
Hafidha's voice in her ear was unusually velvety. "Interview finished, boss-dear. My part, anyway. Wanna take my briefs?"
Lau glanced quickly around the hotel bar, then remembered no one but her had heard. "Do I want to what? Oh! Debriefing. Do you wear briefs?"
"Are those boy-shorts things still briefs?"
"Heaven only knows. Do you need dinner?"
Lau could hear her thinking about it. "D'you know, I really don't. I just ate almost enough barbeque. Booze, though--want to meet me in the bar?"
Lau grinned and looked toward the dark-wood-and-glass double doors. "Great minds," she said, and had the satisfaction of seeing Hafidha start as she stepped through them and spotted Lau at a table.
Hafidha pointed at a server, then gave him the Lawrence-Fishburne-in-The-Matrix bring-it sign. He followed her to the table, looking no more anxious than was reasonable.
"So," Lau said, "Was that your charisma score at work, or your Chaotic Neutral mind control?"
"Mind control is Chaotic Evil, my little bon-bon." Hafidha turned to the server. "One beer, the darkest you've got. One Irish coffee with whiskey and Bailey's. And one mojito."
"You're expecting someone else?" the server asked as he wrote the order.
"Nope," Hafidha replied, slung her bag over the chair across from Lau, and dropped into it.
The server backed away warily.
"Tell me the mojito, at least, is mine," Lau said.
"Well, duh. It would taste awful with beer and Irish coffee." Hafidha leaned back in her chair, interlaced her fingers, and stretched her arms out before her, like a pianist preparing to solo. "So, we made a few inches of progress. Nothing that screams we have a case, but the hints are piling up. After Thorne was struck and before Suze was, he hit on her at a party. She told him the answer was In His Dreams. People get killed for less. One scenario is he went gamma, lightninged a few people, and got himself under control when she seemed to be in a solid relationship. When that relationship ended and she still didn't come to him, he started crispy-crittering again. The gaps in the lightning deaths fit."
"There's a second scenario?"
"Jim McAvoy, weatherguy, and Suze Z. were the couple in question. Another way to assemble the narrative is McAvoy nearly killed Thorne, then he and Suze had a brief thang, she dumped him, he tried to kill her and failed, then felt all guilty about it, which she interpreted as wooing. They got together for a couple of comfortable years, and there were no strange lightning deaths. Then she dumped his skinny ass, and soon after, the lightning got selective again."
"Reyes and I have two scenarios, too."
Hafidha pointed at her ears. "Ready."
"In one, a gamma's killing people he sees as threats. Except for the mail carrier, these were all exceptional people. Maybe we just don't know what was exceptional about her."
"What's your other?"
"It's more a stretch. Would you say the victims, other than the mail carrier and the geology student, could've been betas?"
"It's not like Chaz or I have beta-dar. But I don't know anything to rule it out. You think the gamma strangler has stepped up his game by teaming up with Thor?"
"Think so? No. Have to entertain the notion? Yeah, kind of."
Hafidha said, "Now I really need a drink."
Nikki said, "There's still nothing to support any theory. Reyes hasn't found anything incriminating about Thorne or McAvoy."
"I'll bring full cyber fu on them in the morning. Nik?"
"If I did thank-yous, I'd thank you for sending me out with Chaz." The bug whispered, She was only testing you, but Hafidha ignored it.
"Hah," said Nikki. "I thought Zettler would like the two of you. So where's Chaz?"
"I hooked him up with our interview subject."
Lau's elbow missed the tabletop as it came down, and her forearm banged painfully against the table edge. "Hafs, tell me you're kidding. Because ethically questionable much."
"Honey, I don't think he's going to conduct a warrantless search." Hafidha's eyebrows pinned themselves to each other over her nose. She was annoyed, and Lau wondered why.
"You're right. He knows where the line is."
"And if he didn't?" Hafidha leaned forward, glaring. "Think of his awesome private time. Since they let me out of Arkham, he's been my live-in prison guard. That's his personal life. Forgetting for a minute how I feel about that, it's the opposite of natural for Chazzie to not have had a date since whenthefuckever."
Lau concentrated on her breath, to make sure she didn't answer too quickly. Finally she said, "How do you feel about it?"
Hafidha blinked. "Shitty. But we knew that going in, and nothing's changed."
Which was when the server brought their drinks. Lau took the enforced pause to weigh Hafidha's response, and decided it was both honest and sufficient.
Hafidha's coffee had whiskey, Bailey's, and whipped cream. She slurped from the edge of the mug and licked away the resulting cream moustache. "And what did you do with Dad?"
"Reyes's calling his daughter, then reading files until they put him to sleep."
"It's sad to see the old warrior slow down."
"How do you think the old warrior becomes the brujo?"
"Or how he becomes a guy who dies in bed."
Lau poked her mint leaves with the swizzle stick. Too sweet, but not bad for a hotel bar. "Apparently, death isn't the only way out of this job. Who knew?"
"Mmm. Depends on what you mean by 'out.'" Hafs finished her coffee and reached for the beer. "I'm pretty sure Mom was promised a career boost for taking on the WTF. But now the Bureau knows somebody has to do the job Reyes was doing, and there's no one else to do it. Result: she's got a nice set of concrete career overshoes. I mean, have you thought about your upgrade path?"
When Lau joined the BAU, she'd had a plan. When she joined the ACTF, she could still see that plan from where she stood. Now... What she saw was a growing pattern of knowledge about the anomaly, possibilities for controlling its spread and identifying people affected by it, ways to improve law enforcement's response. What she couldn't see was herself separate from that. Hafidha was right: the job needed doing, and they were the only ones to do it. She took a sip of her drink. "How about you?"
Hafidha set her beer on the table and rested her chin in her hands. She wore the crooked smile Lau had learned to be wary of. "Dearie, you forget: I owe my soul to the company store. They can't let me quit."
Lau felt as if she'd swallowed a very large ice cube. Hafidha couldn't be allowed to quit, because she was a gamma. Or was it because she carried the anomaly, whatever she did with it?
And if the latter was true, did it apply to Chaz as well?
"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I never thought about that."
Hafidha shrugged. "I bet they'll let me have a plastic rocking chair in Arkham. Now, not to freak you out, but two guys at the bar have been checking you out since I came in, and one of them is dragging the other this way right now."
The dragger was tall and slim, and his scalp was shaved and glossy. In the low light, his handlebar moustache looked nearly indigo. He wore black combat boots, black jeans, and a burgundy shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show muscled, heavily-tattooed arms.
The draggee was a shorter, sturdy-looking man in an olive green polo shirt, faded blue jeans, and brown hiking boots. His hair, the color of damp sand or dry earth, was long enough to curl over his ears and collar.
"This'll be fun," Hafidha chirped.
"Oh, gawd," Lau groaned into her mojito.
"Good evening, ladies," said the taller man. Lau watched his gaze travel from her to Hafidha, then back to her as he said, "My buddy and I would like to buy both you a refill."
"No, thanks, we're fine," Lau said, just as Hafidha answered, "How lovely! Thank you!"
Lau could see the challenge in Hafidha's smile. With all the finality she could bring to the words, Lau said. "But we have an early work day tomorrow. Sorry."
"Just one drink. You don't even have to finish it." The taller man grinned at Hafidha, then at Lau, which showed the bright white teeth under his moustache. Lau had a sudden disconcerting vision of him in a dentist's chair with a mouth full of whitening tray. "My name's Dave. This is Kyle."
"And we're really sorry to bother you," Kyle said. The hand he laid on his companion's shoulder had a determined tilt. "Come on, Dave. We've got an early day ourselves."
Kyle's apology was distributed between her and Hafidha. His voice was softer than Dave's.
Is this the Game version of good cop, bad cop? Lau wondered. After years of experience, she could usually spot guys with Hot Exotic Chick fantasies, and Dave set off the detectors. And you didn't always have the sense to take it as a warning, she scolded herself.
"Time for a nice, restful nightcap, then," Hafidha said. She hooked a toe in the rungs of a chair from the next table and slid it up behind Dave. "Sit," she ordered, and flagged their server.
"Hafs," Lau said, and put a warning in it.
"What? Working hours are over. Don't you trust me?" Hafidha made a cartoon sad face. But Lau heard the edge in the question.
If Chaz hadn't trusted her, he'd be here right now. Chaz knew her better than anyone. "I trust you to take care of your own hangover."
"Hangovers are for lesser mortals." Hafidha wiggled her eyebrows at Lau. She turned to Dave. "How about you? Fresh as a daisy in the morning? You look like a man with stamina."
Lau considered covering her face with her cocktail napkin.
Over Dave's head, she met Kyle's eyes. Brown eyes, with dense lashes and eyebrows darker than his hair. His mouth was flattened with exasperation, but she could still see the complex curves and peaks of his upper lip line. "Sorry," he mouthed.
"Are you ladies locals?" Dave asked.
"Strangers in town," Hafidha purred. "And I'm stranger than most. But don't let that scare you."
"Do I look easy to scare? Ask Kyle. He's seen me do some crazy shit."
Kyle gazed at the corner of the room, as if he weren't listening. But Lau heard him mutter, "And that's actually true."
"Oh, I believe you," Hafidha said. Lau was pretty sure she meant the same sort of thing Kyle did.
Kyle looked from Dave to Hafidha and back. Then he reached blindly for the nearest chair and sat. It put him between Dave and Lau, but Dave didn't seem to notice.
Lau raised her nearly-empty glass to Kyle and winced.
"Do you play darts?" Hafidha asked Dave. "Of course you do. I bet you have lovely hand-eye coordination."
Even in bar-light, Lau saw him flush. "I'm pretty good."
Hafidha narrowed her eyes and rose. "Come show a girl your moves, then." Dave half-turned toward Lau, but Hafidha added, "No, darts isn't made for threesomes. Besides, you'll have much more fun with me." She curled her index finger, slowly.
Dave blinked, stood up, and followed her without a backward glance.
"She won't hurt him," Lau murmured. "I don't think."
"He's not really a jerk." Kyle sagged in his chair. "I mean, I guess he is. But only with-- Yeah, he's a jerk."
"Friend of yours?"
"Co-worker. U.S. Forest Service."
"I wouldn't have thought there was that much forest in Pittsburgh."
He looked grave. "They let us into civilization once a year." He broke into a smile, and Lau admired his upper lip again. "We're surveying heat-stressed woodland all over western P.A. This is our night off between national forests."
"Are they usually like this, your nights off?"
His lids dropped, and his smile went a little crooked. "Usually I'd be home with my boys. It's my first trip out of town...in a year."
Lau heard the constraint in his voice, and saw the way his hands moved in his lap, as if they wanted to reach for something that wasn't there. "You lost your wife. I'm sorry."
He looked up, startled. "Yeah. I... Yeah. We're doing pretty well, though." His grin broke out, and Lau wished she knew the details of the memory that caused it. "The boys even got me to put up my profile on OKCupid."
She laughed. "How old are they?"
"Jim is ten, and Sean is eight. Damn, I knew I'd miss them, but not like this. Do you have kids?"
"Divorced, no kids. You know, you're a terrible wingman."
Kyle laughed. "If I ever went into sales, I'd need to believe in my product."
Hafidha swept out of the back room. "All right, then. I've invited Mr. Dave up to my room, where I plan to ride him like a pony."
Kyle blushed ferociously.
"Don't embarrass the neighbors," Lau said, and hoped she looked as calm as she sounded. "And don't sleep through breakfast."
Hafidha hooked her bag off the chair and slung it over her shoulder. "Of course not, sweetie. I'm counting on muffins. Have fun, kids. Don't do anything I et cetera."
She left the bar with Dave close behind. The silence in her wake was awkward.
"I really do have to get up early," Lau started, just as Kyle said, "I'd better call it a night." After a moment, he gave a stiff chuckle, and she smiled.
"Thanks," she said, and put out her hand. "It's been bizarrely fun."
He shook it. His palm was warm and dry, scratchy with calluses. "It really has. Safe travels."
She stared at her wavy reflection in the brushed-steel panels of the elevator as it climbed to her floor. She didn't fall for nice guys. She just didn't. So this faintly hollow feeling wasn't that.
Because if she started dating a nice guy, and it all fell apart, how would she convince herself it wasn't her fault?
She swiped her key card in the lock, stepped into the cool, silent, cleanser-scented room, and pulled out her phone to call the office.
Chaz did not pay attention to the apartment. He noticed a faint smell of incense, pine, and cat box, the clutter of paper or clothes on every surface that suggested overworked rather than hoarder, a purple ukulele, a white-and-brown cat named Mehitabel who had no interest in either of them after it had been fed, and a double bed with a purple cotton cover.
"I've got scars," Suze said apologetically.
Chaz looked at her. His eyes flicked away, then back. Methodically, he unbuttoned both shirt cuffs. Methodically, he rolled them up. He held his wrists out, a little above waist level.
As if she knew what he was about, she held his gaze anyway, until he said, "Look."
He didn't, watching the top of her head instead, but he knew what she saw: keloid scars on both wrists, around the bones where the manacles had galled. Worse on the right wrist, where the cast had impeded treatment.
"There's more where those came from," he said, when she looked up again.
She reached out and--very slowly, very definitely--took hold of Chaz's tie. And then she leaned forward and--very slowly, very definitely--put her mouth on his.
Through the thunder in his ears, he somehow remembered to keep his hands at his sides, his tongue in his head.
When it ended, he opened his eyes and said, "This could get me fired."
"Then we'll have to make it worth the risk," she answered.
This was a terrible idea. Possibly the worst one he'd ever had. And he already knew he wasn't going to resist it: adrenaline junkie, celibate way too long. And he knew Hafidha knew it, too. She'd set him up to fail.
The mirror turned in Chaz's head. Questing. Wondering. He swallowed it, shoved it down. The ethical empath.
He unbuttoned Suze's shirt and followed her scars down, across her collarbones to the logical conclusions. The scars were dendritic, treelike. Barklike, in places--ridged and gnarled. Catastrophic, down her shoulder and across her right breast.
"Lichtenberg figures," he said.
She chuckled. "You know what to say to a girl." And pushed his head back down.
Brady put his feet up on his desk and rolled his head back, trying to ease the strain. Gray's phone was going to voicemail, and if he couldn't get a neck rub, he at least wanted to hear the man's voice. What happened to the footloose Casanova of yesteryear?
Todd looked up at his sigh. Brady glowered at him, and said, "Don't you have a home to go to?"
Brady did. But it didn't feel much like home when Gray was out of town.
"Why, so you can more conveniently sleep on the couch?" Todd scoffed. "I'll go when Nikki calls in. And you should go too."
"What, when there's still coffee?" Brady picked up his mug, braced himself for horror, and took a long illustrative slurp, then found himself startled when the substance inside was hot and fresh. He frowned at it. "Um. Thank you."
"For what?" Todd was frowning over a column of numbers, his glasses slipping down his nose and what little hair he had left fallen askew. He looked like a man whose neck had never felt the inside of a necktie.
"Coffee?" Brady asked.
"You already brought me some." Todd did look up now, puzzled.
"No, you made some," Brady said, holding up his mug. "And you brought it to me. Didn't you?"
"Now you're sleepwalking," Todd said. "You made it and brought it to me." He gestured vaguely at the kitchenette. "My butt hasn't been off this sofa for so long I'm starting to ache. In fact..." He stood up, stretched, and wandered to the kitchenette.
Brady called after him, over the clatter of bowls, "Hey Duke--"
"You want something?"
"A life that turns out like I expect it?"
His answer came back with a chuckle. "You're asking that from a guy who once woke up to discover a tornado had lifted the roof off the barn he was sleeping in."
When Todd came back, he had a bowl of one of his mysterious, pepper-sauce-slathered noodle substances in one hand, topped with what looked like raw fish. He poised his chopsticks with the other. "Looks like Chaz left muffins, by the way."
"There are any left? I would have thought the ghosts of jammers past would have dealt with that little problem by now."
"Ghosts never steal my food," Todd said complacently.
"That's because you eat natto--"
The hall door opened, revealing Falkner, blinking slightly. The corridors were dimmed for night, to conserve electricity.
Todd said, "Aren't you furloughed?"
"I forgot my coat. Aren't you retired?"
He shrugged, held up the bowl. "Just stopped by for dinner."
They grinned at one another, and the main office phone rang. Falkner lifted it without hesitating. "ACTF." Then, "So do we think it's good?"
She hit "speaker" as Lau was saying, "...think it's good. Well, we think it's a gamma. Good, that's..."
"Yeah," Falkner said. "So we start interviewing the families of the dead?"
"In the morning," Lau said.
"Be careful out there," Brady said. "Weather report has it raining shotgun slugs, starting about noontime."
The hotel's pool opened at 5:30 a.m., which would let Nikki swim hard for fifteen minutes and leave enough time to be the first of the team at breakfast. Wearing a hotel robe and carrying a towel over one arm, she followed the signs down the hall, thinking about conductivity and hoping this case would prove to be one of too few where they found nothing but coincidence.
A man in orange flip-flops, red swimming trunks, and a brown T-shirt was bent over in a sun salutation in the hall in front of the pool door. As he rose, she recognized Kyle.
"Oh," he said, studying her face. "Were you hoping to have the pool to yourself?"
"I'll come back later."
"Seriously? Don't be ridiculous. I'm too Californian to even consider that."
"California? We vacationed there two years ago. The beach, the wine and apple country-- They were great. But Yosemite was the best."
"I feel like a traitor for admitting this. For the most amazing scenery, you want southern Utah."
"Definitely!" His smile was so pure that Nikki smiled, too. "We hit Zion, Bryce, Arches--" His expression faltered, long enough that she knew what he was remembering, then returned, as strong as before. "A month in the southwest really isn't enough. The boys want to go back."
He nodded. "You're right. It'd be good for them--for us." He glanced away. Then she realized he had heard the approach of a hotel clerk before she had. They stood in awkward silence as the woman opened the pool door and turned on the lights. Entering the quiet pool room, he said, "Well. Have a good trip back to California."
"I'm a DC gal now."
"Is it home?"
She frowned, then realized it was true as she said, "Yes."
"What brought you to Pittsburgh?"
"You say that like it matters, not like it's a paycheck."
She smiled. "The paycheck's fine, but you're right."
"You're a politician."
She laughed. "Bzzt! Guess again."
"You're not? I'd vote for you. You've got this smart, concerned thing going--"
She rolled her eyes.
"You're not a lawyer."
"Oh, you could be a lawyer for the Sierra Club or the ACLU or something that mattered to you. But I'm guessing not."
"You're right. I'm with the FBI."
"What?" she asked.
"I'm going to tell the boys I met an FBI agent, and they're going to think that's so cool. Because it is." Before she could decide what to say to that, he said, "My regular station's the Delaware Water Gap. Places on the river aren't as dramatic as the southwest, but when you're there, you don't want to be anyplace else." He smiled again in his self-deprecating way. "I am prejudiced. But if you ever want some suggestions about good places to hike or canoe, let me know. Kyle Nybaek. N-y-b-a-e-k. I would answer an OKCupid message from you in a flash."
"You don't know my name."
"If your photo looks like you, that's no problem." He pursed his lips, then said, "Can I have a take-back on that and just ask what your name is?"
She smiled. "Nikki Lau. L-a-u."
Crossing the lobby, Reyes glanced through the front doors as movement caught his eye. Chaz Villette popped out of a silver Smart Car driven by a dark woman with high cheekbones and a wide smile. Chaz ran toward the hotel, then slowed at the door and smoothed his tie, grinning in a way that made Reyes feel guilty for watching and glad that he had.
Chaz spotted him and raised an eyebrow.
"She likes you," Reyes said roughly. It was calculated harshness, they both knew. Reyes never had uncalculated moments. No. He had them with Autumn, and he needed to let himself have them more often. He was retired. Was it possible to retire from pushing every human encounter toward a goal?
He added, "She watched you run from the car before she drove away."
It did what Reyes had intended: Chaz found his voice. "I like her."
Reyes held eye contact and said, "Be smart, Villette."
Chaz sighed. "Cassandra Martin. Ph.D." But he couldn't hold Reyes's gaze; his head twisted down and to the side.
Reyes smiled. "I said be smart," he said. "I didn't say don't do it."
Lau was at a table for four, sipping coffee and looking away, watching nothing through the window. Her phone lay on the table, entirely ignored. Reyes wondered if that meant anything, but when she glanced at them, she was entirely the agent-in-charge, so he decided it didn't mean anything important.
"Yes!" Chaz said, sitting and grabbing one of the three cups of coffee that were waiting for them.
Hafidha arrived while Reyes was pouring hot water over his tea bag. Green, because restaurants never served the water hot enough for black. Lau had her own brand of consideration, but Reyes thought she'd learned this kind from Falkner. What he felt wasn't grief; it just stung like it.
Stopping by her chair but not sitting down, Hafidha said, "Hold the applause. This morning, I checked out James McAvoy. During the two year gap between potential victims in Pittsburgh, he had a weather gig in L.A. Also during that time, Luis Arcos, a TV news helicopter pilot, was hit by lightning while he was running between the chopper and the hangar. Survived, but the nerve damage grounded him. And, yes, he flew for the station where McAvoy worked."
"Does that mean we don't like Thorne anymore?" Lau asked.
"It means maybe we look at McAvoy too?" Chaz said.
They trailed off, staring at one another across the table, Chaz tapping his fingers distractedly.
Picking up her coffee, Hafidha said, "Silence can be better than applause."
Reyes stood. "Breakfast waits." Then he bit the inside of his cheek as everyone looked at Lau.
She nodded and stood. "Damn straight."
They took both SUVs. Reyes, riding with Nikki, said, "If I did anything to undermine you--"
She made the corner, a careful five miles over the speed limit while wishing they had a police liaison on this case. "If you'd been a tenth of a second slower, Chaz probably would've said it. You never ran things with an iron hand. We don't, either."
"I think I know why Esther sent me."
"Because you really wanted to go?"
"Because I needed to see that the team's fine without me." When she looked at him, he said, "It'll be fine without Esther when the time comes, too."
James McAvoy's condo had a quiet lobby with a marble floor, red oak paneling, and a doorman who studied their FBI badges and clearly didn't know whether they were authentic, but also knew four urgent people in dark suits saying "this could be a matter of life or death" should be given some benefit of doubt. He led them upstairs, saying, "Mr. McAvoy's never troubled anyone. Perfect gentleman. I hope this is nothing."
"So do we," said Chaz.
Nikki pressed McAvoy's doorbell, then knocked, then told the doorman to use his passkey.
McAvoy's condo had the impersonal feeling of the place that a busy, prosperous, single person only saw shortly before and after sleeping. The only thing that said this was not a furnished apartment that rented by the week was a case with professional awards and photos of McAvoy, smiling broadly with his arms around people with immaculate suits and perfect hair like his. Only one photo showed anyone with ruffled hair, as he and Suzanne Zettler crouched on the top floor of a building during a wind storm and grinned as if they were ecstatic. Looking at it, Nikki had the same sense of a familiar place she'd gotten at the Carnegie Mellon campus. A couple of television personalities... maybe it was a location from a movie?
The glass front of the case had been shattered by two bullets after they passed through James McAvoy's heart and lungs. He lay in front of his mementos, his face blank, his eyes dull, his robe and pajamas dark with his blood.
The doorman gasped and turned ashen. Nikki gestured for him to be silent and step back into the hall. The team swept the apartment, declared it clean, then gathered around McAvoy.
Touching the body was her call, so Nikki put a finger to McAvoy's wrist, then lifted it slightly. "Room temperature. Possible signs of rigor."
Hafidha said, "He did the ten o'clock show last night."
Chaz said, "For the record, I was with Suzanne Zettler until Reyes saw me come in this morning."
Reyes met his glance and nodded.
Nikki went to the hall and asked the doorman, "When did your shift start?"
"When did McAvoy return?"
"About two a.m. Same as usual."
"Did he have any visitors?"
"Yes, ma'am. A black gentleman, maybe fifty years old, stopped by maybe half an hour after Mr. McAvoy came home. He said Mr. McAvoy was expecting him, and when I called up, Mr. McAvoy said he was. The gentleman stayed about ten minutes, I'd say."
"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"
"Yes, ma'am. He had a tic in one hand. Can't forget that."
"Thank you. Please go downstairs, call the police and say there's been a homicide, then wait for their arrival."
When the doorman left, Nikki told Chaz, "I don't think your time with Zettler needs to be for the record," and saw his shoulders loosen. Then they tightened again. Nikki said, "What?"
"If Thorne's going after people who wronged him, Suze could be next." He held up his phone, and as soon as Nikki nodded, he tapped the screen and held the phone before him.
Zettler's voice was loud enough for them all to hear. "Evil science for a better tomorrow. Hey, Chaz--"
"You're on speaker," he said quickly. "Have you seen Russell Thorne today?"
"No." All hint of flirtation was gone. "Why?"
"McAvoy's dead. Thorne was the last known person to see him alive. There's a chance he'll come after you. Where are you?"
"Is there a security person there?"
"Go to him and call the police. Tell whoever's in charge to lock the doors and not let anyone in until they arrive. I'm on my way." He clicked off his phone and looked at Nikki.
"Go. Hafs can ride with us."
Hafidha tossed him the car keys as he ran out the door.
Nikki, looking at the body, said, "We need a new scenario."
Hafidha said, "Thorne's the gamma. He used a pistol because there wasn't a thunderstorm and he wanted to keep his hands clean. Chaz is right to be worried about Suze, but whether Thorne wants love or revenge--"
"He could be tidying up loose ends," Reyes said. "This killing was impulsive. The pilot who survived the lightning in L.A.--"
"Luis Arcos," Hafidha said.
Nikki said, "We'll get protection for him. And we'll get word to the airports here."
Reyes said, "Or this could just be an all-too-common love triangle."
Nikki said, "Then we'll help catch an all-too-common killer. What?"
"We're missing something. I want to talk to Amelia Weber's parents. If we can figure out why Thorne was interested in her--"
Nikki handed him the keys to the other SUV. "I'll work with the police while Hafs coordinates the hunt. Good luck. And please tell me your weather knee isn't acting up?"
"Sorry," he said. "You know I'm trying to avoid lying to you."
As Chaz drove to WQED Multimedia, Hafidha sent updates that he checked at red lights, so he had half-a-dozen photos of Russell Thorne burned in his memory and knew that Thorne drove a 2011 silver Lexus.
Which was why the cold suppression of his fear for Suze grew colder when he saw a slim black man in a late-model silver Lexus parked on Clyde Street near the intersection with Fifth, where he might have been innocently reading a tablet while he had a perfect view of the front of WQED.
Chaz parked on the opposite side of Clyde, next to the Catholic Byzantine church. A police car was parked in WQED's lot. Thorne's presence meant he was arrogant enough to believe he could watch without being caught, or desperate enough to think he had to act despite the police presence.
Chaz looked up at the gray sky. Was Thorne waiting for thunder?
Chaz unholstered his service weapon, double-checked the safety, and slipped it into his jacket pocket. The glove compartment held a map of Pittsburgh. He stepped out of the car as he unfolded it, then looked up and down from the map to the church. How natural did he look? Would theatre be better if actors knew a bad performance could get them killed?
He turned around. Thorne watched WQED. His left hand, holding his tablet, rested on the steering wheel. It may have trembled, or Chaz may have expected it to. His right was beside him. In Thorne's place, Chaz would hold his pistol or have it within easy reach. Thorne had been in the army. There was no way to rush him. If Chaz called for backup, a show of force might make Thorne surrender.
Or it might make him choose suicide by cop.
And with every moment that Chaz waited, the skies grew darker.
The map tore itself against his fingers as he held it open with both hands. Chaz crossed the street toward Thorne, grinning appeasingly. He called, "Excuse me! Either the rental company gave me an old map, or I'm completely turned around. Are there two Clyde Streets in Pittsburgh?"
Thorne gave him a withering look, said, "No," then said reluctantly, "What're you looking for?" He did not lower his window. His right hand was empty, but anything could be under the messenger bag on the passenger seat or on the shelf by the steering wheel.
Chaz thought, Okay. He's sane enough not to want to attract attention. Which just makes him a different kind of dangerous. Chaz lowered the map, put his hand in his suit pocket, and said, "If this is Clyde and Fifth, WQED should be here. Shouldn't it?"
Thorne rolled his eyes and pointed with a trembling finger across Fifth. "It's right ov--"
Chaz brought his pistol out of his pocket, turned his hand, and drove the butt against the window. Safety glass sprayed inward. He grabbed Thorne's shirtfront and yanked, pulling the man's head and shoulders through the shattered window until Thorne's seatbelt jerked taut. Even jammer strength might not be enough to break it, and definitely not without hurting Thorne--so Chaz slammed Thorne downward, pinning him against the door. At the same moment, he swept the mirror open, sharp and hard--
They must be stopped. I have to stop them. They think they're gods, gods of thunder. They think they own the weather--
The mirror--or the blow--dazed Thorne. The tablet fell from his hand. He flailed, maybe for his pistol, more likely for something to brace himself.
Chaz lifted Thorne slightly to ease the seat belt's tension, then yanked, drawing Thorne through the window and dropping him, jerking his head up at the last moment to keep it from hitting the pavement, but not caring that Thorne landed heavily on one shoulder.
"FBI!" he shouted for Thorne's sake and anyone within earshot. "Stay down! Hands behind your back! Now! Russell Thorne, you are under arrest for the murder of James McAvoy."
For a long second, he wondered what he would do if Thorne resisted. But the man grunted and obeyed.
When their taxi arrived at Fifth and Clyde, Hafidha and Nikki found Chaz, six cops, and a small crowd of onlookers. In the back of one cruiser, Russell Thorne sat motionless with Chaz's jacket tied over his head.
As Hafidha and Nikki approached, Chaz said, "He's in our handcuffs, which should hold him, but I doubt he needs his hands free to call lightning. He's heard a Miranda."
All three glanced up. The clouds were still gathering.
Chaz continued, "We should carry a hood for gammas with sight-based myths. No one's asked why I covered his head yet--there's a big advantage to working for an agency that can do just about anything on TV--but they will."
"It's for his safety," Nikki said. "We can use the witness protection excuse to carry him away."
"He's not talking."
"Yet," Nikki noted.
Chaz glanced at the WQED building.
"Hey," Hafidha said. "Do you think she's insecure about her expertise as well?"
Chaz groaned. "I don't think she's insecure about anything."
Nikki smiled. "If you want to check on her, go. We'll start the mountain of paperwork without you."
When he grinned, Hafidha thought, No one's happier than a happy coyote, and said, "Try not to leap and bound as you go."
Thick drops of rain had begun to spatter and the wind was rising as Reyes pressed the front bell of a large brown American Craftsman cottage.
The man who came to the door only nodded when Reyes said, "Mr. Weber? I'm Stephen Reyes with the FBI. I trust Ms. Gates let you know I was coming."
The house seemed wounded. Its lawn was a few days too long for the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The house was big, but quiet, which should have been normal on a school and work day, but Peter Weber's hollow eyes would tell anyone something was wrong. He was dressed and shaved, but clearly, he did not know why.
"May I come in?"
Weber stepped aside. Reyes entered a large living room that smelled stale and felt incomplete. Parts of it had been tidied. Others seemed to have been ignored. There was nothing to say a girl had lived here, which told Reyes what was gone.
He suspected he knew the answer to the question he had to ask: "Is your wife here?"
"She's with her relatives. We're taking time--" Weber shook his head. "I don't understand why you're here."
"I was wondering if the name Russell Thorne means anything to you?"
Reyes said, "Or Professor Thorne? A black man, middle-aged, short salt-and-pepper hair, fairly thin. Has a tremor in his left hand. Teaches atmospheric science at Carnegie Mellon."
Weber shook his head slowly.
Reyes held out his phone. "I have a few photos."
Weber glanced at them and shook his head again. "No."
"Did Amelia ever say anything about scientists or teachers at the university?"
"No." Then Weber blinked like a man waking, and smiled though his eyes were wet. "Wait. Scientists? She was so excited about getting to meet one."
"At Carnegie Mellon?"
"No. Not a real scientist. She was going to be on Professor Suzi's Evil Science show."
Suzanne Zettler walked quickly from WQED. Chaz thought he should say something, but no words seemed right. She stopped in front of him and took his hands in hers. He hadn't realized he was cold until then.
She said, "You're all right."
He nodded, though he knew it wasn't a question. "So're you. Thorne's going to be locked up for years. Maybe the rest of his life."
"What did he want?"
Chaz shook his head. "I know saying this won't help, but don't let him take more of your life. There were people who helped make him what he is, but you're not one of them. You're just what he fastened on because what he needs doesn't exist."
"You'll be going back to DC today?"
She smiled tentatively. "You can catch my show on YouTube."
He laughed. "I will. And I'll be joining your fan club."
"I answer my fan mail. Usually a form letter, but I make an exception for fans with slow hands." She squeezed his hands as she spoke, then looked up at the sky.
He said, "You should head back in."
"I don't melt. I really hated being trapped in there while we waited for your okay."
"They're predicting thunder."
She studied his face, then grinned. "Roy Sullivan was hit seven times, and survived every one."
"You know, after my brother died, my Mom told me never to let anything scare me or stop me. That has to include lightning." She tugged his hands. "C'mon. Ever kiss in a thunderstorm?"
Police Sergeant Lisa Barone drove the squad car. Her commander had conferred with Lau, then recommended Barone as the best combination of discretion and competence. At the start of the drive, Barone had made a comment about Men In Black 3. When Nikki smiled and did not answer, Barone took the hint and continued the drive in silence.
The only sounds were street noise and the patrol radio. In the back, Hafidha watched Thorne, who could not be comfortable belted in, hands cuffed behind him, Chaz's jacket over his head, but still said nothing.
When Also Sprach Zarathustra began to play, Nikki pulled out her phone and said, "We have Thorne."
She listened, said, "On it," clicked off the phone, and turned back to Hafidha. "Amelia Weber was going to be on Zettler's show. They had a preparatory meeting before Weber was killed. We're still missing something."
Hafidha glanced at Barone, then said, "Let me talk to Thorne."
Nikki looked at Barone. "This is where you make your reputation for discretion."
Barone nodded once.
Nikki told Hafidha, "Go."
Hafidha said, surprising Nikki with the gentleness of her voice, "Mr. Thorne, I'm going to remove the jacket that's over your head. In return, you're not going to do anything foolish. You think you're alone in a mad world, but you're not."
She untied the arms of the jacket and tugged it off Thorne's head. He shuddered and kept looking straight ahead at nothing.
Hafidha said, "You know things now you can't tell anyone. Some of 'em wouldn't be believed, not by anyone sane. The rest you can't figure out how to tell, because they don't make sense. I get it. I've been down that tunnel, and I'm not all the way out yet, but I'm back, and I learned things. I'll tell you one now. It's the most important. You listening?"
Thorne continued to stare blindly ahead.
Hafidha said, "You can't figure it out alone. We're the blind men with the elephant. We need the rest of the blind men to tell us about the rope and the pillar and the fan and the wall and all the crazy pieces before we can begin to hope to know the elephant. You know a piece of the elephant no one else knows. We know some, too. You can tell us. Because we are the people who will believe you're saying what you know, no matter what you say."
Thorne said softly, "That girl."
"They killed her."
"I hear you."
He turned his empty stare to her. "With lightning."
"Not enough. Help us."
"You stopped me."
"We fuck up. Help us make it right."
"I thought lightning chose who it wanted. But they used it. I told myself I had to be wrong, because if I was right, I was crazy, and now--"
"I keep watching that little girl's video and knowing I could've stopped them. If I'd just believed the math."
"How do you mean?"
"The math. Where they went, the lightning chose people who should've been passed over."
"McAvoy and Zettler. Math doesn't lie."
Hafidha had a sudden flashbulb memory, a perfect image in her mind of the photo of Zettler and McAvoy from the dead man's apartment. She imagined that this was how Chaz's memories looked to him--crisp and perfect. "Could it've just been Zettler?"
He stared at her. "Then why would she go to him instead of me?"
"Nikki," Hafidha asked, her heart not so much sinking in her chest as shrilling. "Where do you go to learn about television?"
"Aw Jesus," Nikki said.
On the WQED pathway near Central Catholic High, Chaz shivered, but Suze's arm around his waist made the cold worth it. The trees around them swayed. The rain seemed heavier and colder.
She said, "You're like me."
"I hope that means you like yourself. A lot."
She laughed. "I do now. That was one of the things the lightning took."
"When you were hit?"
His shirt was plastered to him. It didn't matter. She had seen his scars. He said, "Nothing like a little mortality to make us appreciate life."
"Uh-uh. Life makes you appreciate life."
"The lightning felt like life?"
"It felt like everything changes in an instant. That's life."
"That doesn't terrify you?"
"Better to be terrified than bored."
He thought of plunging through the sky. Plunging into her kiss. "It's a living."
"Because you couldn't have been a civil engineer. A statistician."
"Technically speaking, I am a statistician."
He glanced at her, then said, "A hit. A very palpable hit."
The phone rang with the Wonder Woman TV theme. Chaz said, "'Scuze me. I got to--"
Suze spun out of his grip. "Come!" She turned and ran toward the parking lot and the high school's football field.
Chaz slid his thumb across his phone. "Nikki?" But there was nothing but the pop of a dropped connection. Distant thunder crackled. He hadn't seen the flash.
He shouted "Suze!" and pocketed the phone as he followed. He expected to catch her in a few steps, but she had a good lead and good legs. She ran into the parking lot like a track star--and vanished behind sheets of rain.
The foley guy was off a little, but only just. Because Brady's phone started playing Willie Nelson's "(I Don't Have A Reason) To Go To California Anymore" slightly more than a second after Todd, nose down behind his laptop, said, "Whoa. Whoa!"
It was his archive-ferret's voice, and usually he sounded pleased when he made that kind of connection. But just this second, his voice was rich with dread.
"Hold that thought," Brady said. "Nik?"
"We've got a problem," she said.
"I think we've got one here too. You first." He set it to speaker and put it on his desk. Todd had bounded up off the couch and was hovering anxiously beside him.
"Thorne--McAvoy's murderer--is almost certainly not the gamma," Nikki said, her voice almost drowned in a crack of thunder. "Hafs and I both think he's just a garden-variety narcissist with some paranoid tendencies."
"The gamma's Suzanne Zettler," Todd said, leaning over Brady's shoulder. "I'll stake my life on it."
"Shit," Nikki said. "Yeah. Chaz is with her, and we can't reach him. Phone or text. Storm, maybe. Or maybe..."
"...Zettler's electromagnetic effects?"
"Yeah... wait. Here comes Wabbit. Hafs?"
Hafidha didn't waste any time with pleasantries. "Tell Todd... I don't believe I'm saying this. Tell Todd to call Chaz's cell from the landline. Sometimes that will get through when cell to cell fails."
Brady wrestled down a sick helpless sensation. "Can you get a fix on Chaz's phone GPS?"
"Intermittent. The storm doesn't help me any. He's..." And Brady could picture her as she closed her eyes. Groping for wireless. He could even imagine the furrow between her brows. "At Central Catholic."
"Get the car," Nikki said. "Call Reyes and have him get down here to ride herd on Thorne. You and me are going after Chaz. Todd, I want to hear dialing. Todd! You need to know. Chaz has a... relationship with this subject."
Todd had already punched "speaker" on Brady's dusty desk phone. He paused, and said quietly, "I understand." Then he punched Chaz's phone number from memory, and they all waited with strained silence to see if the echoing emptiness of the connection would turn into a ring.
Chaz turned in the rain, blinking its sting from his eyes. Shadows--no, just trees whipped almost perpendicular by the lashing wind. His wet clothes rasped and clung. It wasn't a warm rain; his teeth chattered. Suzi Sue, where are you?
His phone buzzed again. He didn't hear the ring over the rain and a much closer crack of thunder, but he felt it shake against his thigh. How much water can an iPhone resist?
He shielded it with his body. An FBI number--he recognized Brady's desk phone. He tipped his head to protect the phone as much as possible and yelled, "Make it good, Danny!"
"Chaz," Todd said in his ear. "Listen carefully. Are you with Suzanne Zettler?"
"We're playing tag," Chaz said, already knowing. Already sick. "I don't have sight of her right now."
"Chaz, her older half-brother was Mark Degrasso."
Chaz did the math. He couldn't help doing the math.
She would have been thirteen.
"He kept his name when their mom remarried. There's paper trail. I'm sure."
"A crack, you mean."
"I mean. First crack. Lightning strike, number two and mythology. She's not the first victim. She's the jammer. Thorne's just a guy who got zapped."
Lightning parted heavy clouds, but was only a jeweled flash in the increasing gloom. As if from somewhere else, Chaz heard his own voice. Wry, self-conscious. Gallows humor. Adding, into Todd's continued silence, "As if puberty weren't stressful enough."
He wasn't sure he'd ever heard Todd sound so gentle, or maybe it was just an effect of the thunder. Two seconds. Really close now. "See?" Todd said. "That's why we're better than all those other law enforcement agencies. Correct use of the subjunctive. Chaz, get to shelter. Hafidha and Nikki are enroute."
"I can stop her," Chaz said. "I can get her in alive. I'm going after her."
Over Todd's voice, Brady's. Rising. "Chaz, don't do this."
"She won't kill me." Not because he thought she loved him.
Because he wasn't a meteorologist.
"Come back with a story," Todd said. A gentle benediction.
It froze Chaz where he stood, even more than the rain. I can do this. Sufficient.
She won't kill me, Chaz thought, because I won't fucking find her before both of us drown. He splashed through puddles, head bowed, eyes blinded by the rain. He regretted the loss of his jacket. He regretted not having worn wool socks even more.
Hafs and Nikki would be there soon. He could almost feel them barreling through traffic, Nikki's hands too calm and sure to drum nervously on the steering wheel while Hafidha reclined beside her, feeling ahead for traffic lights and making sure everything broke their way. He knew it was stupid not to wait for them. Hafidha had a relationship with Suze too--
He thought of the burrow, and he thought of the Bug. Hafidha might not want to bring her in alive.
But if he couldn't find Suze in time...
Just as he was about to kick something in frustration, though, he realized where she'd be. And he took off running, hurdling parked cars and a four-foot chain-link fence like it was nothing, scrambling across the tarmac near the football stadium like the Worm Ouroboros.
She was in the end zone, of course. Touchdown.
"She won't kill me," he'd told Brady--and now, walking through the rain, his shirt plastered to his shaking body, his hair dripping in his eyes, he wondered why the hell he'd had such a stupid idea.
But he was in it now, and if he died here, at least it wouldn't be one of the others.
Acceptable losses, he thought. Him over Nikki, or Hafidha, or Reyes.
Suze was a black shape in all the grays and blues of the storm. Lightning flashed behind the bleachers, and the thunder rattled after--swift steeds pursued by chariot wheels. The hairs on Chaz's neck prickled; he felt them rise. "Suze."
She turned as he came up to her. Her hair was wild in the rain, its dandelion-puff soaked into coils, but her eyes were wilder and more delighted.
He held out his hands. "You've proved your courage. Let's go back."
She stepped forward and kissed him. She needed it, so he let her, but all he could think was, Right now, the odds of my being hit by lightning are a whole lot better than 700,000 to one. His lips tingled with the touch, lightning or not, and he found himself looking at her. The lump inside him swelled.
When they separated, she said, "You're like me."
"Let's talk about this inside."
"You don't have to be afraid," she said. "You're like me. So is Hafidha, isn't she?"
"Yes," he said. "We are. We have ways to help you, Suze."
He touched her cheek. She came into his arms, drenched and cold but not shivering. She stood there, and rested her forehead on his shoulder.
The lightning sparked over them again, thunder following less than a second later. Loosening his insides. He looked around for tall objects that might draw a bolt, either towards them or away, but it wasn't football season and the goal posts were down.
She said, "I didn't understand."
He petted her wet hair. The water ran over his fingers, and the hair frizzed up against his palm. He was shivering, if she wasn't. "What?"
"I thought it would change anyone. But it only changes people like us."
"The lightning." There. A glimpse into her mythology. "Were you trying to help them?"
"It's science," she said. "If it doesn't work, you adjust the variables and try again."
"Oh, Suze," he said.
A failure of profiling. A failure of his craft. Because as he said it--involuntarily, a reflex, the sort of thing that happened when you got too close, too involved--her chin came up. And her eyes went wide.
And he knew she heard all the sorrow and grief and affection in his tone, and read it properly.
She shoved herself out of his arms. She wasn't holding back, and while her strength shouldn't have surprised him, she slid away as if greased. He tried to hold her, and heard only the stretch of fabric before she eeled out of his grasp, wet and panting. Something on her face--
End game, he thought. Then, bitterly: Well. That was easy.
The gamma, faced with capture, would try to do just a little more damage. Spread its spores around like one of those plants with the explosive seed pods.
Nevertheless, he held his hands out to her. Softly, as tenderly as he could, he said, "Suze."
The lightning was a constant strobing now, the thunder a rumble like trains in some celestial switchyard. Huge things slid and grated and boomed up in the sky.
Suze glanced up at it and smiled. A sort of smile Chaz recognized--resigned recognition. Acceptance.
He'd seen too many like it. Now the Bug was twisting her neurochemistry toward unreasoning despair. Pushing her to take the next step... the seemingly inescapable step. And giving her the power to do it.
"I thought I could help, too," she said. "I thought what you think... oh, Chaz. You were pretty and sweet. I wanted...."
There was too much rain on her face to see tears, but there they were in her voice. "If I could find more like me... but... Amelia Weber, Chaz. She was perfect and smart and I killed her. I killed her, didn't I?"
"Suze," he said. "You have an illness. It gives you some advantages, but it means that you're not always in control of your choices. You meant to make her stronger, didn't you? You meant to make her like us."
"I killed her." She laughed like it had claws, and was clinging inside her throat. He wanted to go to her, but he knew better than to encroach on her space.
The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling.
Not lifting. Not in this wet. But he could feel the static charge surround himself as the leader sent its first tentative feelers toward the raging sky. Suze was reaching for God's pen.
"Hah," she said. "The worst thing is knowing that fucking Russ Thorne passed the test, and that gorgeous genius kid--" She shook her head, water droplets flying. She couldn't even say Amelia's name. "Stay back, Chaz. This is how it has to be."
He stepped forward anyway. Of course. He reached out to her, but she danced back. She threw her hands up. Offering herself, black and gray in the foaming light of the storm. His skin tingled; he felt a faint stinging and heard an indescribable sound.
The rain on his face. Cold. The wet earth steamed. His ears rang; the thunder seemed far away, as if it rattled against the other side of brick walls, thick doors.
When he picked himself up, the world was spotted and sore.
Tased, he thought, remembering another time. Harpy, I need you.
Daphne wasn't there.
Suze was. She lay on her back, arms flung out. Around her, scorched Astroturf spidered out in melted patterns that echoed her scars. His heart threw itself against his ribs. He froze, reaching toward her. He couldn't lift his feet.
Slowly, Suze pushed up on her elbows. "Damn," she said, speech thick. Her eyes focused on Chaz. She pulled herself into a crouch. Her jaw moved, but she couldn't seem to make words.
But she stood, and Chaz felt the sharp prickle across his neck again.
He hurled himself forward. Melted plastic tugged at his shoes. She tried to jump back, to push him away. He threw his arms around her.
"Don't do it, Suze, don't do it!"
She twisted convulsively, but he was stronger now. She thrashed in his arms and howled, split his lip, bruised a rib or maybe cracked one. But he held her nevertheless, half his attention on keeping the mirror folded up, put away. Here was someone who didn't need any help remembering the worst things she'd ever done, ever seen.
"Suze," he said, not sure she could hear him. Barely able to hear himself. Saying anything. "Suze, listen. I know. I know it hurts. I know you think you can't fix it. I know you think it's love making you hurt yourself. But I had a friend... she's gone now. But she taught me love is a motive, not a reason. And definitely not an excuse. Hurting yourself more is not love, Suze. It's not love."
Slowly, she kicked less. Slowly, shouts turned to sobs. Sobs became gasps. Gasps subsided to silent shivering--hers and his.
By the time Hafidha and Nikki came to him, splashing across the track with quick, sliding strides, Suze was standing still in his arms--sagging in them, really--and though the storm still raged, the air around them was just cold and full of wind and rain.
The Gulfstream slid through the sky, the last tattered thunderheads disappearing off its tail, and Reyes was checking in on his team--Falkner's team, and someday Lau's team, unless life threw a curveball...and life did throw curveballs--for what he suspected was the very last time. Speaking of Lau, she was checking OKCupid, of all the uncharacteristic behaviors. Chaz was asleep, huddled in a corner under a jacket.
And Hafidha... As Reyes walked down the center aisle toward her, Hafidha's fingers twitched, like a finger-snap, and let go. The spindle blurred with speed, and Hafs drew her right hand upward. Wool--string--dropped out of it as if unreeling from inside her finger. As the spindle slowed, she see-sawed her hand, hooking the string over and under her fingers almost too quickly for the eye to follow. She'd looped up all the finished stuff before the spindle stopped moving.
"You're good at that," Reyes said, because there were times when one could spot proficiency without knowing a damned thing about the process.
Hafidha raised an eyebrow and a corner of her mouth, and wound the collected string onto the shaft of the spindle.
"When did you start spinning?"
"Before I joined the Bureau."
He could quit asking; he felt the flexible wall of her reserve. But she'd taken out the spindle, and used it in front of him, and she hadn't put it away yet. "None of us knew you did that. Not until you--"
"Went off the reservation." She lifted her eyes, half-lidded behind her glasses, from the spindle as she set it in motion again. Yarn slid from her hand.
Her deadpan was good, but not a patch on his own. "But you had one of those--" He pointed with his chin at the spindle. "--in your desk drawer. It was there, but no one ever saw you use it."
"You," she said, and paused to wind up the spun yarn, "haven't retired from sneaky bastardhood, I see. It's harder not to answer when it's all statements and no questions."
"I'm sorry." And he was. "I should have taken up smoking; that would be easier to quit."
She snorted, and produced more miraculous string, wound it on her fingers, and transferred it to the spindle.
Then she set the whole apparatus on her thigh and folded her hands over it. "I started when I got the cancer diagnosis. One of the first things cancer takes is your privacy. This..." She bit her lip and looked to her right, as if there was something there to watch besides her reflection in the window. "I made this the thing I didn't share."
Reyes studied her stark cheekbones, the dense hair she hadn't grown out, the tiny red stone like a blood spot on her earlobe. "And when the anomaly manifested, you needed it even more."
Another snort. "Keep your friends close, and your research subjects closer."
"I never saw you that way."
"Not even just a little?" But she smiled and waved a hand, letting him off the hook. "There was always someone watching. And you know that's not Bug paranoia talking."
"I liked to give 'em something to watch, as long as they were going to give me the side-eye anyway. But this," she said, turning her eyes to the spindle in her lap, "was me controlling the information. Nobody knows everything."
"That's how it works anyway. You didn't have to go to extra effort."
"Stephen," she said, mock-pityingly. "Wasn't it you who wrote that paper on how outcomes in institutionalized patients depend heavily on giving them the feeling of self-determination and control?"
Lau stared at the OKCupid profile--the underexposed photo of a square-faced, pleasantly ordinary-looking man with severely smoothed hair, the awkward combination of restraint and openness in his self-summary. Treehuggerkyle.
She tapped the back arrow and read the message in her inbox again. Don't mean to be pushy--just waving hi. If you're ever in my part of the woods (ouch, sorry!), let me know. I'll provide coffee and ten-cent tour. It was signed "Kyle Nybaek;" the signature was followed by a phone number.
She could call him. They could exchange e-mails. Maybe it would come to nothing. Or maybe it would turn into something that would hurt when it fell apart.
I know my strengths and weaknesses, she told herself.
She highlighted the message and clicked the trash can icon.
Chaz drove; Hafidha watched him. She wanted to put a hand on his wrist. She wanted to apologize.
She wondered if she could blame the Bug for what had turned out to be a remarkable lapse in judgment, but she figured she should probably own it. The odds were good it was just her.
Hafidha reached out and put a hand on his wrist. "Chazzie--"
"Suzanne Zettler's mother's first husband's name was DeGrasso," he said. "Suzanne had an older half-brother. Mark. He did not change his name when their mother remarried. Mark's dad was Caucasian; died of leukemia."
Hafidha could see the pattern burning behind Chaz's eyes. "There's no evidence Mark DeGrasso was a jammer."
"There's no evidence," Chaz corrected, pitiless--of himself, she knew. "Yet. First crack and possibly exposure, Wabbit. He could have gotten exposed anywhere, and his first crack could have been his dad dying. Maybe he never converted. What if, for Suzi, the lightning strike was second crack and mythology?"
"What if it was?" When he looked at her, startled, she said, "I know what you're doing, Platyplural."
He sighed and returned his attention to the road. Which was a good thing, given how he was weaving in and out of the legendary DC-area traffic. "I'm trying not to think about what happens next."
"You visit her," Hafidha said. "You do what you can for her. The same things I'm going to do. And you know I'm going to show her my scar."
Chaz's lips peeled back in a coyote rictus. Not a grin; a grimace of pain. He nodded at the road, rather than at her.
"Hey," she said. And waited until he glanced over, because she could be pitiless too. "The bright side is, Arkham's already installed the Faraday cage."
"We owe God a death." -- William Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2, 3.2.253