2.04 "Getaway" - by Emma Bull
"You can never go home again."
--Thomas WolfeAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Arlington, VA, October, 2008
In the medicine cabinet mirror, a movement behind him.
He slammed sideways, and the shower door boomed under his shoulder. The soap dispenser hit the wall. Pistol on the dresser, right outside. Too far. He had the water glass in his hand; not much, but he could throw it and see what happened.
There was nothing to throw it at.
He sucked air into his lungs and felt his heart banging under his ribs. The shaking and weakness weren't just adrenaline reaction; panic had snapped his personal mirror into place and burned glucose he didn't have. Note to self: Do not disappear before breakfast..
Don't disappear by accident. There was a name for creatures that couldn't control their manifestation.
He took down the defense he'd raised, firmly, deliberately. Sit. Stay. While he did, another car passed in the street outside, the reflection of its headlights sliding over the bathroom door, simulating motion.
The soap dispenser had cracked open. Liquid soap crept over the bathroom tile like neon-blue mucus. The smell made Chaz want to vomit. Or the adrenaline did, or the combination. He should clean it up. But then he'd miss his train. It was just soap; it wouldn't kill anyone to let it wait.
He dressed, dragged his comb through his damp hair, and checked the contents of his backpack before he went to the kitchen. If he waited the seven minutes it took to do those things, the universe would recognize his self-control. It would see this was important, and he'd be rewarded.
He did it even though he knew the universe didn't recognize much below the mass of planets.
The kitchen range was warped by years of renters who didn't think to level it. The oven door gapped at the top right. It held temperature well enough for this, though.
The hinges screeched when he opened it. The dry warmth on his face reminded him of fall in the desert: ninety degrees. Ideal for growing non-human organisms. He slid the rack out and lifted the crockery bowl and its kitchen-towel cover onto the counter.
He'd salvaged a tablespoon of sourdough starter from the middle of the quiescent gray mass. He'd warmed it, fed it every twelve hours for nearly a week. He understood the needs of an invalid. No playing fast and loose with the therapy.
Please bubble. I promise I'll never neglect you again. He lifted the towel.
But the patient was still dead.
"Sorry, Elmer," he whispered. "You deserved a better dad."
No, he wouldn't tear up over a sourdough starter. Not his fault he'd been too weak to make bread, and too queasy to eat it. It was just a colony of yeast and bacteria. He could buy another.
He left the bowl on the counter. When he got home, he'd throw the body out.
Three blocks to the Metro, every day. Every day, he saw the skull under the schoolyard fence.
It was wedged in a low place under the mangled chainlink around the playground, half hidden in the weeds. It was black with age and leaf mold.
The sidewalk smacked the bottom of Chaz's shoe as if it had risen under it. His fingers clenched on the side of his belt pack and found the zipper. He didn't pull it. He forced himself to stare, as he had yesterday and the days before. That was a smear of mud, not an eye socket. That was the seam between two sewn panels of leather, not a cranial suture. Not a skull. It was a filthy, half-deflated soccer ball in the weeds under a fence.
He should pick it up and throw it away. But there wasn't room to drag it under the wire. Besides, tomorrow when he saw it it would be a soccer ball, stay a soccer ball. It would be proof he'd gotten over this.
Exactly what he'd told himself yesterday morning, frozen on the sidewalk. He made himself take a step, another. Then he was fine.
He felt the wind come up from the station tunnel, heard the wheels screech down below. He had thirty seconds before his train left. He slapped his backpack against the SmarTrip target at the entrance gate. Nothing happened.
"Shit," he muttered, yanked the zipper open, and scrabbled inside for the card. He felt commuters lining up behind him like water above a hair-clogged drain. His fingers found the card edge. He hooked it out, but it flipped from his hand and skittered along the concrete.
He slammed his palm down on the target and swore again. There was a transit cop beside him instantly, as if the word "shit" had conjured him.
"Problem here?" the cop warned.
Chaz's hand hurt. Behind him in line, a woman in a navy raincoat leaned away, pretending to ignore him. A blond man in a windbreaker craned his neck to stare over her shoulder at Chaz. A man in a suit met Chaz's eyes, glared, and dropped his gaze to his wristwatch.
He shook his head, retrieved his card, and went to the end of the line. He might as well have cleaned up the soap.
He was late already; he might as well bring coffee.
At least he didn't have to wait in line at the deli. A limo driver sat at one of the laminate tables across the room, eating a bagel and reading the Post. Two women in their twenties drank iced somethings with whipped cream. Beside the one in the blue sweater, a toddler dozed in a stroller. The woman--the kid's mom?--jiggled the stroller gently with her foot. The other woman (white blouse and high, sleek ponytail) spoke soft Spanish and outlined the shape of something with her small, plump hands.
A portable TV chattered behind the counter; the images flickered across the glass fronts of the coolers. Chaz caught himself massaging his wrists and jammed both hands in his pockets.
He ordered an Americano for Falkner (apology for being late), a depth charge for Todd (bribe, so he wouldn't speculate about Chaz being late), soy vanilla latté for Lau (who still missed Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in California), and a double-syrup mocha with three shots for himself. Daphs was off coffee for a week on a dare, and Hafidha brought morning cocoa from home in a Thermos printed with pink skulls.
Reyes, fortunately, made his own tea. And Brady--
I could bring Brady coffee. Just a gesture. One of us should make one. After all, why shouldn't Brady have trusted Reyes? Everyone did, until they learned better.
He opened his mouth to order another depth charge. The words stuck in his throat. He shook his head, and the woman behind the counter turned away.
The buzz-saw inside him slowed. The murmur of women's voices, the familiar hiss and clatter of espresso making and milk steaming--those were comfort sounds. And knowing the team's morning routine reminded him he had a place in it. Things would improve. They wouldn't be the same, but he could make himself safe again, and dampen the wobble of the thing spinning off-center and loose under his skin.
"Villette?" said the woman behind the counter. He nodded, and she handed him a cardboard tray with four go cups.
The scream might have scraped tissue: high-pitched, loud as a shot.
The woman in blue was scolding the toddler. Its face was scarlet, its mouth open to scream again. Chaz was vibrating like an overtightened cable, and there was coffee all over the floor.
The woman behind the counter spoke to him. The woman with the toddler did, too. He thought it was English, but he couldn't understand them. He bolted for the street.
Hafidha's monitors were lit. A quick, cautious look into her sanctum showed him the Bureau seal screensaver over and over, with the vintage flying toasters of Hafidha's laptop guarding their flank. Hafidha wasn't there. He slunk through the hallway doors into the bullpen.
Lau jogged toward him between the desks with a fistful of files for Down the Hall. She smiled as she passed, abstracted. Brady was at his desk, on the phone. "It's not going to be a sedan," Chaz heard him say. Brady's eyes tracked toward Chaz, and Chaz looked away toward the kitchenette. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw Brady stare out the windows at the end of the bullpen. Todd's desk showed signs of habitation, but no actual Todd.
Daphne frowned at a fan of photos in her hand, then spread them on her desk and leaned in, like a hawk mantling over its kill. He would have sworn he hadn't made noise, but she looked up, blew her bangs out of her eyes, and grinned at him.
He must not look as bad as he felt. Or maybe she couldn't read him as well as he'd thought. That was good. Wasn't it?
Reyes's office was dark. Falkner's door was open; she was in her desk chair, jabbing at her keyboard. (The average life of a keyboard in Falkner's custody was 162 days.) She'd hung up her suit jacket, and her crisp cream-colored blouse glowed under fluorescent light.
Chaz pushed on toward his desk, feeling like spun glass. If he tripped, he'd be splinters all over the room.
He wasn't going to trip. He was used to taking care of himself. He'd gotten a little sloppy about that, leaned a little too much on other people, expected things of them. But he hadn't forgotten how to stay safe. He just had to act on it, was all.
They'd think he'd changed. Well, everyone changed. It was nothing to worry about.
Eddie Cieslewicz's severed hand lay on his desk.
When he opened his eyes there was nothing on his desk, because it was all on the floor. The crash still echoed in his ears. His forearm stung where it had hit the lamp and the phone. In the mess he couldn't pick out what cluster of objects had looked like a palm and fingers.
He lifted his head. Brady held the receiver forgotten over the cradle of the phone. Daphne leaned across her desk, braced straight-armed on one hand, the other half-raised toward Chaz. Todd stood at the entrance to the kitchenette, coffee dripping down the side of his cup and over his fingers. Lau and Hafidha were frozen at the doors to the hall. Five motionless bodies, faces shocked blank. It's like a game of Statues. Or a photo of bystanders at a car wreck.
Falkner stood framed in her office doorway. Her face rarely gave anything away, but Chaz thought there was a lot going on behind her not-expression.
He bent, retrieved the phone, and put it back on the desk. Think of an explanation. Figure out a way through the rest of the day, so you don't notice they're looking at you sideways. At least he hadn't raised the mirror.
He reached for the lamp. In the debris he spotted his stapler and picked that up instead.
5.35 ounces, with staples.
He wasn't human. No point even in pretending. And no one would care, if all he could do was weigh things with his brain. How much damage could he do with that, if he went off the rails?
If they knew about the mirror, they would care.
He looked again at the team, one by one. He didn't let himself linger on Hafidha or Daphne, because they might unfreeze, and he wanted to be done by the time they thought to move.
He rose and walked the aisle to Falkner's office. Falkner stepped aside to let him pass in.
Falkner felt the door latch snick home and pressed her palm to the wood a second longer than necessary. She could almost feel five pairs of eyes on the other side trying to drill through, hear the five brains pulling up evidence. There'd been an explosion. In the aftermath of an explosion, that's what the team did.
Of course, the explosion might not see it that way.
God damn you, Stephen. No, unfair; this wasn't all of Reyes's making. She'd thought she could hold the pieces of the team together long enough for them to knit again. Lau had known better, when she went to Celentano. Holding them together just made the tension that much worse.
It just made the most fragile pieces crack.
Chaz stood with his back to the desk, arms curled against his chest, staring at the framed dead trees on the wall. He was facing them, anyway. Whatever he was seeing, Falkner doubted it was her Army commission. His shoulders rose and dropped, quick, deep breaths.
He didn't stab me when he had the chance, she told herself. Then, because it was the hard fact, added, That was then.
Five highly-trained, vigilant people on the other side of the door would be useless if Chaz wasn't himself. Stupid euphemism. Chaz was himself; it just wasn't the self Falkner had shooed out of the office on Memorial Day weekend. (Every day since, she'd repeated, You didn't make it happen.)
No one could pass through that unchanged. They all knew it. Chaz knew it. There was no point in pretending otherwise. But he'd pretended just the same.
Falkner sat down at her desk, nudged the keyboard aside, folded her hands, and waited. Seven seconds before Chaz turned.
Because he was mostly bone and ligaments, it was easy to see when his teeth were clenched. His chin rose, his throat worked.
"I quit," he said.
He meant it to shock, and it did. Falkner refused to show it. One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. "Why?"
She let exasperation get to her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth. "What did you think I'd say?"
That made him look into her face, instead of just past it. He raised his right shoulder--a flinch-and-roll, as if it ached.
He hadn't considered what she'd say. There was a chance she could talk him out of the corner he'd backed himself into.
Chaz's gaze slipped sideways toward the window. Too good a poker player not to understand his own tells; too human to hide them all. "I can't do the work."
"Bullshit." Yes, I saw you palm the card. "You could do the work hanging upside down over the shark tank at Sea World."
Chaz shuffled his arms; now they were right over left over ribcage. His fingers flexed, stretched, like antennae searching the air. They had more expression than his face. It occurred to Falkner that she was seeing the Chaz Reyes had studied but never saw: the teenager who learned to hide in plain sight.
The person Chaz had been before Memorial Day followed impulses and took risks. Now he planned and second-guessed each word and action and everything he heard and saw. Post-traumatic stress disorder could produce changes in personality.
It wasn't the only thing that could.
His voice was dull and flat when he said, "I display abnormal reaction formation, poor impulse control, extreme startle reflex, and inability to respond effectively to negative experiences."
Not an explanation; a diagnosis. Falkner didn't know if Chaz was describing his symptoms or someone else's. It might even be a voice out of his childhood, of someone who'd written notes Reyes had read.
The only thing she was sure of was that it was a wall of Chaz's building, meant to keep out people like her. Somewhere deep in Falkner was the reaction that Brady would have had: something physical, fierce, useless. In Brady the reaction would have more cement and rebar over it than Jimmy Hoffa.
As if it doesn't in me.
Chaz bent his daisy-stem neck and peered at Falkner out the corner of his darker eye. "That's your game face."
He flushed under his fading tan. She allowed herself a breath, because the flat-voiced psychologist of a moment ago would never blush.
"Professional, Federal Bureau of Investigation, hard to read. Lau and Brady call it that."
Tit for tat. That was her wall, between her and the things she couldn't afford to take into herself. Whether he knew it or not (and in his current state, Falkner wasn't sure how much of what he knew he was able to use), he'd replied to her assault on his defenses by a poke at hers.
So she leaned forward with her arms crossed on the desktop (though her back pinched ferociously, as if some creature had bitten her and hung there), and gave up as many of those defenses as she could. Too late to come out from behind the desk; Chaz would spot the big gesture and lock up like a bank vault. She made her voice a little more gentle, and put some question into her command. "Tell me what's happening."
It unfroze Chaz's posture, at least. He eased into the spare chair as if he or it might break. He hunched forward, elbows on his knees, his long, knuckly hands kneading the air.
"I don't... I'm a risk in the field. A weakness. I'm jumpy and paranoid and I...I can't sleep. I'm going to shoot the wrong person."
Falkner took a risk and said, "You did a good job in Wisconsin."
He bared his teeth at the floor. It was probably supposed to be a smile. "Reyes kept me in solitary. Kind of limited the damage I could do."
How to tell the difference between over-protection and lack of trust? From this distance, Falkner couldn't. She wondered if even Reyes had been able to. "What kind of damage are you expecting?"
"It's the kind you don't expect that gets you, isn't it?" He lifted his head, met her eyes with a receptive calm that seemed an eerie match for her own. "Maybe you should ask Brady."
No point in leaping to Brady's defense. She'd debriefed the team that went to Wisconsin, together and separately. They all knew sometimes the unforgivable had to be forgiven.
Knowing wasn't doing.
"What happened in Wisconsin had nothing to do with your ability to do the job. You were all making decisions on too little sleep and under too much pressure."
"Brings out the worst in people. And anomaloids."
Anger, resentment, warning--there was so much Falkner could read into those words. What did he want her to hear?
"Look," Chaz said, "I don't trust me, either. The experiment failed, okay? I resign. Otherwise at some point you'll have to call me in and tell me you're firing me for the good of the unit. Or you'll hold off until..." Chaz's hands clenched. His lips compressed again; the muscles around his mouth flexed. I can't talk about it, they said. He drew an uneven breath through his nose.
"There's no evidence you'll convert."
"Would we know it if we saw it?" he asked, his voice rising unconsciously in pitch and volume. "Tell me what I'm watching for."
He was right. The signs by which Shadow Unit identified a gamma--sudden extreme weight loss, heavy and frequent eating, unusual capabilities or perceptions--were already evident in a beta. If Chaz converted--if he even developed an external manifestation, as Hafidha had--would any of that change?
"Tell me what you've seen," Falkner said.
Chaz's fingers writhed around each other, and his chin dropped to his chest. Please, no, she prayed on a surge of panic. They'd followed so many cases in which stress, injury, and pressure made a monster. Not this one.
Tight-voiced, Chaz said, "Nothing."
Only the emergency Falkner had wanted to deal with going into this conversation. Bad enough, but not the worst.
Chaz knew as much about the worst and its signs as anyone on the team. He would have already looked in that mirror. It hadn't shown him his face. If it had, he'd have told Falkner the minute the door closed, because in his way, Chaz was the bravest person Falkner knew.
But Chaz also knew the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. If this was only the crisis Falkner had thought it was, why were they here?
She'd been so sure he was ready to come back to work. Maybe she'd only seen how much he needed to, and lied to herself. What the hell kind of behavioral analyst did that?
Chaz's gaze was fixed on the carpet, but he was seeing the inside of his head. First job: get him out of there. "No," Falkner said briskly. "I can't accept your resignation."
Chaz scowled, opened his mouth, reconsidered. "So if I want to get back to Witch Mountain, I'll have to run for it."
"Only if you want me to send out the helicopters." Falkner couldn't lean any farther across the damned desk; if she could have, she would. "Everything you've described is consistent with PTSD. I'd be more worried if you didn't show the signs." She let a little exasperation into her voice. "Chaz, you're not that special."
His laugh was more like throat-clearing, but it was enough to reassure her.
"Nobody can spend all day, every day, walking into closets full of monsters and not start screaming eventually. We all have coping strategies, but they aren't perfect, and they don't work forever. You know that. That's why we get medical leave and counseling."
Chaz's left hand reached toward his right wrist, changed vector abruptly, and ended by scratching aimlessly up and down his arm. "I did that already."
And whatever he said during his psych eval was sealed by physician-patient privacy. The only part that ought to concern Falkner was that he was cleared to return to duty.
"I can make ongoing counseling a condition of your continued employment."
Chaz's hands stopped moving. He lifted his head. His face was iron, his eyes fixed unblinking on Falkner. "Go ahead. I already quit."
After William Villette, Chaz wasn't going to be scared by anything Falkner could say.
In a course of psychiatric therapy, there came a point where the patient fought back, protected the place where the pain was worst. Instinct was stronger than the desire to heal. When that happened, the therapist had to be smarter and more determined than the patient.
Chaz had been imprisoned by a delusional sadist who controlled and manipulated his victims by overpowering their thoughts, their emotions, even their sense of right and wrong. He'd been starved, psychologically tortured, and finally damned near flayed. And he'd still managed to walk out of the abattoir.
Finding a therapist smarter and more determined than that might be tricky.
Falkner's throat was full of the sentences it would be wrong to say. If you quit, the wheels will fall off the team. We'll lose Daphne, and Hafidha, and Brady will close up for good, and I won't be able to caulk the cracks. People will die, and it will happen because you left. But guilt was the wrong reason. She couldn't even let Chaz get there by himself.
Chaz's hands gripped each other, sudden and angry. "I'm just... We're damming the ocean with a box of toothpicks."
"We find and stop the criminals no one else can--"
The response wasn't so much a shake of Chaz's head as a snap of it, a violent horizontal twitch. He was hidden behind his hair and his lowered eyelids; the tells that Falkner most wanted were blocked by shadow and crossing lines. "We wait for a gamma to hurt enough--kill enough--for us to figure him out. Then if we're lucky, we take him alive and make up a good enough story to lock him in the monster zoo for the rest of his life. And we call that winning. How can we afford to lose?" When he spoke again his voice was flat, the words like pebbles dropped out of his mouth, one by one. "I can't keep doing this."
"The Green River Killer case made John Douglas melt down like a Hershey bar on a dashboard in July. He took medical leave."
"Douglas had viral encephalitis."
"Be thankful for small favors. Chaz, you don't have to be the invulnerable butt-chinned hero to do this job. Trying to be actually makes it harder. You're allowed to groan when you hurt and limp when you're sore and get counseling when you need it. Who are you measuring yourself against?"
Chaz straightened in the chair, stiff and remote again. "The point of me quitting is that you don't have to give me pep talks."
Or ask you personal questions. "I'll put you in for medical leave, effective immediately. Take a few weeks and talk to a therapist before you do anything else. Please?" It had sounded better as an order. The begging just popped out.
Chaz pushed his hair back from his face with the pads of his fingers. "I guess if it's that or the helicopters."
Chaz unfolded out of the chair and walked to the door as if he were forty pounds heavier and forty years older, and Falkner went with him, because he shouldn't have to open that door and face the others by himself.
But Chaz stopped with his hand on the knob. "Sorry about your back."
Falkner's voice failed her. By the time she recovered, Chaz was down the aisle of the bullpen, and a BAU clerk was at Falkner's door holding out a sheaf of paper and saying something about needing to be signed off on right away.
Who was he measuring himself against, indeed. God strike down Esther Falkner and her damned game face.
Out of the corner of his vision Solomon Todd watched Chaz make his measured way down the aisle, eyes on the floor, like a prisoner being moved. Had Falkner fired him? No, there were still impossible things, even in this world. Even Reyes wouldn't do it, though Todd was fairly sure the recurring sight of Chaz in the bullpen gave Reyes a case of the Conscience that would make a plague of boils seem like an inconvenience. Reyes might be as lapsed as he liked, but he was still capable of wanting to walk to Santiago on his knees.
Chaz and Lau passed beside Brady's chair. Lau gave him a one-cornered conspiratorial smile. Chaz, fishing in his pocket and pulling out his phone, either didn't see or pretended not to. Once Lau was past, he put the phone away.
Well, Todd thought. That would have been on the list of impossible things.
Daphne Worth was not so easily trifled with. She stood at the corner of Chaz's desk. Chaz's chin came up as he approached, and the muscles of his throat flexed tight. But Worth crouched by the scattered objects that in quieter times lived on Chaz's desk, picked up the lamp, and set it in its accustomed place.
Chaz watched, as if trying to decide among several actions. Todd couldn't imagine what the others were, but the one he settled on seemed pretty good. He squatted, picked up his wireless keyboard, and set it in front of his monitor.
Together they returned order to Chaz's desktop. Chaz worked with brisk precision, as if the surface were a game of Tetris. Worth quickly adapted, simply picking things up off the floor and handing them to him. Chaz never lifted his eyes from the stuff he was shifting and, temporarily, at least, Worth put up with that.
When they finished, she asked, "Go for coffee?"
Chaz raised his eyebrows.
"Okay, I'd drink something else and suffer nobly while you drank coffee."
One corner of Chaz's mouth rose, but that lasted barely long enough for a sighting. "No thanks." A sideways glance at Worth. "But thanks. For the help."
She stepped forward and touched her fingers to the desk, as she might touch someone else's arm. "Platypus--"
He shook his head. "I'm fine."
Worth pinched her lips together between her teeth. "Later, maybe." She walked away, toward the kitchenette, which would give Chaz wider margins than if she sat at her desk nearby.
Todd, however, was already at his desk, which butted up to Chaz's. And he already had coffee.
If anyone had suggested one ought not profile one's teammates, the team would have regarded the anyone as if he were speaking Finnish, which Todd was pretty sure no one on the team spoke. It wasn't a skill to be turned on and off, like playing softball. Or maybe it was just like that: after enough practice, if something came hurtling toward you, you put up your glove and caught it.
So it wasn't Todd's fault if he couldn't miss the way Chaz lowered himself into his chair, careful and stiff, or the way he sat at the front edge of the seat as if it might disappear under him. Todd felt the quick snare-drum vibration of Chaz's heel on the leg of his chair, transmitted through the floor.
Chaz's routine since Wisconsin had been to start the day as if he were fleeing persecution. Hurl himself at his desk, drop into his chair, wake his computer before his butt hit the cushion, drag over the nearest case document, and start work. Todd wasn't fool enough to think that was about renewed commitment to the nation's interests.
Insulation, more like. And not just from his coworkers.
Todd took a swallow of coffee as an excuse to raise his head, just enough to see over the privacy barrier between his desk and Chaz's. This was definitely not the post-Wisconsin routine. Chaz perched like a bird poised between feeding and flying away, waiting for an all-clear or an alarm. Why don't the good guys get mind control powers? If they did, Todd would plant an irresistible longing for coffee in Chaz's brain. Chaz would go into the kitchenette, pour himself a cup, stand awkwardly with all his angles pointing in unlikely directions. And Worth would open a cautious, stop-and-start dialogue with him.
Or maybe Chaz would take his laptop and coffee and burrow into the safety of Hafidha's shocking-yellow velvet couch. Then Hafidha would pick the necessary story out of him, a few words at a time, about what had gone on in Falkner's office.
Chaz had always had his privacies, his secured areas of intimacy with password-only access, and he was stingy with the code. Daphne Worth and Hafidha Gates had it, whoever else might. But there was secure, and there was immured behind a wall of thorns. Even in fairy tales, the latter was never a good idea. That was why one had magical godparents, after all.
Chaz reached casually behind himself and slid the straps of his leather backpack off his chair. Not new, that pack. But it was a very nice piece of luggage, supple black leather, reinforced seams, and antiqued bronze hardware. Todd, having seen Chaz's car, wouldn't be surprised if it had cost less than that backpack.
A profiler or a journalist ought to be able to draw some inference from that, but Todd was damned if he could.
Chaz started opening drawers, taking things out, dropping them in the bag. A handful of Clif bars. Two notebooks. Three CDs. His iPod. His fountain pen.
The "Platypus Xing" sign that had appeared over his monitor one April Fool's. The photos push-pinned to the privacy barrier: Chaz belaying for Daphne at the climbing gym. Chaz and Hafidha on the beach in Maui. Hafidha and Daphne clowning on ice skates.
Chaz was removing himself from his desk.
Falkner hadn't fired him. A fired federal employee got official help cleaning out his desk drawers. And Chaz's casual front was calculated: his body was saying, "Nothing to see here, pay no attention."
Hafidha was nowhere in sight. Worth was still in the kitchenette. Brady knew better than to enquire into Chaz's personal life at present. If someone was going to ride to the rescue, it would have to be Todd.
He rolled his chair back, stood, and stretched. If there was one thing journalism taught, it was how to be unashamedly nosy. He pretended to notice for the first time what Chaz was doing, craning his neck for maximum verisimilitude. "Heading out?"
He thought his voice might have provoked the instant of hesitation in Chaz's hand on the pack zipper.
"Mm," Chaz said, and jerked the pull. The zipper closed so quickly it made a single sound rather than the corrugated stutter of tooth on tooth.
"Vegas," Chaz replied, after a pause that suggested he was considering several possible answers, "None of your business" being one of them.
"Huh." Todd strolled around the side of his desk to lean hipshot on Chaz's. Chaz crouched and slid his go bag from under it. He didn't pick it up, though; that would attract attention. That would be the last step. "Staying long?"
Chaz shot him a look, one with no apparent emotional content. "Not sure." He shrugged the backpack onto one shoulder. Now he would reach for the go bag.
Keep him talking, and hope for a miracle. "Would you mind doing me a favor?"
Chaz turned to him and waited, head a little cocked. A wild critter watching to see which way Todd moved.
"Can you get me a shot glass from Caesar's Palace?" Todd heard the words leave his mouth and wondered where they came from. The operation of his hind brain was as close to a miracle as he could manage on short notice. But when Chaz asked him what the hell for, what was he going to say?
For a heartbeat longer Chaz eyed him. Then he mumbled, "Got it," and the near-nod duck of his chin became the swoop that closed his hand around the strap of his go bag.
All Todd could do was let him go, before the need to escape made Chaz disappear like a Star Trek transporter effect. By the time Todd turned for a last look, there was nothing to see but the hall door closing.
He wasn't looking forward to telling Hafidha.
Falkner handed the signed requisitions off to the clerk, looked up, and saw the closing hall door catch the light. Too late. The damage, whatever it was, was done.
"Thank you, Agent Falkner," said the clerk, with a have-a-nice-day smile and a nod, and walked out her door and through the bullpen to the hall. Falkner wondered if this was how anthropologists felt, when other people saw a nice place to picnic and they saw burial mounds.
The Bureau was mostly cops, with good cops' thick skins and distrust of imagination. But the WTF was like a string of racehorses. They didn't run well when they were upset. And what upset one could throw them all off their stride.
Maybe the effect would work in reverse. Maybe if Falkner unlocked her jaw, unclenched her fingers, released the tension in her back that hurt like a massage from burning fingertips, the effect would spread through the team.
And the Messiah would show up five minutes later and give them all dreidls.
PTSD is bad enough, she told herself. Don't go looking for extra trouble. But if it was already there, it wasn't extra, was it?
In someone else, Falkner would call it a crisis of faith. Chaz didn't believe in God; but what he did believe in had failed him. She had no idea how to fix that problem.
Maybe it shouldn't be fixed. Chaz had good reason to doubt, after all.
She filed the necessary leave order, making use of the time before Worth or Hafidha--or someone--nerved themselves to ask her obliquely about Chaz's empty chair, and see how much she was prepared to say.
But it was Stephen Reyes who came to her first. He knocked on the doorframe, and she raised her head and nodded. Once he was in, she said, "Yes, you should close the door."
He acknowledged the break in her custom with a grimace and shut it gently behind him. She didn't bother to tell him it was the second time today; he'd figure it out.
To Reyes, she'd already said what she wanted to. Just because she was on fire to say it again, louder, didn't give her the right, or make it any more useful to repeat.
"Where's Chaz? he asked. He didn't sit down. Did he not expect to stay long, or did he think he should wait for an invitation?
"Officially? On medical leave."
He took it with the barest sideways motion of his head. She recognized it as a shrunken version of his reaction to unreliable witnesses, and reminded herself of her resolve not to yell at him. He asked, "Unofficially?"
Chaz had left a weapon in her hand. She used it. "He quit."
Reyes jerked sideways, as if he'd put a foot down on a surface that wouldn't hold him, and drew a short, hard breath through his nose. In an instant he remembered himself, what he knew, what she'd told him. But she took unworthy satisfaction in that splinter of time.
Reyes paced across the room and stopped at the window. He stood with his hands on his hips, his chin thrust forward, as if he meant to intimidate the glass. His thumbs pressed deep creases in the back of his flannel trousers just below his belt. "What happened?"
She considered where to begin. It was a question with many answers, after all.
But he surprised her by dropping his head and shoving his hands in his trouser pockets. "I'm sorry," he said. "That wasn't the note I'd meant to strike." He pivoted on one glossy oxford to face her. He either knew or forgot that he was now backlit. "Can you tell me what prompted him to resign?"
Because Reyes could judge tone (when he wasn't rattled) the way Chaz could estimate distance, his question suggested both that she might not want to tell him, and that Chaz might not have given her enough to go on. A good effort, deserving of a reward.
"He's showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. He doubts his ability to contribute, so he believes everyone else does, too." She took a long, slow breath. "And if I didn't point out he has trouble trusting himself and the team, I wouldn't be doing my job."
A sharp glance from under his eyebrows. "No, you wouldn't. You don't mention that if I'd done better at my job, yours would be easier."
Not yet, she hadn't. "I expect staring down the barrel of Brady's Glock contributed to Chaz's feelings of alienation."
Reyes sighed. It was not the sound of battle being joined. "May I sit?"
"Please," she said, and he settled decorously into the better of the two visitors' chairs.
He rested his elbows on the chair arms and laced his fingers across his stomach. Now she could see his face properly. He might have been staring at the view of nearby rooftops, but his eyes seemed too wide and unfocused. "I walked through the house, after you left in the ambulance."
For the team, "the house" would always be the one in Texas. She nodded. "I read the case report. It had Brady's profile of the scene."
He gave the little smile and exhalation through his nose that irritated her; it was agreement and skepticism and dismissal at once. "He did a good job. But there's no substitute for seeing it yourself."
It was true. No one read a crime scene like Reyes.
"I found granola bar wrappers in the kitchen trash. There was another wrapper open on the counter, with the granola bar broken up small. There was a bucket of fresh water in the kitchen. In the dining room I saw a wet ring on the tiles, the size of the bucket, out of reach of the chain. I didn't see a cup. And the manacles were made to hold the hands in this position." Reyes held his hands out before him, palms toward the floor, and tucked his elbows in until his wrists were only a few inches apart.
Falkner looked at Reyes's neat brown hands and felt her stomach clench. "Chaz couldn't have fed himself. He couldn't have held a cup."
"Villette made Chaz eat from his fingers. He brought the water in his cupped hands, and made him--" Reyes's voice hardened before it broke off like a frozen branch.
There was nothing Falkner could fill that silence with.
For the first time since he sat down, Reyes met her eyes across her desk. "I could see Chaz curled up on the floor at the end of that chain. And I knew what he was thinking. 'I just have to hold on. They'll get to me.'"
"Why are you telling me this now?"
"Because that was when I stopped being afraid he would convert. I failed to realize that the same evidence, combined with past experience, would have the opposite effect on Brady. I can't plead anything except 'guilty.'"
Falkner wished she had something to fiddle with--a cup of coffee, a pen, her reading glasses. It would be an excuse for silence. Picking something up now would be an admission of weakness. "Have you talked to Chaz since you came back from Wisconsin?"
"He avoided me pretty efficiently in the twenty-four hours between then and my unpaid vacation." Reyes's eyebrows gave a little sardonic twitch. Was that for Chaz, for Celentano, for Reyes himself, or all three?
"You could have called him."
He straightened against the chair back, lifted his head. But he must have reconsidered what he meant to say; he bent forward, forearms crossed on his knees, as if he'd like to clutch them protectively across his chest. "I believed neither of us was ready to revisit the issue. And I thought Chaz might feel...hounded. Was I wrong?"
Stephen Reyes was asking her if he was wrong. He wasn't assuming she'd say "no," either. He deserved her best answer. "I think the worst things hounding Chaz right now are inside him. And he's the one who has to drag them into the light. Until then, all we can do is give him a safe place to do it."
Reyes closed his eyes, drew a breath, and let it out, short and sharp. Falkner hadn't meant it as a dig--it was only the truth--but of course, it would hurt. You did the worst thing you could have.
"He's ashamed," she said. Even as she said it, she wondered why she was telling Reyes.
Reyes frowned. "Ashamed?"
"Of what happened to him in Texas. Of the scars."
"He was wounded in the line of duty. And took down the gamma, besides."
"Have you ever been injured that badly?"
He looked ruefully down at his left arm. "Well, if Worth hadn't been there the last time, I'd have been a goner."
"But you didn't stay on the sick list long."
"No," Reyes said after a moment. "Have you?"
It was her can of worms. She might as well open it. "I'd hurt my back, at West Point. I wouldn't admit it." And there was her own ironic snort of amusement, so she supposed she ought not to be annoyed with Reyes's. "Because I was damned if I'd let anyone say I was asking for special treatment."
"That was stupid."
"At that age we're all stupid. Military academies don't make it better. Then in Kuwait... I finished screwing my back during a mission. I was hospitalized for weeks, and assigned light duty on release." If she hadn't been a girl, she might have got a Purple Heart. It had mattered at the time, some. Now it was just another pebble thrown in the pond.
Reyes's body was relaxed and still, and his expression quietly attentive: interested and not judging. That she knew exactly how the trick was done didn't keep it from working.
"People from my platoon, the major--they came to the hospital and said, 'Good work, Lieutenant. You should be proud.' But I wasn't. I was ashamed. I was less than I'd been, less than everyone I served with." Her hands trembled. She leaned back and clutched the seat of her chair to hide it. "There's two ways to pronounce I-N-V-A-L-I-D."
Reyes turned his gaze to the window again. She counted off two seconds before he pressed his closed right hand hard against his lips. Finally he said, "Thank you. For Chaz's sake, especially."
"We may still lose him."
"We may already have."
Falkner looked out the strip of glass beside her closed door, into the bullpen. Worth was leaning over Lau's shoulder, pointing at something on Lau's desk with the end of her pen. "Let's hope not," she said. "I don't think you, Sol, and I can do this by ourselves."
His was the only reading light on in the cabin.
The occupied seats (which wasn't all of them; the red eye from Dulles to McCarran rarely filled up, even in the peak season) were tilted back. White pillow corners showed at the edges of headrests. Navy blue blankets trailed over armrests on the aisle.
The book in Chaz's lap--a survey of neuroplasticity for non-neurosurgeons--was one he wanted to read, so he felt guilty whenever he realized his eyes had wandered off the page again. He pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his face.
He'd been fine at first, because he'd had to move quickly from one thing to another. Find a flight, book a seat, pack, leave a note about cat food and a key for the Ngs. All the things normal people did when they went on vacation. It was important to look normal.
Once he got to the airport, the sitting and waiting started. Now there was nothing else, and Chaz was alone with his brain, which wasn't quite plastic enough to stop following old trails that led to places he didn't want to go.
There was no movie on the red eye.
The senior cabin attendant slipped through the curtain from first class. Chaz held up an index finger, raised his eyebrows. She spotted him and smiled. My name is Darice. On behalf of United Airlines, I'd like to welcome... Don't call her by name. Normal people wouldn't remember it.
She leaned over the aisle seats in his row. She had chin-length straightened hair, long eyes made longer with eyeliner, and a short, rounded nose and small, full mouth at odds with the artfulness of the first two. Without makeup and with her hair pulled back, Chaz bet she looked about 18. At a volume perfectly calculated to reach him over the engine noise and no more, she murmured, "What can I get you, sir?"
"I'd like a screwdriver, please?"
Darice nodded and padded away toward the galley.
A screwdriver was a nice, healthy way to self-medicate. Increase your intake of vitamin C while traveling. No conclusive research, but Linus Pauling was still Linus Pauling, after all.
And coffee was right out. The last thing he needed was to be more alert.
He was twitchily aware that his gun was checked in his duffle. He should have gone through the Tactics for Flying Armed Training Program when Todd first mentioned it to him. But then, those were the days before the belt pack and the bedside table.
Back then he could leave his weapon in a car glove compartment.
He dropped the tray table, then stared at the bulkhead between coach and business until Darice came back. She set down a peel-top cup of orange juice, the little bottle of vodka, a plastic cup of ice, two bags of peanuts, and four of pretzels. He looked quickly up.
"I noticed you didn't bring food on board." The line from her chin to her throat was soft, incised with a tiny crease. He couldn't be sure in the dimmed cabin, but it looked as if her right nostril was pierced.
He shrugged and pushed a little smile across his face. "I forgot, at the airport." In fact, he'd stared at the refrigerated ranks of shiny clear-wrapped sandwiches, crayon-green lettuce flattened against uniform bread, an oily smudge of mayo on plastic, and felt his stomach churn.
She tapped the top of the vodka bottle. "If you want another of these, let me know."
"Thank you." Odds were she knew someone with a drinking problem, maybe someone in recovery--not herself, or she wouldn't have offered to make the drink a double. She acknowledged that not everyone was an addict, but she knew what enabling was, and she tried not to do it. So she'd only brought one bottle.
Stop it. There was nothing to keep in practice for. He didn't need to know anything about anyone that they didn't choose to say out loud.
Chaz fumbled bills out of his wallet and handed them to her. She smiled and nodded and went on down the aisle, so he must have kept his thoughts to himself. Good boy. Stick to normal. Still, his hands shook as he fished the iPod out of his backpack.
Music and vodka might unwind the taut spring in his head, at least temporarily. He put the earbuds in, thumbed the click wheel, and highlighted a playlist without reading the name. The earbuds murmured to him; like Darice's voice, just loud enough. "My friend has problems with winter and autumn," Amanda Palmer chanted. "Runs in the Family" said the display.
The iPod oracle. Chaz jabbed the click wheel and got Siouxie and the Banshees. Siouxie might be scary, but she wasn't personal.
He had nothing to go to Vegas for, except Vegas itself; it only used to be home. But that might not occur to anyone until too late. A person could enter Las Vegas at one edge and come out in any direction, as himself, or someone else, or nobody. All it took were a few resources.
The plane ticket was on his credit card. The hotel would be, too, because it and the taxi to get there were the next reasonable bend in the trail. After that, he had cash, and the semi-fluid casino economy of the Strip and Fremont Street. This commercial flight wasn't even a getaway car. It would only take him to the scene of the crime. Fade off the record, don't set off any alarms, and by the time they thought to look there'd be nothing to track him by.
By the time Reyes thought to look. Would he try to bring Chaz back? Would Reyes ask Hafidha to do his hunting?
Sorry, sis. Witch Mountain's right out. It's the first place they'll check.
A coyote could jog across the road in front of your car, plain as day. But once you pulled even with the spot where he'd left the pavement, he'd have disappeared, turned invisible in the middle of open country.
He felt good about what he was doing. He did. It was the right thing to do.
Maybe if he had two bottles, he could even sleep. He hadn't had any luck so far. Funny, some of the deepest sleep of his life had been on the Gulfstream, lying accordion-folded across the seats, with the engines' harsh growl crawling through the frame of the cabin and his teammates discussing life and death only a yard away.
But the Gulfstream had been safety. It was the airlock between ordinary life and the knife-edged all-in game of the job. Sacred space. Daphne would think that was funny.
He would never be on the Gulfstream again, so it didn't matter that the illusion of safety was gone. A good night's sleep was for suckers.
The team would be okay without him. Better, in fact. They wouldn't be distracted wondering if the next full moon would turn him into a werewolf. They'd never need to know he'd turned already.
Hafidha would be angry for a while. Daphne would be hurt. But Hafidha had Erik and Daphne to hang onto, and Daphne had Hafs and Tricia. The team would go on saving people while they figured out what the anomaly was. Being normal, they'd forget him. He'd learn not to remember them. The empty space would fill up with something, because nature hates a vacuum.
He checked his phone for the time. Wheels down in two hours. He realized suddenly that Justin Sullivan was in his ears, whispering "Home is wherever they take you in."
The noise in the back of his throat wasn't loud enough for anyone to hear over the engines. He pinched down on the click wheel until the iPod powered off.
He caught Darice's eye and held up the little vodka bottle. She brought him another.
He'd learn to sleep. He could learn anything.
Airports didn't have luggage lockers anymore. The bus station did, though. "Avoidance of Greyhound Use as a Preferential Indicator in Profiling Foreign and Domestic Terrorists." He could write the article, but no one would realize it was supposed to be funny. And he wouldn't be writing articles anymore, anyway.
The bus station was also the Plaza Casino, which had the same relationship to the Strip casinos as a bus station had to an airport terminal. He threaded through the ghost-people at the slots, across sticky carpet, through air that was more dampened than cooled and full of recirculated cigarette smoke, to the restrooms nearest the Casino's front doors. Hi there, Eyes in the Sky. Just going to pee. In case someone wants to examine the footage later.
The men's room was an improvement on a bus station, anyway. He appropriated a handicapped stall, set his duffel and backpack side by side on the floor, and began to edit his past.
The iPod? In the duffel. It knew him too well, but it could be written over. His pistol? He ought to put it in the backpack. Six months ago he wouldn't have hesitated. Now the idea sent his heart rate scrambling upward. He slid the gun into his concealed-carry belt bag and buckled it around his waist.
The folder with his FBI credentials went in the backpack. The Adorable Overhyped Phone followed it. His laptop--
He could write over that, too. He just couldn't write over the parts that weren't on the hard drive, and they would pull on him like a hook in the roof of a fish's mouth. One little peek at a LiveJournal. A quick e-mail check, just in case. He'd hurt less if he rejected the bait in the first place. He put the laptop in the backpack.
He slid the photos in, too, quickly, trying not to look. Even so, he saw a streak of blood-red, and knew it was Hafidha's jacket, and that she was standing on one skate blade with her arms over her head, and Daphne stood spraddle-legged beside her with her arms around Hafs's waist, pretending terror.
He zipped both bags closed, hoisted them, and walked (not fast, not slow, hello, Eyes) back to the rack of luggage lockers. He chose one at random, opened it, stuffed the backpack in, closed the door, and turned the key. As soon as the bolt shot home he wanted to open it again. Instead he pulled the key and pushed out the front doors into night air stinking of car exhaust, cigarettes, and piss, a street lit by every color light source known to science.
There was a trash can just outside the casino. He stretched out the hand with the key in it and let go. It dropped, flashed reflected light once, and disappeared among decaying fast food, half-empty soda cans, cigarette butts, crumpled flyers for strip clubs and escort services. He wiped his hands on his jacket, as if he'd actually reached in after it instead of just watched. Then he headed down the block. This time it didn't matter if he walked too fast.
At a no-name convenience store he bought a prepaid cell phone and a 100-minute card with cash. The clerk never looked up from the register. Chaz wondered if the camera in the corner was really recording video.
The strap of his duffel bit into his shoulder as he stepped back onto the street and hailed another cab; it was a small pleasure to have it off him and in the trunk.
As he slid into the back seat, he checked, unobtrusively, that the door locks and handles were there, and worked.
"Where to?" the driver asked, when Chaz didn't tell him.
He needed a space between lives, and a perch to reassure anyone who cared that he hadn't flown away. "The Riviera, please." He could play poker and they'd comp the room. And people tended to forget the Riviera. It wasn't a castle or a pyramid or the New York skyline. He sank into the seat cushions and closed his eyes, while the cab zigzagged out of downtown, scuttled and sat in the Strip traffic.
"Staying long in Vegas?" asked the driver.
It was an opening, to be followed by a list of resources and an offer to take him there. Taxis were part of the service industry, after all. "I live here," he lied. It bought him a quiet trip, sheltering behind his eyelids from the hail of animated light, to the Riv's front door.
His room was on the fifth floor, and the window didn't open. Safer that way, and worth not being able to air out the musty smell that survived every Riviera remodel. It had all of two blind corners counting the bathroom, but he cleared it anyway, and left the shower curtain pulled back, the bathroom door open, and the lights on in case it was still dark when he returned.
People were murdered in hotel rooms. Hallways, too. And elevators, though it was statistically unlikely except in cases of execution, where the killer was efficient, highly organized, and had no need to spend time with the victim. It would be possible for a kidnapping or a murder to occur on a casino floor, but the cameras would spot it.
And if it was a kidnapping, that would increase the chances of finding the kidnapper and rescuing the victim. Fortunate, since who could keep up reasonable vigilance in a place so full of noise, light, movement, voices, emotions?
He was surrounded by so many potential threats, he couldn't feel threatened. So maybe his elevated heart rate was low blood sugar, not the flashing and clanging of the slots.
The buffet was probably closed, but Kady's would be easier anyway. What he really wanted was Steve Wynn's mom's bread pudding, but the Riv wasn't an MGM Mirage property, and he was afraid if he left, he'd be too exhausted to make it back. He got to the coffee shop just as he realized the movement he kept making with his left arm was supposed to end with his thumb hooking the strap of the backpack. He jammed both hands in his pants pockets.
He got down half a burger and a whole plate of fries. The fries could be eaten without thinking, but the burger required both hands. The spongy bun and stiff, charcoal-and-blood-scented meat made his gorge rise every time he took a bite, and he had to force himself to swallow.
He was waiting for the check and trying to impose patterns on the keno numbers when he heard, "Chaz? Charles Villette?"
What were the odds of being spotted by someone he used to know? Not that bad, actually. The resident population of Las Vegas wasn't exactly New York City. He should have thought of that.
It was a woman with wide, high cheekbones, dark eyes, and curly black jaw-length hair. She was straight-shouldered, small-waisted, and round-hipped. She wore a red cowgirl shirt; the red pearl snaps caught the light and glared like eyes in a flash photo. She beamed at him. "We--I went to high school with you. Maybe you don't--"
Noses didn't change much, or the shape of the eyes; the small crescent scar off-center on her chin was familiar, too, pale against rose-brown skin. A yearbook picture formed in his head, with a name under it. Martina Alcantar. "Martina," Chaz said, trying to sound pleasant and non-committal at once.
He'd been a teenaged boy once, and in one thing at least he'd fit the profile. She'd had long hair then, gelled and pulled back to try to tame it. He remembered walking behind her in the hall, watching that cloud of hair bounce, her flared hips swing without conscious effort, her calf muscles flexing and strong under her tan skin. She'd played soccer with a fierce joy; he'd been distracted by the sight while doing grounds cleanup in lieu of detention, and got hit in the back of the head with a basketball.
Chaz swallowed with what little spit was left in his mouth.
Her eyes moved quickly over him--trying not to stare, but sizing him up. If she says I haven't changed a bit, Chaz thought, I'm going to break the water glass and cut my throat with the jagged edge. His own ferocity startled him.
"Looks like the real world is doing all right by you," she offered instead.
He had to wonder what her standard of comparison was. But he was still dressed for D.C.--shirt, tie, brown corduroy jacket--which made him look as if he worked for a living. "Doing great," he lied.
"You're FBI now, right?"
That one was too tricky to answer in his present state. And why would anyone he went to high school with follow his career? He shrugged and smiled and kept trying to think of things she knew they had in common. "Your sister was a year ahead of me. Angela."
She smiled, nodded (too much, to acknowledge something so small--stop it), and her voice was bright and brittle when she answered, "Can't hardly forget Angela."
Don't fish for the reaction, it has nothing to do with you-- "Is she still in town?"
Martina's smile decayed slowly. "Jesus, even you. Even after the way she always was..."
He was floundering. He hated floundering. "What?"
"Aren't you--" Martina was frowning outright now, but it looked like confusion, which Chaz sympathized with. "I'm sorry," she finished, "we're not on the same page, are we?"
"I'm not sure. We're not making small talk?" The mirror would tell him. The mirror could reflect what she meant, what she expected to hear in return. What good was a superpower if you didn't make use of it?
If he were a sociopath, he would. So maybe he wasn't one yet.
"Crap." She slicked her hair back from her temples with both hands. He remembered that gesture. "Swear to God, I'm not usually a jerk. I just came off a hard shift." She shrugged, and gave him an awkward smile that flashed a crater of dimple to the right of her mouth. "I guess the sight of a long-lost high school friend brings back all my awesome ninth grade social skills."
Upstairs there was a room with the lights on that was his, all his. And confronted with a pretty girl who seemed to want to talk to him, he longed more than anything to lock himself in, put his pistol on the nightstand, and go to sleep. Under the circumstances, he was surprised how polite he sounded. "Martina, we weren't friends. I mean, not that we wouldn't be, but... We didn't really know each other."
She bit her lip and looked down. The jerk's on the other foot. You couldn't have chatted like a human being for five minutes and said, "Hey, gotta go, have a nice life?" Except, what would they chat about? High school? Nothing good could come of that.
But when she raised her head, she wore a skewed wry smile. "Yeah. Figure of speech, kind of? I'm sorry, would you mind if I sat down? It was a really hard shift."
"I was just about-- Uh, sure. Please do."
She slid out the chair across the table and dropped into it. Even tired and unsure of her welcome, her unconscious physical confidence made him think of Brady. The way she sat down, left hip further back in the chair, right hip a hair less flexed, triggered his own muscle memories. The adjustment she might make for a clip-on right-side holster.
"You're a police officer?" he said.
Her head rocked back a little. "Jesus. How did you-- God, that's right, you're with the BAU, aren't you? You're a profiler."
"Well--I mean, we develop profiles. We don't call it... I'm... The BAU, yeah." Stop talking now. You won't make it better.
She grinned, slow and wide like a cat stretching. "Damn. I'd ask how you figured it out, but I don't want to wreck the effect. Yeah, Las Vegas Metro, vice squad."
"Wow. That's great." It was probably hell, actually. But she must have known that going in.
"Just tested for sergeant, so I've got cramps in my fingers." She beamed and held up both hands and four pairs of crossed fingers. "It's early, but hey, I figure it doesn't hurt to try."
He opened his mouth to ask how long she'd been police, and instead heard himself say, "So why does it still bug you, that your sister was popular?"
Yes, he was too tired to filter properly.
"What makes you think that?" Martina's smile had a freeze-dried quality.
He could say, "You told me," but it would be a terrible idea. He raised his hands palm-up, a contained shrug, and said, "Never mind. Really."
"You must be the bomb at parties." She pushed her hair back again, and looked away, toward the windows with their blinds drawn. "Would you've called Angela 'popular?'"
From where he'd stood, almost everyone could have passed for popular. "Wasn't she?"
Martina harrumphed. "She was the bitch queen of the senior class, and she ruled by fear. Tell me she didn't screw with your head at least once."
"My head's been screwed with by experts since then. In the book of Chaz Villette your sister doesn't even get cited in the footnotes." Martina eyed him a little sideways, frowning, so he dialed it back. "It's all right, really. I don't think she did any lasting harm."
"Only to herself."
The waitress arrived with the bill and saved him from answering. Charge it to the room, and he could flee.
"She married Ron Shayle, for God's sake."
He wasn't really scared. Not anymore. It was just the shock of hearing the name when he wasn't prepared that had him pressed into his chair, forgetting to breathe.
"Oh, crap," Martina sighed. "Tell me you didn't, in fact, have a crush on my sister. Because I'd hate to think you have serious masochistic tendencies."
"What? No. Not my type." He forced his body through the panic--raise the left hand, close the fingers around the water glass, slide it an inch along the table. He didn't trust himself to lift it yet. His back muscles throbbed, but at least they didn't spasm.
Her eyes narrowed, just barely. "You sure of that?"
Questioning the suspect, he thought, and irritation got him through the last of the fear. "Entirely. And Ron's probably got redeeming qualities."
Martina's expression was still evaluating, and Chaz wished he knew what was going on behind it. She said, "Ron joined the Marines, they got married, he got deployed to the Sandbox, came home after two years, and she filed for divorce. Leaving out the details, of course."
Ron and Angela had dated for most of high school. But married might have been different, in a not-good way. Or maybe after two years in Iraq Ron had come home as someone different. In a not-good way.
The idea that he might have something intimate in common with Ron Shayle almost made Chaz laugh. "The details are usually nobody else's business."
"You think? Depends on the details, doesn't it? I'd say that Ron breaking her nose and her collarbone makes things a little more general-interest."
"I'm okay, cowboy," she'd said, and hid the cut lip and swelling cheek behind the hand that rubbed her eye. "I kind of had a fight." She could have told him she'd had an accident, but he knew his mom tried never to lie to him.
He remembered his mother's hands. They looked a lot like his did now, clutching the water glass, large with long fingers and defined knuckles.
Martina was watching him. He must have given her what she was looking for, since she broke eye contact and reached for the check. "Can I get this?"
"No." He took a breath before he said, "I'm putting it on the room."
She frowned. "But aren't you--"
"Really, no thanks." I'm not staying with non-existent old friends. And I wouldn't even if they existed.
She braced both hands on the chair seat, as if to push out of it. Then she shook her head. "Chaz--" She was fighting with herself over something; her jaw worked, her eyes moved as if she were reading the arguments inside her head. Finally she focused on his face, and her voice was harsh and flat with the struggle when she said, "I'm afraid for her."
"For Angela? You said they were separated--"
"He follows her. He calls her and hangs up. He leaves threatening messages on her phone. He slashed her tires in her driveway. He poured gasoline all over on her front porch and left a box of matches on the doormat. She got a dog for protection. She came home and found it shot dead in the back yard."
"She should get a restraining order--"
"Her sister is a cop, Chaz. Of course she got a restraining order. So?"
There was nothing he could do that she hadn't. He could turn his back; even a normal person would. "So? Her sister is a cop."
Martina's arms folded tight around the hurt. Good punch, Chaz. "I can't protect her."
"Where's the rest of Vegas Metro?"
"They're..." She clenched her hands, straightened her spine. "They're good cops. Mostly. But he's...he's a vet."
It took a moment for the penny to drop. "A war hero."
"Nobody says so, but the uniforms-- You can tell they're thinking, 'He served his country and the bitch dumped him.' And they hate domestics."
He said, "Domestic violence calls are statistically more likely to result in injury or death to a police officer than any other emergency call." Because stats could be painful, but they weren't messy.
Martina's fingers brushed her mouth, then dropped. "Is there anything your guys can do? I know, I know, this isn't a Federal thing. I just...want to know if he's going to hurt her again. Maybe if I had something I could take to Violent Crimes..."
"Almost certainly. There will probably be several incidents, escalating in degree of harm; he's moved from verbal threats to property damage to death of an animal. Each act makes him feel more powerful. But it also increases his anger and frustration when it doesn't accomplish his goal. He won't stop on his own."
"You mean, he'll kill her." Martina's face was gray-under-cinnamon, her eyes round. He'd been a monster after all.
"I have to go." He stood up. The chair tipped onto its back legs. He twisted to grab it, and his back jabbed him with pain.
"Chaz, wait, goddammit--"
He couldn't. His heart raced, sweat crawled on his scalp and chest and under his arms, and his lungs clawed for air. "So what's the going rate? Twenty-five cents a day plus expenses?"
"I'm not Encyclopedia Brown. And I'm not here to clean up anyone else's mess."
He snatched the check and lurched for the register, before he could shame himself further.
The sun was up, slipping through the inevitable gaps in the hotel room drapes. He could turn off the lights.
Chaz shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the corners of the bedroom mirror to hide the glass. He unknotted his tie and dropped it on his unopened bag. Then he sat on the bed and took off his shoes, pretending that each stretch and twist didn't make his tired back muscles burn. A long day.
Chaz Villette hadn't had that kind of pain and weakness. He got hurt and healed. Just another reason why he had to stop pretending, why Chaz Villette had to disappear.
It was easy to be a knight-errant when you knew every time you rode out to battle that you'd come back to ride out again. You never had to hold anything in reserve for yourself. Chaz Villette, smug, oblivious, shiny-armored knight that he thought he was, would have melted like wax at a story from a desperate woman about her sister in peril from a deadly husband with invisible wounds.
That was before he'd had his heart surgically removed without benefit of anesthetic.
Chaz stretched out on the bedspread and stared at the ceiling.
Reyes sat, upright and stern, in the hotel desk chair. "None of our models account for every instance of anomalous behavior." He frowned down at Chaz.
Chaz knew what Reyes was waiting for. A new model. Figure out the pattern. Chaz wanted to, longed to. Reyes's expression would soften, he'd nod briskly, maybe he'd even snap, "Good," and Chaz would feel warm and happy and wanted.
But he couldn't. He couldn't even sit up, for godsake. He didn't want to lie here useless, helpless, with Reyes impatient and disapproving over him, but he couldn't move.
"You, for instance," Reyes continued. The edge in his voice grew sharper. "You're impossible. You're skewing our data to the point where interpretation is nearly hopeless."
Sit up. Sit up. There. He felt the hard wood of the chair against his shoulder blades, against the protesting muscles.
The mirror across from him reflected the hotel room and the chair. The chair was empty.
No, no. I did it by accident. Now Reyes knows.
"I'm sorry." His voice was a frightened, childish whine. "I can still help. I don't want to hurt anyone, I know I don't. Please." He turned his head--there, he could move his head--but he couldn't see Reyes.
The motion pulled his wounds open. It didn't hurt; the edges parted like lips, a little sticky, and he felt air cold against exposed tissues. He moved to push them closed, but his hands stayed in front of him, side by side. Somewhere a chain chimed, link against link.
"You wanted this," Reyes said. "You tried to reconcile the data. You failed. If you weren't even strong enough for that..."
Wanted what? Whatever it was, he'd try again. He couldn't bear the disapproval, the disappointment, in that familiar voice behind him.
He raised his head to see the mirror again. Now the chair he felt beneath him was occupied. William Villette sat in it. It was William Villette's eyes he looked out of. The person leaning forward from behind him, cheek close to his/William's tangled hair, meeting his gaze in the mirror, was Chaz Villette. He mantled them both with wings the color of dried blood.
Beyond one feathered margin he could see the bed, still made, and the feet and legs of someone lying on it. Glossy cordovan loafers, pressed flannel dress slacks. Legs straight, toes pointed up, fabric smooth. He knew it was Reyes, and he knew without seeing anything else that Reyes was dead.
"It's all right," the dream-Chaz breathed in his ear, fluttering a curl of his hair. "There's no shame in needing help."
The belt slid around his throat, narrow as wire, and he remembered: he'd wanted to die.
He was upright on the hotel bed, his ears roaring with his heartbeat and his frantic breathing. The room was empty. The mirror on the opposite wall was still blinded by his jacket. And his wrists thrust out side by side in front of him.
He made it to the bathroom in time to throw up in the toilet. Good-bye, little french fries. At least it wasn't the whole burger.
The internal voice of his new self suggested that other people, normal people, went off AZT and didn't hang onto the side effects like a souvenir from Disneyland. Normal people managed to have emotional reactions that didn't involve their stomachs. His new self was ashamed that he was lying on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles freezing him through his shirt and biting into the bones of his face, the walls bouncing back the sounds he made while trying not to cry.
His new self seemed to think that dreaming of murder--dreaming of being murdered and being the murderer--was nothing to wake up screaming about. Maybe it was right. Maybe he was a monster, after all, and was just now getting the hang of it.
The dreams weren't, as it turned out, the sort of thing he could tell Falkner.
You carry your own bags, take out your own trash. Everyone on the team knew that. But sometimes you had to move something too big for you, didn't you? How can you ask for help, when you already know the answer is, "That's not my load?"
Stand up on it, or get off the rock and quit dogging on the rope.
He pushed himself up to sitting on the bathroom floor, leaning his head back against the wall. He could still smell Pine-Sol and mildew from the tile. The fluttering in his nerves told him he needed to eat something. Here we go again.
Oh, he was tired of being broken. He'd been deformed off and on, but not broken, and he hated it. He'd finally made a life that worked and a self he could be mostly at peace with. Both got smashed at once. He'd thought he could glue and suture them back together; who'd notice the crooked spots and missing bits? But he put them back wrong. He didn't like this life at all and didn't know what to do to make it better and was afraid to try to fix it again because he might make it worse. He was grieving for the old Chaz Villette, who hadn't known how much he'd loved his life until it stopped.
He was glad, on reflection, that Reyes hadn't been in the office when he left. He might have gone to Reyes instead of Falkner. Then, instead of quitting, he might have gotten kicked out for hitting a senior agent.
Two p.m. was still morning in Las Vegas. A breakfast-anytime town. If he stuck to pancakes and fruit and maybe crappy restaurant oatmeal, he could probably hang onto them long enough to metabolize them.
Chaz got out of the shower and wiped the condensation from the bathroom mirror. That was where yesterday started, with the mirror. Nothing was going to happen to him now.
He tried to avoid mirrors as much as he reasonably could. He kept spotting his reflection in things and not recognizing himself, but when he looked in the mirror, searching for the differences between himself and the Chaz-that-was, he couldn't find anything specific. Chaz-that-was was definitely gone, though.
The old Chaz would never have done what he did to Martina.
But if he hadn't landed in Las Vegas last night, or stayed at the Riv, or gone to the coffeeshop? She'd have found something, someone else. She could find someone else. He had his own load to haul and problems to solve. He was going to spend a couple hours at a poker table and earn his room; then he'd plan his exit. He had a few days to kill, to make it look as if he was staying put. But when he disappeared, he'd have to make it stick.
The Chaz in the mirror looked exhausted. And smarter than him.
Anyone could have a load too big to lift. This was Martina's.
He had a few days to kill. For a few days, he was still pretending to be an FBI agent.
He toweled his hair and went to dig through his bag for a shirt presentable enough to be seen at a police station.
Hafidha would have scored the information he was after nearly as fast as he could describe it. But an hour in the Riv's business center was almost as good as thirty seconds of Hafidha. (Though no one at the business center called him Ginger Cookie, or admired his tie, or passed him a bag of tortilla chips. Stop it.)
So he was at the Downtown copshop fifteen minutes before the change to second shift. The uniform at the desk looked up from the monitor in front of him and narrowed his eyes. He was too young to have been a cop for long, so he shouldn't remember Chaz in any eye-narrowing context. Maybe Chaz hadn't picked the right shirt after all.
"Chaz Villette to see Martina Alcantar?" Chaz said.
"She expecting you?"
The desk officer eyed him. However exact "probably not" might be, it wasn't either of the answers the cop had wanted. But he picked up the phone receiver and prodded a button. "Tell Marti Alcantar there's a Chaz Villette asking for her." The officer went back to his keyboard.
The building was relatively new and the upholstery on the stacking chairs was still fresh. But the room smelled of disinfectant, as if something unlovely had happened there during first shift. Like a hospital emergency room, it was a place where suffering people came.
Martina walked into the room on the other side of the desk and paused. Her white blouse and clipped-back hair made her look older and inflexible. She studied him, expressionless; Chaz wondered if she wanted the buffer of the front desk glass between herself and him. He tried to make his face say apologetic things.
She opened the door between the waiting area and the offices and nudged her head sideways: Come in.
The cop at the desk frowned. "Hey, what do--"
"Did the terror alert go to red since I checked? He's a Fed."
"How was I supposed to know?"
Martina shot a glance at Chaz. He shrugged. "It didn't seem relevant." And even if his ID hadn't been in a locker at the bus station, he wasn't in the habit of flashing it to impress strangers.
Martina led him through the bustle of shift change: a thicket of uniforms, the smell of weak coffee, black humor in the air like gnats. She waved him into an undersized squad room and closed the door behind her.
There was a white board at Chaz's back; in front of him a few disordered ranks of chairs that had probably started the day in rows. Yellow legal pads and pens scattered around, an A/V setup on a rolling cart, a coffee maker in the corner. It was scary how well he knew this room he'd never been in. The team told police officers what they were looking for in rooms like this.
Habit made him turn to see who was taking lead. But of course, he was alone. He needed a moment before he could relax his throat enough to speak. "I'm...sorry."
"It's okay." Her face stayed impassive.
"No, it's not. I'll help."
Martina shook her head. "I'll take care of it."
That was that, then. It wasn't as if Chaz longed to sniff out Ron Shayle's recent past. He could go play poker. He liked playing poker. He'd be perfectly happy. It was what he'd wanted all along.
He sighed. "I really am sorry."
Some of the stone went out of Martina's face and voice. "I get that. But you were right--it was like going up to a doctor at a party and saying, 'Hey, Doc, I've got this mole, d'you think it's cancer?' And I'm guessing you came home because you want a break."
"No, you think?" Well, that was a mood swing so fast it could snap necks. "Sorry. I'm...kind of full of those lately."
Martina looked slantwise at him. "It's weird."
"I don't remember you ever doing that."
"Sarcasm? I just tried not to do it when it would get me pounded like a nail."
"That and getting angry. Like this morning."
"Still apologizing for that."
"No, I mean in high school..." The line between her eyebrows looked as if it was familiar with the territory. "When you're a cop, you try not to hit back, because you know in most situations you've got a lot more fist than the other guy. But that's not high school."
"I think I would remember if I'd been turning the other cheek."
"No. You'd just kind of do a fade." Martina raised her eyebrows. "With a couple memorable exceptions."
There had been a couple. They'd brought home to him that he couldn't afford them. There was nobody to intercede for him, to explain that his motives were honorable, though his actions were stupid.
There was nobody to keep him from ending up in the correctional system, except himself.
"But mostly I don't remember you raising your voice," Martina finished. She cocked her head and waited, as if she expected him to argue with her.
You don't raise your voice if you don't want to be noticed. Once the coyote crosses the road, he's invisible. "I had a black belt in sneaky."
Her reaction was quick across her face and gone. But it seemed Martina Alcantar had a limited appreciation for sneaky. Well, she wasn't standing in Chaz's long, narrow shoes.
"When I heard you went to Quantico, I thought you'd wash out. But I guess you learned to stick up for yourself."
Because sometimes there was no one to help you, and no escape. For an instant, he thought he smelled roses. "I guess."
Martina didn't really step back; she just shifted her weight to her back foot. But it put another six inches between the two of them. The needling tone was gone from her voice when she said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. Go enjoy your vacation."
Chaz tore a corner off a legal pad, scribbled his cell number on it, and handed it to her. His cards were in the backpack. "I'm still at the Riv. If that changes, I'll let you know."
She shook her head. "Don't."
He shrugged and walked past her out the door.
Libraries deserved more love. Again, no substitute for Hafidha and the FBI's databases, and Las Vegas public transit still sucked. But he had his first layer of information after a few hours at the Michael Graves-designed library on Flamingo. He walked outside, sat on the low wall that framed the approach, and tried not to hyperventilate.
He could call Hafidha. She'd yell at him for not coming to her before he left. But she'd be glad to hear his voice. She wouldn't hesitate to pinch off a little of her available processing power to give him what he needed, even if that power and access and time was arguably rented to the Federal government and Chaz's business wasn't hers.
She would get his ultimate intentions out of him in fifteen minutes. Hafidha was the last person he could call.
What he was doing wasn't profiling. Profiling was a process of observing common tendencies, shared traits, influences that cropped up over and over in the pasts and presents of people who were damaged in specific ways. The process created a rough outline of the kind of person you needed to find, not a name and face and address. When the profile was finished, you had an Unknown Subject, not a suspect.
Chaz had a name, a face, and an address. He needed to turn him into an UNSUB. He needed to figure out Ron Shayle's influences, tendencies, traits, and if he was damaged, how and when that damage would spill over.
It was funny--if you had that sort of sense of humor--how many of the markers for damage were right there in the public record, in newspapers, on microfiche, on line.
Ellen Fenton, 16, gave birth to a male child on July 27, 1981, at Southern Nevada Memorial. Father listed as Rudy Chenoweth, no age or address. Baby named Ronald John Fenton.
1986, Clark County issued a marriage license to Ellen Fenton, 21, and Michael Loder Shayle, 42. In the same year, a change-of-name for Ron Fenton, who would now be Ron Shayle.
Clark County School District records were not exactly public. But Chaz had learned one or two things from Hafidha and elsewhere. Ron's academic records weren't crackable, but some of the attendance records were, and the school nurse's files.
From second grade on, a gradual increase in absences. A series of injuries requiring treatment.
Hospital admittance records were also out of his reach. But police calls to the Shayle residences were archived: noise complaints, domestic disturbances, assault on a neighbor by Michael Shayle (no charges pressed).
Ellen Fenton Shayle's employment history was irregular, and all the jobs listed before 2000 ended in less than a year. Michael Shayle changed jobs frequently, but worked more or less steadily until 1998.
Michael Shayle's death certificate was dated January 2000. Cause of death: head trauma resulting from a fall outside a North Las Vegas bar. Blood alcohol .16. Contusions on the face and lacerations on the knuckles of both hands suggested he had been fighting.
He couldn't get at any record of Ron's military service except the date of his enlistment in the Marines and the date of his discharge (honorable). Chaz didn't need a source of information on Ron's teenage years. He already had that.
He rubbed his eyes. The monster-making apparatus had been at work on Ron Shayle. It didn't always result in monsters, of course. But for years it had been shaping a life right under his nose.
It wasn't as if nobody knew what factors led to violent behavior and serial crime, so how could this keep happening? And if it kept happening in spite of knowledge, how could it be stopped? And if ordinary human violence couldn't be prevented, what hope was there for stopping the anomalous kind?
All they had were toothpicks.
He leaned back against the square, rose-colored pillar, still warm from a day's worth of southern exposure. The sky was streaked with orange above the building to his right, and the shrubby trees were turning into silhouettes around him; the Luxor's spear of white light competed with the fading sunset. Clouds of bats would be zigzagging through it, hunting dinner. Come to Vegas. You'll love the casino buffets.
Ellen Shayle would be at home.
The apartment door bumped gently at the security chain as she peered out.
Look harmless. And sixteen. "Mrs. Shayle?" He shifted his feet on the concrete of the outdoor hallway. He'd be a little backlit by the evening sky beyond the railing; he'd need body language as well as words and voice to disarm her.
"I don't know if you remember me. Chaz Villette? I went to school with your son?"
The slice of her face that he could see furrowed. The air that escaped from the apartment smelled like off-brand air freshener, sweet and faintly petrochemical.
"My--gosh," she said, and her eyes widened. The gap narrowed, and he heard the chain rattle. Then she opened the door and smiled at him. "Chaz Villette, all grown up!"
His autopilot made embarrassed noises while the rest of him worked. She was about fifty pounds over her healthy weight. Her thin hair was dyed ash-blonde and cut short. Her glasses frames weren't the right size; her eyes were off-center in the lenses. Her earrings, small lapis teardrops set in filigree gold, might be a relic of better financial days. She wore blue pants that bagged at the knees and a sweatshirt printed with two angels and a garland of flowers. No obvious illnesses or disabilities.
"I'm home visiting friends--" The living room, what he could see of it, was very clean, but busy: too much furniture, tabletops thick with objects, walls studded with decorations like notes on a bulletin board. The sofa upholstery was faded, the coffee table legs were scarred, the television was fifteen years old.
The newest things in the room were ornaments: a praying-child figurine on the television; a print of a female angel leaning over a sleeping boy; a painted plaque by the door that read, "God never gives us more than we can carry." The only books he saw were a handful of slender trade paperbacks with bright, unfamiliar spines and titles in script typefaces on a little wall-hung shelf. Chaz couldn't make out the titles from the door.
He wasn't in a position to scorn other people's coping strategies. But he was trained to use those strategies against them.
"Mrs. Shayle--could I come in, just for a minute?"
"Well, I don't know, I've got my TOPS meeting in half an hour--"
Chaz looked at the door mat, back to her face, pressed his lips together. "It--it'll just be for a minute, honest."
And she smiled, swung the door wide, and waved the devil into the house.
"Can I get you anything, Chaz? Something to drink?"
"Could I have a glass of water?"
While she fetched it, he collected the rest of the room. Two family pictures: a school photo of Ron from first or second grade and Ron's senior picture, in frames on an end table. None of Ellen, none of her late husband, no family group, none of what could be Ellen's relatives. No photo album on the coffee table. Except for those two photos, there was no history here.
No portrait of Ron in his dress blues. No snapshots of him from his deployment. Chaz craned his neck to see the refrigerator through the kitchen door. The magnets were bright-colored, and some had text on them. None of them held up photos.
He looked away just in time as Ellen came out of the kitchen. "Here you go." She handed him a glass printed with blue roses. The ice cubes pinged.
"Thank you." Look down, sip. He let his voice wobble when he said, "Do you--do you know Matthew 6, verse 14?"
"'For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.'"
She stared as if he were shrubbery spontaneously combusting. Then she burst into tears.
Chaz helped her into an armchair, handed her the flowered box of Kleenex, offered her his water glass, and knelt on the very clean wall-to-wall carpet beside her while she cried. He felt evil. And stupid. He hadn't meant to crack her open, but of course, that was the verse that was most likely to do it if any did. "Mrs. Shayle, I'm so sorry--"
"No--no." She wiped her nose, groped for another tissue. He held out the box. She used the new one to clean her glasses, then pinched it in her hand. "It's not--"
Only a monster would keep her from backing away from the edge. He leaned closer. "Mrs. Shayle, I need to forgive, and I can't. I need help."
"Do you ask God to help?"
God sent her a messenger, baby boy. Chaz swallowed bile. "I think He sent me to you." But he shivered as he said it.
Tears spilled over her lower lids, over her reddened skin, fell unattended off her chin. Her left hand crept from the corner of her mouth across her cheek, until her fingers found and tugged at one earring. "No. I don't know how. I try and try, but I can't." That last word was a muffled howl, the voice of someone who'd learned to cry so no one would hear.
"I think if--if I knew more, I could. If I understood. Can I ask you about your son? About Ron?"
Ellen Shayle's face went slack as she understood. "Ron wouldn't-- He wouldn't hurt anyone."
"I think you know that's not true."
She swayed; Chaz raised a hand to steady her, but before he touched her she drew a quick, short breath, clutched her knees, and looked down at her lap.
"Let me tell you what I think happened." He spoke as gently as he could, and let the pitch of his voice rise a little at the ends of sentences, as if each was a question she could deny. "Your husband hurt you, and Ron. At first he just lost his temper, raised his voice. Then it got worse. He'd slap you or push you. He expected too much of Ron, and he'd punish him when he fell short. You protested, but he said it would make Ron a better man. You wanted Ron to have a father, and if that's what fathers did..."
Her lips twitched, pulled in against her teeth.
"...because that's what your father did, isn't it?" He felt a little sick when she closed her eyes. The cycle of abuse was about expectations as much as anything else. "After a while your husband beat Ron badly enough that you had to keep him out of school sometimes, or lie to the school nurse. You wanted to protect him, but you couldn't do it."
She nodded without opening her eyes or raising her head. She'd failed her son. She'd failed her husband, too, or he would never have been angry. It was her fault. It was her shame, that she'd only done what was possible, not what was miraculous.
"As he got older, he was in trouble at school. Fighting. Talking back to his teachers. Hurting other kids. You knew there was something wrong, but you couldn't say or do anything, because you were afraid to attract attention to your son. You tried to keep your husband's anger focused on you. But there was always enough to spill over onto Ron.
"When your husband died, you thought you might be able to live in peace with your son. But Ron was closed off. He went into the Marines, and you were proud of him, but you didn't really know him anymore."
The tears leaked out from under her closed eyelids. "He took my son away from me. I want to forgive him, but I can't." She groped for Chaz's hand, squeezed it with startling strength. "So the Lord won't forgive me for letting it happen."
He wanted to tell her she was wrong. But that wasn't for him to call, was it? "Mrs. Shayle, does Ron talk about his ex-wife? About Angela?"
"Has he told you anything about his marriage, or his military service--"
She shook her head hard, and let go of Chaz's hand to blow her nose. "He wrote me letters from Camp Pendleton. Then he wrote saying they were sending him to Iraq."
"And after that...?"
She shook her head again and folded her hands in her lap.
"Have you seen him since--"
"Not since after he joined the Marines. I lost him."
Chaz got to his feet. He took the water glass into the painfully clean kitchen, washed it out, and left it in the drainer. He found a notepad and pen by the powder-blue wall phone. He wrote his new cell number on a sheet, tore it off, and took it back to the living room. She was sitting just as she had been when he got up.
"Thank you, Mrs. Shayle." He handed her the piece of paper. "This is my number. If you need anything, if you think of anything--call me, please?"
She took it without looking up.
He'd tell her another lie, if he could think of one to help. He started toward the door.
"Chaz. Matthew 7, verses 7 and 8. Do you know that?"
He saw the page in his head, and nodded. "'Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door--'" Swallow, damn it, swallow. "'--will be opened.'"
"You remember it."
He wanted to give her some comfort on his way to the door, but she'd trumped him on Bible verses. "Thank you," he said again, and let himself out.
If he drank alone in his room he felt like an alcoholic. If he drank in the bar, at least he was following the local custom. He found an upholstered chair in a spot as far from the entertainment as possible, and wadded his jacket up for a little more cushioning. Then he threw four ibuprofen down his throat and ordered a Bushmill's.
Ron Shayle didn't blame his mother for the abuse. He hadn't abandoned her after his father died; he'd written her from boot camp. It wasn't anger at his mother that made him target Angela. But something had made him stop writing while he was in Iraq. Ron had something he couldn't bring home. But why did his mother blame her husband for it?
Tomorrow, if he could manage it, he'd talk to Angela. That would be fun.
He was at the top of his second whiskey, and the ache in his back had faded to nagging, when he heard Martina say, "You're hard to find."
He dropped his head back against the upholstery so he could see her come up from behind him. She wore black--jeans and a snug knit top with a deep v-neck--a Levi jacket, and cowboy boots with red stitching and toes so pointed they could cause puncture wounds. Her hair was loose again, curling around her face like ornament drawn in India ink. That or her makeup made her eyes look big.
"Isn't the classic reply, 'Not hard enough'?" Except he was glad to see her.
She dragged up another chair, sat, and crossed one ankle over the opposite knee. It should have been butch. He had a good view of the boots and the undulating line of her calf and thigh. "You're feeling classic?" she asked, grinning.
"No, just--how often do you get to say that?"
"See? Might never get another chance."
"Lucky I showed up." She flushed and looked away.
He let another mouthful of whiskey go down his throat. "That's Vegas for you."
She tilted her head. "You drunk?"
He thought about it, and decided to tell the truth. "Hardly at all. Does your sister have a job?"
"I need to talk to her. I want to know where and when I can find her."
Martina's face did a series of things that suggested she was a rotten poker player. "I thought you were going to drop it."
"I didn't say that."
"Christ." She unfolded her legs and leaned forward over them. The shadow between her breasts in the low neckline made him a little dizzy. "Listen. You looked like crap last night. Now you look worse. You don't have to do this. Forget it, Chaz. I'm sorry I asked."
So much for her comment about the world doing all right by him. He dropped his head back again and stared at the ceiling dotted with camera domes. "In those old movies, isn't that what they say to the detective when he starts asking the right questions?" On reflection, he could be a little more drunk than hardly at all. But not much.
"And when he doesn't take the hint, they rough him up and dump him down by the river. Chaz--"
"That's no good in Vegas. Maybe the lagoon at Treasure Island?"
"Stop it." She took a long, shaky breath. "Why won't you let it go?"
He could. He could let Ellen Shayle down; she'd never know, nothing would change for her. He could let Martina down. She was a cop, she understood battle fatigue, how it meant that sometimes you couldn't follow through. That you couldn't even explain why, because you couldn't talk about it if your life depended on it.
Instead of answering, he swallowed more whiskey.
The room went on without them: keyboard, bass, and jazz drum kit mauling "You May Be Right;" talking, laughing, a screech from three tables over that made his heart race; a steady bing-bing-bing from the slots on the floor.
"What's with your back?" Her voice was rough.
He could stare at her cleavage and not have to meet her eyes, and she wouldn't think it was odd. So he met her eyes. Point of honor. "Injury. I overdid it some today. I think the bus seats are bad for it." That sounded trivial enough.
"As if I didn't feel guilty already," she said on a quavering laugh. "How about if I drive?"
"If you're going to keep looking into this, I can at least get you where you're going." She looked doubtful. "I'm not sure my car's a better ride than a bus, but you won't spend as much time in it."
"Don't you have bad guys to catch?"
"I've got some hours coming to me." She wove her fingers together over one knee. "Come on, Chaz. Let me help?"
He looked at her over the top of his glass. Her turn to have trouble with eye contact--why? Still... "Did you know riders aren't allowed to bring coffee onto buses?"
She pursed her lips. "Taxis?"
Chaz shook his head. "No food or beverages."
He smiled. "Thanks, Martina. I'd appreciate the ride."
"Call me Marti. Angela works for Cox Cable. You want to talk to her there or at home?"
"Home." He didn't have to tell her his reasons.
"Pick you up at 5:00?"
He nodded, and she stood up. He wished he knew why she seemed so pleased with the way the conversation had ended. So as she passed, he said, "Did you lose my cell number?"
She stopped. "What?"
"You said I was hard to find." He pulled out his phone, flipped it open, and held it out to show the home screen. No missed calls.
"I--forgot I had it."
"Why did you need to find me, if it wasn't about your sister?" See? Really not drunk, he thought, as he watched her turn deer-in-the-headlights.
Her lips stretched in a smile shiny as chrome. "Social call. You should try it sometime."
"Touché," he said to the wake Marti left on the crowded floor.
He looked down at the phone in his hand, the screen still lit. The contacts list was empty, but that didn't matter. He remembered every one of the numbers. He snapped the phone shut.
He woke from a dream of someone screaming his name. He'd had it before; it was one of the easy ones, because he never had the feeling there was anyone in danger except him. Usually the voice was Falkner's, but sometimes Reyes's or Brady's. Not so much of the last two, lately.
This time it was Daphne, which was new. It suggested he'd added her to the list of people he ought to listen to more often. He'd have to tell her so when he got home--
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
He lunged upright and flung his legs over the side of the bed. Sometimes violent action could break up his thoughts when they began to spiral. It worked this time. So did the stiffness in his back. Yes, he'd overdone it yesterday.
Maybe he'd quit thinking like his old self when he wasn't him anymore. Pretty soon he'd move on. Find something else to do, someone else to be. He just had to find something to help Marti protect her sister, and he could stop playing amateur detective in the ruins of his childhood.
He made himself push up off the mattress and onto his feet, forced himself to do the range-of-motion exercises his physical therapist had taught him. Slow and smooth, to let the weakened muscles warm up. "Most people's large muscle groups need toning before they're injured," he'd said, helping Chaz raise his arms a little higher. "After they're hurt, their bodies can't help support the injured area so it can heal. That's one reason why you athletes make better progress in PT."
Until he'd said it, it had never occurred to Chaz that he was an athlete.
He'd always wanted to be a hero. One of his third-grade teachers asked the class what they planned to be when they grew up, and even in third grade, he knew better than to tell the truth. But he'd never had any other career goal. He vacuumed up information and skills and hid them, because the best heroes were like coyotes: there and gone, capable and anonymous.
In college, when everyone around him worried about employability, he collected degrees because knowledge was the ultimate utility belt. His statistics thesis advisor asked him, in more academic terms, what he wanted to be when he grew up. Chaz didn't tell him the truth, either.
Then Reyes recruited him for the Bureau, and Chaz didn't have to hide what he wanted to do for a living. Because he was doing it.
Except he couldn't anymore.
The physical weakness would heal--or heal enough, at least. But the stresses inside his head and out... He really ought to forgive Brady, even though it didn't matter now. He'd only been acting on the same doubts Chaz had. Brady just didn't have as much evidence to back them up.
He dreamed of being a murderer. He'd developed an external manifestation, which he hid. The first thing he used it for was to kill someone. (In self-defense, yes. But.) Then he'd experimented with it on strangers without their consent. Under the pressure of anxiety responses, flashbulb memory, emotional lability, and the daily stress of the job, how bad would he get?
They still didn't know what it took to make a gamma.
Boundaries, limits, self-protection, self-care. He knew the words and the theory behind them. He owed it to himself and to his friends to get out of a situation that could hurt him or others.
He had to get out of the hero business before he killed somebody.
But there was Marti trying to figure out how to keep Ron Shayle from hurting her sister. There was Ellen Shayle, who'd lost everything, even God. The hero business was like addiction: there was always another good reason to shoot up.
The difference between profiling and the rest of police work was the primary question. Other cops asked who, how, when, where. A profile started with Why. All right, he would ask the question he was used to. Why had he walked off the job and picked it right back up the minute he got the chance?
He had a pretty good idea what Reyes's answer was. Reyes, who would push chips with human faces into the pot and draw to a straight, because he believed he was too good at the game to lose.
He hoped like hell Reyes's answer wasn't his.
Marti thought he hadn't fought back. She was wrong, of course. They saw it in case after case: the ones who survived were the ones who fought back. He'd fought back, though maybe not the way Marti would have. He always had.
Was that how you kept from being a gamma, or how you became one?
Sweat itched and prickled on his skin, and the room stank of it. Exercise or panic attack, it didn't matter--the afternoon light was bright at the edges of the drapes. He had time for a shower and a meal he didn't want.
"1995 Jeep Wrangler," Marti said proudly. "Half of 'em were absolute junk and died early deaths. But the ones that are still running will be running forever."
"Wow," Chaz said. This one, parked in the Riviera's loading zone, looked as if it had had a few near-death experiences already. He could respect that. It was mostly still black, where UV and trauma hadn't reached. It lacked side curtains or, for that matter, doors. He climbed into the passenger seat, wedged his unopened bottle of water between the seat and the frame, and studied the roll cage the ragtop covered. It appeared to be intact. "Does it have a name?"
Marti eyed him suspiciously. He felt heat rising up his face.
"I--I named my VW. I mean, not that all cars have names. But older ones, sometimes..."
"What did you name it?"
"The Blue Beetle. There's a comic book..." Oh, god, he was making it worse. Shut up, Chaz.
Marti nodded. "This is Fluffy."
"You...just made that up."
She took off from the curb in a style that made him grab for it. Maybe I should have stuck to the bus.
"I have to swing by the station for a second. That okay?"
"Sure." Fluffy bounced and swayed through traffic, more like a midway ride than a vehicle. It made the Strip much more exciting. And it was better than the bus. There was padding.
"Nosy question?" Marti said.
Chaz made a noncommittal noise.
"Why didn't you rent a car?"
Because once he turned in the rental, his window for disappearing would be only as long as it would take to buy a plane ticket. He shrugged.
"I wasn't sure... I mean, a lot of people never learn to drive."
"I can drive," he said, stung. "I had to take the pursuit and defensive driving class at Quantico."
The silence lasted half a block. "You learned to drive...in pursuit driving?"
Well, no. But he found he liked the way her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows disappeared under her hair. "Required course," he said gravely.
"Do not touch my car keys."
"I was pretty good!"
Chaz realized he was grinning. He turned to look at the roadside to hide it.
Daphne wouldn't let him drive, either. He felt his grin fade.
Copshops always seemed different when you were supposed to be there, or came with someone who was. This time Downtown didn't make him wish he took up less space.
A tall, dark-skinned man in a gray suit and sky-blue tie stuck his head out of a windowed office. "Yo, Alcantar!" He waved a sheaf of paper. "You don't sign 'em, they ain't real."
"That's what I came for, boss." Marti jerked her head toward the man in the suit. "Lieutenant Jimmy Baxter, Special Agent Chaz Villette of the FBI"
Baxter stopped with his hand halfway out and an expression half-formed.
Chaz opened his mouth to say "Not anymore," and remembered it would only complicate matters. "Not...officially. I mean, I'm just--I'm a friend of Marti's. Vacation."
Baxter's expression turned into polite interest. "First time in Vegas?"
"No. I grew up here." He turned to Marti. She was dealing with her paperwork; no rescue there.
"That's gotta be weird, growing up in Sin City."
"No weirder than New York. Probably."
Baxter frowned. "Who said anything about New York?"
"He's a profiler, boss," Marti broke in, and handed Baxter her papers. "Watch what you say."
"Well, damn." Baxter laughed.
"Actually, it's not--" Chaz began, but Marti took his arm.
"I'm out of here. Let's hit the road, Chaz." On the way to the door, she muttered, "Baxter still pronounces it 'Nevahda.'"
"That was a coincidence. The New York thing? I'm not that good with accents." Lau would have been able to name the borough.
"Huh." Marti sent a smile into the middle distance. "Don't tell him that. You might need the wizard credit someday."
Profiler voodoo--it worked even when you weren't doing it. Then an image passed through Chaz's mental front hall: the Chrysler Building, glinting tiny and gold, against pale blue.
Baxter's tie tack. Oh.
The green stucco tract house was showing wear: faded trim, surface cracks, weeds sprouting in the gravel around the foundation. But it had been well-kept not long ago.
Chaz rang the bell. Marti waited behind him, and it was so much like other doorsteps, other unannounced calls, that he almost rummaged for his ID to show when the door opened. He had his face under control when it did.
Angela Alcantar--no, Shayle--was a lot like her house: well-kept not so long ago. But she was close enough to her high school self that he had to contain an inward flinch. Her black hair coiled over her shoulders and down the front of a pink shirt with the top three buttons open. Like Marti, nothing about her was angular. She wore dark lip liner, which Chaz was fairly sure was out of fashion; the lipstick inside it was half worn off.
Her skin creased at the corners of her eyes and puffed below them, and tiny wrinkles circled her mouth like a halo. Two hard furrows marked the space between her thin-plucked brows. The crevices between her teeth were stained faintly brown. She looked tired, and older than she was, and grim. That was new since high school.
He probably still didn't like her. But he felt his damned hero impulse click on like a light switch.
Angela gave him a curious up-and-down survey, without recognition. Then she spotted Marti over his shoulder. "What's--"
"Angela," Chaz said, smiling. "Chaz Villette. Remember me? We went to school together."
"Hey, Ange," Marti added.
Apparently he no longer looked like a starving juvenile delinquent. Watching Angela's face, the word "dumbfounded" popped into his head. There was a word that didn't get enough work.
"Holy shit," Angela said.
"Could we come in?" Chaz asked.
They could, of course.
Angela tossed old newspapers, laundry, unopened mail off the living room furniture ahead of them, grabbed the remote and muted the television. A tumbler half-full of ice and light brown liquid sweated on a two-week-old TV Guide on the coffee table.
"Christ, Marti, you could have called first. I haven't been able to clean in a week."
"You hadn't cleaned in a week the last time I was here," Marti said. She dropped into the far armchair. When Chaz took the couch, Angela would have to take the other chair, almost knee-to-knee with Chaz. Marti had done this before.
His reflection added itself to the image on the TV screen. Without sound, the movie became image after jump-cut nerve-wracking image. It would stay in the edge of his vision while he talked to Angela. He clenched his teeth and sat on the couch.
Angela sat in the chair they'd picked for her. She reached past Chaz for the glass, drank, set it back down. The smell that trailed behind it was iced tea, and he felt ashamed of what he'd first thought. He'd feel more ashamed if she'd offered them any.
Marti led off, asking Angela about work, talking about her own. She did it easily, as if she was used to setting her sister up for someone else to take a shot at her. Or maybe she was just far into good-cop mode, and it didn't matter that the person across from her was Angela. Either way, it made him uncomfortable. That and the television.
Angela wore no outward marks of the damage Ron had done to her. She held her shoulders a little stiffly; the cracked collarbone was recently healed.
She kept looking slantwise at Chaz, as if she expected him to turn into something if she took her eyes off him. "So what the hell brings you here, Chaz?" she asked. Handing him the ball herself.
"I'd like to ask you about Ron."
Her recoil was small but unmistakable. Her hands twitched, started toward something, dropped to her lap. "He's a son of a bitch. End of story."
"Hasn't changed much, then?"
She frowned, scoring the lines in her face deep. "If that was supposed to mean, 'I told you so,' don't give yourself any fucking medals. You didn't."
Way to encourage the witness, Chaz. He needed to take the conversation back. The TV image jittered and flickered in his right eye like an intermittent rustle in the bushes. Shut it out.
He hung his head, wiped his palms on his thighs. "I'm sorry, Angela. Guess there are things I should let go." He let out the puff of air that could pass for laughing. "I--I guess that's why I'm here."
He felt the change as much as saw it. Her posture was the same, but less rigid. "Whatever."
"I mean, I pissed him off, but Ron was always great to you." The vocabulary and body language of high school faded back into his mouth and muscles. The protective coloring that had worked then would work now.
"Yeah." Angela looked down and away. Her right hand made the arrested reaching movement again. "He was."
Chaz said gently, a little wistfully, "You wouldn't have married him if he wasn't."
The skin contracted around her eyes, as if she was trying not to blink. "Guess nothing lasts forever, huh?" She swallowed. "Marti told you, didn't she? What Ron did."
"That he hurt you."
Angela laughed. "He put me in the fucking hospital. You make it sound like a broken heart."
She sat with her shoulders hunched, her head a little down, scowling. He'd once seen a red-tailed hawk in a zoo, a rescued bird. The humerus of its left wing had been shattered when it hit the windshield of a car; it would never fly again. It had sat hunched on its perch, glaring at him through the glass.
"Do you remember the first time you were afraid of him?"
"I didn't say I was afraid of him."
He lowered his chin, softened his face, turned his eyes up to her.
Angela sat back abruptly. She propped her far elbow on the arm of the chair and cradled her chin in her palm, curled her fingers over her mouth. "When he came back from the goddamn desert--" Her lips made a little twisted smile that had nothing to do with the rest of her face. "It was like he couldn't hold still. He couldn't stick to anything. Jesus, I asked him to take the trash out once and he didn't get it past the carport. And he wanted me to listen to everything he said, but then he wouldn't say anything."
"Could you tell what he wanted to talk about?"
"He'd want you to pay attention." He kept his eyes on her face, because that would suggest honesty and dependability to her. And allow him to see every shift in her expression. "He'd start to say something, but he'd stop. You tried to be patient, because that's what he seemed to need. But he'd get mad even when you did that."
The cutting edges of her teeth pressed into her lower lip. "I missed him so much when he was gone. Letters don't--" She reached for her iced tea again and drank. "He doesn't write very good ones, either. At first they were good. But they got sort of, 'Hi, I'm okay, love you, bye' after a while. I guess I should have figured it out, huh?"
Chaz shook his head. "I don't think it was about you."
In a voice like a slap she asked, "Then why was I the one who went to the hospital?"
He knew the answer. But it was all intellect, and few victims were comforted by it.
"Angela, can you--can you tell me what happened? When he hurt you?"
She crossed her arms over her chest. "We had a fight."
"You had fights before that."
She jerked her head: a nod. "I told him to get some help, I was tired of it. And he said I didn't care what happened to him." In tiny slow stages, she was folding up inside, folding in on herself as he watched. "And I told him I didn't want to hear his God damned war stories. He said... I don't know. We were screaming at each other. That's when...when he hit me." Her eyes were wide and focused on the floor. "And he..." She closed her eyes. "I said 'no.' He didn't..." She turned away from Chaz.
He almost asked her to finish the sentence. Then he understood what she'd said.
Do not lose it. She needs you to stay cool. He was afraid to look at Marti. But he couldn't let them all go free yet.
Angela's hand reaching, again and again. Her stained teeth, and the wrinkles around her mouth. There were no ashtrays on the tables. There was no smell of cigarette smoke. Iced tea.
"Did you and Ron plan to have children?"
He saw Marti's head turn at the corner of his vision. Angela frowned. "What?"
"You're pregnant, aren't you?"
Angela's face clenched as if he'd stabbed her. Marti inhaled once, hard, and was silent. How did he end up being the one to hurt them? I'm sorry, Mom.
"None of your damned business," Angela said at last.
"Does Ron know?"
Marti half-rose. "Chaz--"
"No." Angela sagged. This was her last secret. "When I found out... God, I couldn't have a kid with him. So I--I chose the baby. I threw Ron out. The doctor at the clinic knows. Nobody else."
Marti certainly hadn't, from her face.
Now all they had to do was get out gracefully. He didn't think Marti was going to help with that.
"Angela, what Ron did--you didn't make it happen. It would have--would have been the same no matter what you tried. It wasn't your fault."
She went for her iced tea again. Chaz hoped she'd remember what he said, later, when the sound of falling rubble didn't echo so loudly in her head.
"Marti's trying to make sure he doesn't hurt you again. Or hurt anyone else. I know this--this was hard. But it helped."
She looked down at her hands, then up, into his face. "I guess I was going to have to do it someday. It's... It's okay."
It wasn't, of course. But it's what you said at times like this.
Chaz's left hand went for the strap of the backpack he wasn't carrying. He groped for the pen in his inside pocket instead, pulled a copy of People across the coffee table, and wrote "Chaz" and his number across a relatively empty bit of the cover. Then he stood up. "That's my cell. Call if I can help, okay?"
He hadn't expected her to go with them to the door, but she did, and let them out in silence. Marti went first, down the front walk without looking back. Chaz turned on the doorstep to do the polite thing. Angela gave him a watery smile and said, "I wouldn't have believed it. But you...turned out kind of hot."
"Thanks," he croaked, and followed Marti out to the Jeep, hoping he wasn't blushing.
The sky was the color of thinned blue ink, warming to lavender and rose over Mt. Charleston and Mt. Potosi. The crystal-city part of town would be flashing and ringing. But here, surrounded by low-roofed houses and the silhouettes of tired palms, he could be in almost any piece of the valley within sight of the glow of the Strip and the Luxor's pillar of light.
Marti started the engine as he scrambled into the passenger seat.
"He shoots. He scores. The crowd goes wild." She popped the headlights on.
He tamped down his guilty conscience. "I warned you."
"No, you said I might not want to be there. Not the same thing." She piloted the Jeep away from the curb so moderately that Chaz checked the side view mirror for cop cars.
"You were--you were good in there."
"I didn't do anything."
"Sometimes that's hard to do."
"Marti. You asked me to."
Her shoulders rose and fell with one long breath. "Yeah. I did."
Chaz felt for and found the bottle of water he'd tucked beside the seat. He cracked the cap and drank, and held it out to Marti. After a second she took it, drank, and handed it back. He arched his spine to press his upper shoulders into the seat cushion, braced his feet on the dash, crossed his arms over his knees, and let the darkening streets scroll by while he thought.
If Angela was right that no one knew about it, her pregnancy didn't change anything (except that it became a secret that hadn't needed exposing, so he could kick himself for doing it). Everything he knew circled around the empty space of Ron's service record, or at least his time in Iraq. Could Metro get access to Marine Corps files? With a search warrant. Which would require an open case and an ongoing investigation. Which this wasn't.
Victimology, then. "Marti, do you remember Ron hurting a girl--a woman--before Angela?"
Marti frowned at the road. "It's her fault now?"
Chaz sighed. "This is about Ron, not Angela. Who an--" He stopped before he said "UNSUB." "Who an offender targets can provide clues to the why."
"Should I care why Ron's a shitbag?"
"Helps predict what he'll do next. So you can get ahead of him." Honesty compelled him to add, "Maybe."
After a moment, she said, "Only guys. Maybe the smell of testosterone sets him off."
He had just enough sense not to point out that testosterone was odorless.
So yes, the victimology changed. Before, women and girls had been fellow victims. Like Ron's mother. Until Angela, until now. Might he hurt other women? Might he already have?
"I have to make a stop," Marti said, and turned hard right into a bar parking lot.
The bar pinned down a corner of an aging industrial park. Broomtail's, read the sign jutting from the flat roof. The sign's paint was flaking, but the neon outline on the letters camouflaged that in the twilight. The concrete-block walls were painted with larger-than-life airbrushed cartoons of horses with big teeth and sarcastic expressions. Vinyl beer company banners shivered along the eaves. The parking lot was three-quarters full.
"C'mon in," Marti said, sliding out of the Jeep. "I don't know how long this'll take."
He followed her between the cars and trucks, through the door, into the atmosphere of a bar-planet: air thick with spilled beer, fried food, and smoke; Jo Dee Messina on the sound system; jingling slots and video games; and a big-screen TV tuned to ESPN. Chaz counted, at a glance, about forty customers, a little more than one per car in the lot. The room was hot and deafening.
And at the far end of the bar, laughing with three other men, stood Ron Shayle.
The sound system said, You can say you've got issues / You can say you're a victim / It's all your parents' fault / I mean, after all, you didn't pick 'em... There was such a thing as coincidence.
This wasn't one, though. Marti wouldn't meet his eyes.
He could turn and walk back out. She wanted that; she wanted to shame him for the scene with Angela. She wanted to believe he was a coward, and no matter why he left the room, that's what he'd look like.
If he didn't leave, he put the whole enquiry at risk. He put Ron on his guard. Let her think you're afraid.
But he wasn't afraid. He was angry. He was lightheaded with it. He walked toward the bar, passing through the crowd that seemed to part for him as he came near.
The last thing he'd expected was that he'd be six inches taller than Ron. And that was Ron in cowboy boots. The difference gave him a good view of the thin spot in Ron's brush cut. But Ron made up the inches in width of shoulder under his gray Henley shirt, in heavy arms and wide, blunt hands. They went oddly with Ron's snubbed, sunburnt nose and round blue eyes. He could look like a cherub with the right expression. Chaz had rarely seen that expression--at least, not pointed at him.
Chaz flagged the bartender and checked the taps for something drinkable. "Sam Adams, please. And bring Ron another of whatever he's drinking." He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and flicked it open, all in one motion, and laid a twenty on the freshly-wiped bar.
Ron's head came up sharply. Chaz turned and smiled. "Hi, Ron. Chaz Villette, remember?"
Ron's three friends didn't react. But Ron's eyes got wide, and narrow, and the twitch of a smile on his mouth was only habit. "Are you...are you shitting me?"
Chaz shook his head. "What are you doing with yourself nowadays, Ron?"
"What's it to you?" Ron's head didn't turn, but his eyes cut right and left, as if he expected backup. Or expected Chaz to have some. Was Ron afraid of him?
"Just..." Chaz shrugged one shoulder. "...keeping up with the old neighborhood. Heard you were in the Marines. Iraq."
Ron's fingers flexed on the bar. "Yeah."
"See a lot of combat?"
Some of the tension went out of Ron's posture. He looked Chaz over, and a corner of his mouth curled. But his hands were still nervous. "Yeah, I did. You should try it. Change your fuckin' life."
Chaz sighed. "Must be intense, man. What unit were you with?"
Ron named it, down to the platoon. "And we kicked some camel jockey ass for all you losers back home. We were in Fallujah when Fallujah was hot. Nothin' like it in the world." His face settled into a recognizable version of the Ron that Chaz remembered. Somewhere in the pit of Chaz's stomach there was a chill, but it was no match for the heat of anger.
"I guess you get pretty tight with guys you fight with, huh? Keep in touch?"
Ron took a breath hard and fast through the nose--Chaz couldn't hear it over the noise, but he could see it happen. Ron's eyes cut away from him again. "They don't live around here."
If they'd been playing poker, Chaz could have cleaned him out in half an hour.
Chaz found the beer and a little drift of bills in front of him; he couldn't recall the bartender setting them down. He drank a little and watched Ron. "Bet your mom's glad you're home safe."
Ron picked up his own beer and took his time drinking some. "Yeah. Whatever."
"And Angela? How's she? You two still together?"
Lost him. Chaz saw the shutters close. Ron set his jaw and looked back up, grinning, showing the space where one of his left upper premolars was missing. "Hey, what are you doing nowadays? You a math teacher or something? Wait, I know--you're working for Best Buy on their Geek Squad." His change in tone drew the attention of his friends; they looked to see who was on the receiving end.
Chaz smiled at them. "Nope. I'm with the FBI"
Ron's grin stiffened. Fingers again, as if they were curling around something that wasn't there. He recovered, and said, "The Feds need accountants, too." The three men with Ron snickered, nervous.
"Behavioral Analysis Unit." Chaz added kindly, "I'm a profiler."
Ron's friends, as unobtrusively as they could, shifted themselves and their drinks further down the bar, and watched Ron and Chaz in sidelong fashion.
"So, so--you're a fuckin' FBI agent?"
"But...you don't carry. Right?"
"Uncle Sam bought me a gun. Just like you." Back off. Don't push him. Don't let anger push you. Too late for that.
Ron's chin came up, his eyes narrowed, his lip curled again. "Hit anything with it?"
The smell of smoke, roses, and blood, and the drag of the knife caught on bone. Chaz clenched his teeth. But something in his face must have spoken in spite of him.
Ron's pale eyes shifted side to side and settled finally on a spot halfway down the bar from Chaz. "Whatever the fuck you say," he muttered. He slid his fresh beer down toward his friends' and turned his back on Chaz.
Chaz drank off half the Sam Adams at once, pushed his change like a stack of chips at the bartender, and walked out.
He heard the door swing behind him, and the footsteps, too light to be Ron's. He didn't stop until he got to the Jeep. Then he braced himself against it, his hands clenched on the roll cage so hard the vinyl top creaked on its mountings.
Marti stopped behind him.
"You get all that?" Chaz was surprised how steady his voice was.
Steady, but not, perhaps, reassuring, since she didn't answer.
He said, "If there's any chance you'll want to sandbag me again, just say so, and I'll get the hell out and save you the trouble."
"Don't fuck with me, Marti. Don't fuck with what I do or the way I do it. I did everything wrong in there. I should have known better. But if something blows up because of it, remember you get to share the credit."
She was silent, and that made him turn to look at her. In the neon, he couldn't tell if she was pale, but her lips were pressed tight and her eyes were down. "It was a shitty thing to do. I apologize, Chaz. No excuse."
He dropped into the passenger seat and tried to breathe like a normal person.
She said, "As soon as you started toward him--"
"You thought you'd get to see me prove my manhood?"
"--I knew I'd screwed up."
The rage and adrenaline holding him up drained away. "You were angry."
"And you were right. All you did was what I asked you for."
Chaz scrubbed his face with both hands. "Apology accepted."
"Will something blow up?"
"I don't know. I lost control of it, but maybe not enough to matter. I hope."
"It looked like you were running the show."
"I put him on alert. I practically told him I know where his secret is. If I wanted to push him into doing something stupid and dangerous, that would be great. But if we're lucky, he'll remember I'm Chaz Villette, for God's sake, and he'll be too proud to be scared of me."
Marti walked around the Jeep and climbed into the driver's seat. "More fool him, then." She started the engine.
Chaz swung his feet in and belted up just in time to survive Fluffy's lunge out of the parking space. The air that yanked and tangled at his hair was cold now, but it helped clear away some of the fog of emotion and beer. He probably shouldn't have done that thing with the beer.
Marti pivoted the Jeep around a corner and onto Carey. "Prove you forgive me. Let me buy dinner."
He looked over, surprised.
"Well, you haven't had any, have you? I know a really good mom-and-pop Indian place."
"There's good Indian food in Vegas?"
"We're all sophisticated and stuff nowadays."
"Who would have thought," Chaz said.
It smelled good, at least, enough so that Chaz's stomach actually suggested it wouldn't mind being fed. He and Marti sat at a formica table in a corner, on mismatched chairs, under a travel poster of Mumbai. They ordered samosas, pakoras, navrattan korma, masala dal, roti, basmati and two Kingfishers.
"That's a whole lot of food," Marti observed as the waiter disappeared into the kitchen.
"If there's too much, you'll have leftovers for lunch." There was a time when he could have said that, to Daphne, maybe, and made her laugh. Now there might actually be leftovers.
He could eat if he didn't think too much about it, or if he was ravenous (at least until he took the edge off his hunger). Sometimes intense flavors short-circuited the food-equals-nausea association; sometimes bland ones did.
He was not going to turn down dinner dates for the rest of his life. Not to mention having to look at Dr. Srinivasan's raised eyebrow at every weigh-in. He could handle this.
They talked shop until the food came. Chaz let Marti lead the conversation; he didn't know enough about community policing strategies, and she could tell him about them. There was a limit to what he could say about the Anomalous Crimes Task Force, after all. She was polite and a little constrained. So was he.
He tried the korma and decided Marti had good taste in Indian. "Did you know that this is often considered to be the most complex cuisine in Asia?"
Marti tore a piece off the roti, stared at it, and sighed. "Chaz, I swear I had no idea throwing Ron at you would be so monumentally fucked up. I was upset about Angela, and I just... I wanted you to be uncomfortable, too. Straight back to high school all the way, I guess."
It sounded like the truth, however hard it was to believe. "Ron and I have some history."
"I know he gave you shit, but he did that with most guys if he was sure they couldn't kick the crap out of him."
"A little more history than that." It came out sharper than he'd meant it to.
Marti winced. "Once you started talking to him, I figured that out."
He wanted to make a peace offering. Information was all he had. "I killed his car."
"What?" Then her eyes widened. "Wait, the Camaro? That was you? But-- What did you do? Sugar in the gas tank?"
"Actually, that's a myth. At worst, it clogs the fuel filter. Sugar doesn't dissolve in gasoline." She was still staring at him, so he added, "Polystyrene beads do, though. The resulting gel clogs the filter and the fuel lines. You have to pull the tank and flush out the whole system."
Marti leaned forward, frowning, suspicious, her chin on her knuckles. "That doesn't sound like a dead car. More like a car with a head cold."
"Um." Chaz pushed a smear of tamarind chutney around his plate with the last corner of a samosa. "No. For a dead car, a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide works."
"Rocket fuel. Burns too hot for a gasoline engine. Warps the cylinders."
Marti's mouth opened and stayed that way.
"Though acquisition and handling can be kind of a challenge."
Marti closed her mouth and sat back. "What I said about not fighting back? I retract that."
Chaz grimaced. "No, that was revenge. Fighting back is when you break someone's trunk latch from the inside." As soon as it was out of his mouth, he regretted having mentioned it.
It took her a second. "Oh. Shit."
"It's all right. I got away." In the dark, on a dirt road in the middle of nothing, with the temperature dropping to freezing. At least he hadn't had to worry about rattlesnakes. And he had gotten away.
"My God, no wonder you bit my head off."
The subject was overdue for changing. "Can I have the last of the korma?"
"Then I forgive you."
"Seriously. Forgive me for biting your head off?"
"That was justice." She shook her head, sighing. "And we should know. Who'd've thought we'd both end up in the job?"
Chaz put another dab of rice on his plate to go with the korma. "I don't know what else I would have done." He still didn't. He'd forgotten that for a moment.
"Extreme engineering?" Marti scanned the room over his shoulder and grinned. "Everybody was pretty sure that thing with the sandrail was you."
Chaz choked on his beer.
"It's okay," she said. "Statute of limitations."
He added it up in his own head to be sure. "It was going to be a dirt bike, but I couldn't figure out a workaround for the stability problem."
"There could have been three felony counts on that."
"National Park, Chaz."
"...Three. Statute of limitations?"
"You're still covered." She eyed his plate. "Don't they feed you in D.C.?"
He was pleased to see he'd eaten everything he took. There was a spoonful of dal left in its bowl, not even enough to justify packaging up. "'They'?"
Marti shrugged. "Restaurants? Takeout? What do people eat in Washington?"
He realized she was half serious, and was glad she hadn't spotted his smile. "Puerto Rican, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese just on my block. Seriously, if I want meat loaf or roast chicken, I have to make it myself."
"You know how to roast a chicken?"
Chaz looked up, surprised. "Sure. He who cooks well, eats well." He heard an echo in the words, and thought of that first Memorial Day barbecue at Brady's. It hadn't occurred to anyone that Reyes could cook. He'd answered their disbelieving expressions with that line.
Good and bad mingled in memory like spilled beads. Like beads, the colors stayed unmixed and sharp.
His face must have done something odd, because Marti's smile faded a bit. He grinned and shrugged, and finished, "If I say so myself, I give awesome breakfast."
Marti blinked. Her lips pressed together. She looked away.
"Okay, that didn't-- I wasn't trying to say...anything? Except about breakfast." Was there something he could add that wouldn't make matters worse?
She smiled and waved a hand, and didn't quite meet his eyes. "Most important meal of the day."
"Yeah." The silence was uncomfortable. Really, he should only talk to girls on-line. At least that way he could re-read his message before he hit "send." "Want dessert?"
She gaped at him. "You have room for dessert?"
"With help, maybe." Good. If he had to have a freak metabolism, the least it could do was help him change the subject. He slid the menu out from behind the napkin holder and found the list of sweets. "Hey. Split an order of gulab jamun?"
"I have no idea what that is. Sure. I'll live dangerously." She rested her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands, smiling wide. The dimple showed in her cheek. Dimples ought to make a person look soft and helpless. This one didn't. This one was part of an expression that looked like, "Bring it, kid."
Chaz longed to ask, "Hey, want to learn to jump off a building?" just to see if he could get an industrial-size version of that expression. He ignored the impulse, and tried to squelch the pleasant increase in his heart rate. "You'll like it. At least, I hope you will. You're in no danger. Trust me."
Marti tilted her head--a coiling tendril of hair slid down across her forehead--and stared across the table at him. One corner of her mouth tugged higher than the other; it stretched and straightened the curve of her full lower lip.
If she opened her mouth, he thought he'd fall into it, he was so dizzy. But he was pretty sure he wasn't supposed to be. A little social flirting, cowboy, not a freakin' invitation.
To hide his confusion Chaz turned to the counter and waved, and ordered dessert when the waiter came over smiling. The waiter seemed to appreciate customers who took dinner seriously.
When he turned back, Marti was gazing across the room as if it went on several feet past what Chaz could see. "I wanted to be a teacher for a while. Law enforcement didn't even occur to me until after high school."
Subject change. He'd been right to ignore the dimple. "Ever have doubts?"
"I can't imagine being anything else."
"You said 'being,' not 'doing.'"
She looked puzzled. "Same thing?"
Chaz shook his head. "If you're only doing something, you can stop." He watched her attention turn inward as she thought about that. "So why the police?"
"You don't think you can change who you are?"
His lip hurt--oh, because he was biting it. He dropped his hands to his lap. Most of his anxiety tells were in his hands. "I think...you can be changed."
"Okay, maybe some people can't change, or won't. But I think most people don't change until they get that what they do affects other people. Until they take responsibility for that. Sometimes the only way that happens is if somebody with a badge shows up on their doorstep."
"You're the voice of conscience."
Marti shot him a look past her hair, as if she expected sarcasm. "Sometimes. Sometimes it's just that I like seeing what happens under the surface of the stuff people see every day. I want to make the world better for somebody. Maybe I picked a crappy way to do it. But isn't it better to have me in this job than somebody who wants to fuck around with people who can't fight back?"
"Yeah. It's...better to want to save the world."
Marti leaned forward, folding her arms on the table. "So you joined the Bureau."
He felt the blood burn under his face. He could back off, but she'd spot it. He didn't want her to think he was a coward. "You can't save everyone."
"So did I," he said. "Intellectually."
The silence seemed long. "Bad beat?" she asked.
He looked up, startled. "It's...more like a streak."
She bit her lip, gave him an unconvincing smile, and looked away again. "I hate those. You get all the cards and you still go down. And if you can't do it when you've got all the cards, what does that say about you?"
It means you're not a superhero after all. It means you're just a poor struggling baseline human, in spite of your little jammer tricks. Only the monsters always get the job done. Somebody may stop them, but until then, the monsters accomplish what they set out to do.
Chaz swallowed against the feeling that his heart was beating its way up his throat. "The people I worked with-- They try to get to the crime before the criminal does. To save the victim. To save other people from becoming victims." Below the tabletop, his hands struggled with each other. "But they know about the ones they don't get to in time, the ones they don't learn about until too late. So even when they win, they know...someday they could be the ones nobody gets to in time." He smiled, and realized his wasn't very convincing, either. "More fallout from a bad beat."
"You don't think it improves the odds, when you get to go in with a vest and a gun?"
Chaz thought of Falkner's determined juggling of two contradictory lives. Brady's one-night stands. Hafidha's brisk, cynical distance from her own wounds. Daphne's conviction that she was never quite as good as she needed to be. Todd's Zen-master detachment, and wherever it had come from. Lau's highly-polished armor, bright enough to fool the eye. Reyes--
Be fair. Reyes was hardly untouched by the work they did.
And Chaz Villette, who couldn't sleep or eat or get too far from his gun, who jumped at reflections. Who wondered if he'd know if he were a monster. "There's a lot gets past a vest," he said, short of breath.
"Is that why you're quitting?"
"Hello, third grade English. I know the difference between past and present tense."
"Then why did you say I was quitting, not that I'd quit?"
"Chaz, I followed you around all day, for God's sake. You haven't quit."
Rescue arrived in the form of the waiter with a little bowl and two spoons. Chaz pushed the bowl toward Marti. "Don't let them get cold."
Marti watched him for a moment more. He hoped that wasn't sympathy he was seeing. Then she sliced the side off one of the little brown balls in the dish, showing the creamy yellow underneath, and popped the spoon in her mouth.
"Oh my God," she said. "It's like a donut hole in syrup. And sort of like custard. Except it's totally not. That's amazing."
"Don't get any ideas about eating them all." He attacked one of the dough balls with his spoon.
"And even though you want to quit, you're hanging on as hard as you can," she said.
His spoon clinked against the bowl with the jerk of his hand. His mouth was full. So he raised his eyebrows.
"When I first asked you for help, if you'd said you'd quit the Bureau, you didn't have any pull with anybody, sorry, I'd have backed off. And you knew that."
Chaz swallowed. When he was sure he could speak lightly he said, "Nice work. D'you want my job?"
"Jesus, not for all the payouts in town." She stood up and pulled a skinny credit card wallet out of her hip pocket.
"Can I get half?
"I did the inviting. I pay the tab."
"Isn't that kind of old-fashioned?"
"In this I'm old-fashioned." She turned with one hand on her hip, and gave him the crooked smile that changed the shape of her mouth. "I make up for it elsewhere."
He shivered, and felt as if his nerve endings were brushing against each other like leaves in a wind. But weighing the conversation in his memory, he still didn't think it was the reaction she wanted out of him.
Chaz navigated to the nearest coffee shop with a drive-up. "I can find coffee anywhere in Las Vegas. It's some kind of coffee sonar. I can hear the beans grinding."
"Not bad for a guy who doesn't live here anymore."
He ordered a large, black, two sugars, and Marti's small decaf. "But I'm still from here. Being from Las Vegas-- It's part of my self-identification."
"You're staying in a hotel, though," she said, as if offering corroborating evidence.
He shrugged. "Did you know it would take 288 years for one person to spend a night in every hotel room in Las Vegas? Or that at last count, Nevada had one slot machine for every ten residents? Or that the hard hat was invented for workers building the Hoover Dam?"
"Aren't there supposed to be guys who fell into the wet cement and drowned, and their bodies are still in there?"
"Urban myth," Chaz said, unreasonably pleased. "There was no pour deeper than six inches at any time in the project."
"But see? I am from here. My brain is full of it." He slouched in the seat again, his feet on the dash, and waited for Marti to get Fluffy on a straight line through traffic before he sucked coffee through the go cup lid.
After Texas, and Johns Hopkins, after surgery and the NG tube and the relentless care of the hospital room, he was put on medical leave. When you're on medical leave, you go home. So he went to back to his apartment in Arlington, a cramped space in a building with no elevator, where he was too proud to ask for help carrying groceries or cleaning up or getting a ride to physical therapy.
The point of being released to go home was that home came with family and friends and an assist with the mechanics of recovery. Neither Las Vegas nor Arlington met that criterion. By those standards, he was a transient.
Still, when he needed someplace he knew, a place where he could manipulate the environment to suit his needs, he'd come here.
"Won't that keep you awake?" Marti nodded toward the cup.
He was holding it in both hands, like communion wine or the Grail. "Lots of things keep me awake. I don't think coffee is one of them, though." At the end of this drive was his hotel room, and a long night, and his face in the bathroom mirror again at the end of it. His reflection would want to know what had changed since the last time they'd met. He'd have to admit nothing had.
"What did you mean when you said you know where Ron's secret is?"
"The stressor--the thing that changed his behavior--happened when he was in Iraq. So I don't know what it is, but I know where it is in his life. Unfortunately, I can't get at his service records, but he told me his platoon. I may be able to find out more if I can talk to the people he served with." Ron had flinched when he mentioned them. Someone among them knew.
"You think it's something awful, don't you?"
"I know it's something Ron thinks is awful." Neither of them needed to say it out loud: that Ron's standard for awful wouldn't be exaggerated. "Whatever it is, Metro will take it seriously."
"Just what I was after." The note in her voice made him look, but he couldn't decide, from her voice or her face, what it meant. She nodded toward the dash. "Want some music?"
"Sure." She did, for whatever reason, and he was happy to let her have it.
"I had to add the stereo. It was Fluffy's only flaw, that she didn't play MP3-CDs." She tapped the power button on the stereo. A fading line of twangy guitar came out of the speakers, the end of a song. It occurred to him, too late, that he might hate her taste in music. He could stand it for the length of the ride.
Strings skipped, cheery and pizzicato, bum bum bum bum ba-dum, and fingers bounced out an addendum on the low end of a piano keyboard. Chaz flinched as Regina Spektor's knowing little-girl voice sang, This is how it works / It feels a little worse / Than when we drove our hearse / Right through that screaming crowd...
"Could we skip this one?" He had to push the words out through a rigid throat, thin and harsh over the engine noise and wind.
Marti poked the advance button and the pause. "Too ecto?"
"No, I like it. It--just reminds me of--of a friend."
Daphne loved that one. Chaz wondered if she knew how much it sounded like her. You love until you don't, you try until you can't... Honest in a way none of the rest of her teammates were, or maybe, could afford to be. Brave enough not to have to lie about the world.
He dragged himself out of his head to find they were at a stoplight, and Marti was watching him. "You're a minefield, Chaz Villette." The quirk of her mouth and eyebrows wasn't annoyance or pity or alarm, but in the the stammering light of a liquor store sign, he couldn't tell anything about it except what it wasn't.
Marti jabbed the controls again and cranked the volume. The speakers coughed out the rhythmic chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk of muffled guitar strings marking time.
Chaz snapped his head around to look at her. "That's--".
Then the piano and the guitars and everything came down on them in a four/four avalanche, and Zevon sang, "I went home with the waitress..."
Marti sang along with a rusty, untrained voice and absolute conviction. "Come on," she urged between lines.
"No, no. Bad idea."
"Come on. Next verse is yours."
Peer pressure. And he really didn't want her to think he was a coward.
He half-talked the first line (Warren Zevon's voice was lower than his). Marti's smile was a wide white beaming triangle lighting up her face, and the dimple was dark as a piece of night.
Oh, to hell with it. His breathy tenor was all wrong. But the song could hold its own even against him.
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns, and money
Yeah, get me out of this.
Hyah. Air punch. Absolute conviction.
His face hurt from singing while grinning while feeling as if he shouldn't grin at all. But he and Marti raised their voices in uncertain unison, filled in the hand claps over their heads at a red light. In that isolated slice of time, there was only as much past as he wanted to acknowledge, only the future he tagged as relevant.
"Regina Spektor to Warren Zevon--It's the 'Thirty Years of Irony' mix," Chaz said as it faded out.
"'Lawyers, Guns, and Money' is a classic. Like Beethoven. Ageless. Answer me this: I've never met anybody in law enforcement who doesn't love that song. Why?"
"I'll work up the profile and get back to you." Hafidha would be able to list every cover version ever recorded without having to look them up and would offer to burn him copies. Lau had probably done it for karaoke night. Of course Todd knew it; he'd never say so, but he'd probably been it. Daphne would know all the lyrics, but refuse to sing until after the second margarita. Falkner? She'd have to know it, since it was the theme song of her evil twin, if she had one. Brady would only sing along to it in the truck when he was alone.
Reyes was that guy. Once he must have taken that little risk. What did that say about him now?
In high school, the popular kids had posses. He hadn't had one, but he'd known what they were. They were made up of the people who got your jokes, the ones who had your back, the ones who called you on it when you let yourself down, the ones to whom you said the things you didn't think you could say out loud. And you were there to do those things for them. Together, they were the net that caught you when you fell off something too tall to survive.
You didn't stop needing them once you left high school. You didn't stop weaving the net. It was the reason you could carry your own bags, take out your own trash.
And when you needed to move a load too big for you, they expected you to say so.
Oh, he was such an idiot. He'd walked away instead.
"Did you like high school?" Chaz asked.
Marti spared him a quick frown. "Some of it. But anyone who says they're the best years of your life is on crack."
"I hated it. The last thing I wanted was do-overs on high school ten years later. Next thing I know, I'm working with the student council president, the quarterback of the varsity football team, the editor of the paper, and god knows who else. And it's--I didn't mind at all." The wind snapped through his hair; a cascade of colored neon light splashed the Jeep's hood, the dash, his hands.
He was never the star of the movie. Except--soundtrack, lighting, location, co-star. He could almost believe he was. For once, it wasn't even a slasher movie. "And now I'm cruising around Las Vegas after dark in a ragtop Jeep with the coolest girl in school. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself about it."
The silence tipped him off, made him play back what he'd just said. Oh. Marti had both hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road. Streetlights rolled over her face like a slow-motion strobe, illuminating absolutely nothing. He started work on his apology.
Marti cranked the Jeep over to the curb at an angle that made Chaz grit his teeth and grab for the roll cage. She jammed the stick into neutral, yanked the emergency brake on, and shut off the engine.
A car passed next to them on the street, the sound of tires on asphalt outlining the silence rather than breaking it. His heart galloped. Marti's hands stayed on the wheel, her eyes front. He opened his mouth to say something--he had no idea what it would be.
Marti thumbed her seatbelt latch, leaned over, and kissed him on the lips.
She pulled back just enough to focus on his face. He ought to do something. He ought at least to know what the hell sort of expression he was wearing. But all he could do was sit very still and try not to interfere.
Whatever she saw in his face made her lean forward and kiss him again. Oh, thank God.
The seatbelt somewhat limited his ability to contribute. But his hands were free. He used them to make sure she didn't pull back again.
She did eventually, and he let her, but it didn't happen for a while. When it did, she sat back in the driver's seat, her breathing deep and quick. So was his. He ought to look away, give her that much privacy to recover in. But he couldn't. Her profile against the lit signs and windows across the street was perfectly clear, perfectly mysterious. He wanted her to turn toward him again, so he could search for whatever it was he'd missed in the last two days that had led to this.
She turned, and he still didn't know. But in a faint, cracking voice, she said, "Want to make me breakfast?"
Oh. He nodded. "Yeah." It was barely loud enough to hear.
Marti started the Jeep and put it in gear, swung cautiously into traffic. They rode in awkward, highly-charged silence until Chaz remembered something even more awkward. "I should stop at a drug store," he croaked.
After a moment, Marti said, "I've got some."
Chaz glanced sideways and caught her doing the same. He coughed with trying not to laugh. "Do-overs on high school," he said. That made her laugh out loud, which pleased him and gave him the shivers, both at once.
He was strung up tight again by the time Marti parked in front of a row of angular two-story condos. He followed her up the front walk, stood on the step while she fumbled for the door key. Not too close. The world's folklore was full of wicked, dangerous things that had to be invited in. Then the door swung open, and she turned. Her eyes and parted lips and the angle of her head said it was true, he was a danger, but so was she, and if she was a little afraid, he could be, too.
He crossed the threshold.
He rarely touched another person intentionally. When he did, it meant something. In the dark of the entryway he cupped his hand around the curve of her face, and brushed his thumb along the spot where the dimple had appeared. She turned her head and kissed his palm. Her hair tickled his fingertips.
She curled her hand lightly around his wrist, stepped toward the stairs, and tugged. "Come on."
He followed her by the pull on his arm and the streetlights shining through the glass over the door. His heart fluttered hard in his chest, an unpleasant feeling. Too much like panic. He was nervous, but he wasn't afraid, was he?
Top of the stairs, down a short carpeted hall, into a bedroom that was all silver and contrast in the low light from the window. Marti pulled his face down to hers and kissed him, and he opened his mouth and kissed her back. She made a soft, low noise in her throat and slid her hands down his chest to the buttons of his shirt.
Then Chaz remembered why he was afraid.
He stepped back, stumbled a little. "Wait. Wait," he panted. "There are--I have to tell you about...some things."
He swallowed hard, backed up until he felt the mattress against his calves, and sat down. Marti stood very still, where she'd been when he'd pulled away. Her face was determinedly blank. Her chest rose and fell, and he heard her breathing in and out, short and irregular.
"I told you I got--that I was hurt. When you asked about my back." What could he tell her? He met his father, who cut him open and may have made him HIV-positive, but he's dead now, so don't look and don't talk about it and it'll be fine? It wasn't fine. Marti stood with her hands at her sides, waiting to be hurt. The longer Chaz fumbled for words, the worse it would get.
"I got cut really badly on my back, five months ago. It still hurts. It still...it doesn't look good. And it was, the way it happened..." He shook his head hard. The scars on his wrists, like irregular beads on broken bracelets--he couldn't talk about them, even if she asked. "Also, there was blood-to-blood contact. Not just a needle stick. I was treated with antiretrovirals as soon as they could, and I've tested negative so far. But it's not sure."
"So you'd rather not," Marti said softly.
He lifted his head so fast it made him dizzy. He couldn't see her face well. "No-- Damn. It's just, if you'd rather not, I understand. And I...wanted to warn you about the scars, because I'm..." His mouth twisted in spite of him, and the voice of his new self said, Good luck finding the right word for it.
Marti bent her neck, tipping her head forward as if to see him better. "...Still a little freaked about them?"
It sounded so normal and ordinary when she said it. People got wounds, formed horrible scars, and were embarrassed and ashamed. Most of them weren't even Chaz Villette. It was nothing to be surprised at.
She crossed to the bed and sat beside him, her hip soft against his. "I'll be careful where I put my hands," she said, and her voice was low and hoarse.
She was careful. And thorough. In that artificial moonlight she undressed him and ran her palms and fingers over everything she uncovered: down his chest and belly between his bony hips, over his thighs, his buttocks, along the corrugations of his ribcage and the skin of his back, smooth or scarred. He tensed, shivering; but her hands were warm and light and didn't linger or rush, didn't suggest either staring or averted eyes. She leaned above him and kissed the back of his neck, under his hair. Her body heat crossed the little space between them like a touch. "Your turn," she whispered.
When he unfastened her bra and slid the straps down her arms, her breasts settled heavy against her pectoral muscles. He traced the creases beneath them, lifted them in his palms and watched their contours shift, circled her nipples with his thumbs. She arched her back and pulled air through her teeth in a hiss.
She stood to let him unfasten her jeans and push them and her underwear off the swell of her hips and down her thighs and calves. He'd studied the undulating line of calf and thigh in the Riviera bar, admired, but hadn't let himself think about warm, smooth skin over cushioning fat and taut muscle. Her stomach was rounded, hard underneath its padding. He trailed his fingers down it, brushed lightly over the dark tangle of her pubic hair. The sound she made was half-purr, half-growl.
She flexed her fingers in his hair and ducked her head to kiss him, folded up next to him. He leaned backward and pulled her down with him across the sheets.
They were slow for as long as they could be: readers with a book they didn't want to finish. Sometimes they were awkward, until they learned what they needed to. When they couldn't be slow anymore, they were whatever they had to be, and Chaz, at least, lost track of grace, awkwardness, confidence, uncertainty, everything but what felt. Marti flexed against him like a bent bow and gave a rough, muted wail and suddenly what he felt was more than he could bear. If he made a noise, he couldn't hear it, or forgot to listen.
He didn't quite doze afterward. Marti did, he thought; but while his body was still stunned and heavy, his brain began to come back on line. He let it do as it pleased.
What pleased it was revisiting everything Marti had said or done since he'd met her in Kady's, in light of, well, where he was at the moment.
Marti stirred, rested her chin on one hand, and contemplated his face. She turned a curl of his too-long hair around one finger and studied that, her expression blank and her thoughts turned inward.
If he had any sense, he'd leave them there.
Do not start. Even you won't be able to clean up the resulting mess. Even you aren't that stupid. He did it anyway. "What did you think, when you saw me in the coffee shop night before last?"
She frowned, just the little vertical line between her brows. "What?"
"Were you surprised?"
"Yeah." It sounded like the truth.
"Since I got here that night, I've talked to four people who knew me from high school. Only one of them recognized me: you. How did you know what I looked like, Marti?"
Her eyes dropped. "You don't look all that different."
He could make a joke and the subject would disappear. He stayed silent.
She flushed and pulled away. "So, you keep your secrets and everybody else gives up theirs? Is that the program?"
It was, in a nutshell. Too late to back off now.
"Fine." She glared into his eyes from two feet away, a distance transformed from intimate to alarming in a matter of seconds. "You were my crush."
"Pardon?" But it was so unlikely, it almost had to be true.
"You were smart, though you pretended you weren't, and kind of crazy, and all the stuff a sixteen-year-old kid should be afraid of didn't seem to scare you." She raised one shoulder, looked away, her mouth hard. "I got over it. But I noticed whenever you showed up in the paper or I heard something about what you were up to. Once I went to work in Metro, it seemed like FBI and BAU connections came up on my radar every other day."
He shook his head. "Not with photos..."
"So I went looking." Her voice broke. "Jesus, it's like I have a guilty conscience about it. News services run photos and video on high-profile cases. You bring scumbags into police stations with their coats over their heads, you stand in the background at press conferences. Did you think you were invisible?"
He had thought he was, even before he could actually make it happen. The idea that, going about his job, he could be noticed by anyone outside it made him feel like a vampire catching sight of itself in a mirror.
"So, yeah. At the end of a week of stakeouts and warrants and raids and still not quite nailing the big dogs, I saw you sitting in Kady's at two-thirty in the morning. You looked like you'd had the shit repeatedly kicked out of you and did not care. It was like the world was apologizing for my crappy week by dropping you in front of me. And I wanted--" She closed her eyes and swallowed. "I got weak in the knees. Literally. I wanted to peel you like an onion." Air came out past her lips in an almost-laugh. "Now here you are, stark naked in my bedroom. But I swear to God, you're still wearing that jacket and tie."
It took him a second to figure that out. He wanted to apologize, but it seemed as if the things he should apologize for had happened too long ago. "Spies are told not to have sex with someone they want to get to open up." He pushed a tendril of hair away from her eyes with one finger. She didn't pull away.
"Learn that at Quantico?"
"No," he admitted. He hadn't imagined, when she led him in the front door, that what he'd be feeling right now was sorrow. Or that, in spite of it, he'd want her to attempt to peel away another layer. He outlined her ear with the same fingertip, used it to trace the arches of her lips. They opened to let in an unsteady breath.
He laced his hands together behind her head and drew her face down to his. "Keep trying," he whispered against her mouth.
She did. Whether she revealed any more of him, he wasn't sure, but the attempt was infinitely worthwhile in other ways. And for Chaz, at least, it produced black and dreamless unconsciousness.
An unfamiliar cascade of tinny notes broke it. He flung out a hand and found a nightstand that wasn't his with no cell phone on it. His phone didn't sound like--no, his new one did. The ring came again, muffled, and he remembered the phone was in his pants pocket, and his pants were on the floor of someone else's bedroom. That woke him up.
He hung over the edge of the bed and groped, found the right sort of fabric under his hand, rummaged until he came up with the phone. Beside him, Marti raised her head. The number wasn't one he knew. He thumbed the answer button. "Hello?"
"Wake you up? I bet you sleep like a fuckin' baby."
"Who is this?" But he knew.
"We got so we didn't sleep at all. Stay awake, stay alive. Then I get home and find the whole goddamn world took over by shits like you."
He wanted it to be another nightmare, but he knew better. "Ron, where did you get this number?" He'd given it to three people since he arrived. One was lying next to him. The other two were in danger. He knew, because he'd named them in the bar.
"I wish I'd killed you. I still could. What d'you say, Chaz? You think the Feds could get to me before I get to you?"
"Where are you, Ron?" In the light that filtered through the blinds, Chaz could see Marti, her eyes wide, the receiver of the bedside phone in her hand, ready to hit buttons.
"Why the fuck do you care? You're not gonna get there in time."
The room wasn't warm enough. No room could be. He stared at Marti. "Let Angela go." Marti punched in the number, turned away. "You know this is my fault. Let her go, Ron, and you can come after me."
Ron's laugh sounded in his ear, staccato like crumpling paper. "I don't have to choose." The signal cut off.
Marti rattled Angela's address into the bedside phone. "The bastard may still be there. Hurry."
Chaz was half dressed by the time she hung up. "Take me with you."
She only paused a moment. Then her mouth did something that was almost a smile under the circumstances. "Never figured otherwise."
By the time they reached Downtown, they knew that Angela's back door had been found forced and open, and the house was empty. No one mentioned a copy of People with a piece torn from the cover, but Chaz knew it was there somewhere.
The station was focused chaos, crowded and noisy and purposeful. In the middle of the room, Baxter looked up from his cell phone. Polo shirt and jeans; he'd been off the clock when the call came. Chaz decided he liked him.
"You were right," Baxter said as soon as he saw Marti.
Marti's shoulders hiked, and she looked away.
"We'll get her back," said Baxter. Chaz liked him even more.
Map. There had to be a map. There, on the back wall. Chaz got to it, slid his fingers across it: Ellen Shayle's apartment; Angela's house. "What's Ron's address?" he asked.
When no one answered, he looked over his shoulder. Baxter was frowning, which made Chaz take quick stock of himself. His shirt was wrinkled, untucked, open at the collar and showing at the hem of his jacket. His hair wasn't combed. But he was decent enough for the middle of the night in a town that hadn't balked at Howard Hughes.
Marti looked dazed. "Ron's address," Chaz repeated.
Marti told him. He found it on the map. Ellen Shayle was closer by almost half the width of the city; it wasn't about opportunity.
"What are you doing?" Marti asked, from near his right shoulder.
"Geographic profile. Sort of. Not enough data. What does Ron drive?"
"2003 GMC panel van, dark blue. He's a contract driver for a restaurant supply warehouse."
"No other vehicles?"
She shook her head.
"He can't get far off-road in that. Lieutenant Baxter, do we know if the van's gone from his address?"
"Yeah. APB on it already."
Chaz stared at the map, begging it to tell him something else. There was something else, he was sure. Ellen Shayle there, Ron Shayle there, Angela Alcantar over there, then the sprawl of new developments, the desert, the foothills.
"The van...gives him room," he said. Not giving the profile, just thinking aloud. The people he wanted to think aloud to weren't there, but he did it anyway. "That makes up for the places he can't go in it. And Ron is disorganized, running on rage and impulse; he doesn't have an isolated bolt hole prepared. The van is where he'd feel safest. Angela will be bound, because he wants her conscious, to punish her."
"Unless she's already dead," Marti said, flat-voiced.
And on her way to a dump site. Chaz shot Baxter a pleading look.
"Signs of a struggle at the house," Baxter replied. "No blood."
No help, no help. Ron would use his hands, he'd make the end personal. For Ron, physical strength had always been the measure of his value. Chaz couldn't look at Marti.
Baxter's phone rang. He answered, listened, hung up. "Choppers are up."
"He's dodged mortars in Iraq. He'll be good at this."
Marti pulled a folding chair up to a desk and grabbed a legal pad. "I'll give you the people I know that Ron hangs with, boss. Maybe one of 'em knows someplace--a place he'd go."
Why, Chaz thought. It's in the why. Near the door, a square-faced, black-haired woman in a blue t-shirt hunched over a keyboard and a twenty-inch monitor. Chaz threaded swiftly through the room until he stood by the square-faced woman's chair. The Metro I.D. clipped to the neck of her shirt read, Nizhoni, Charlotte.
"Chaz Villette, FBI," he said.
She raised dark eyes to his, and her skeptical expression said, You better not be wasting my time, boy. Chaz opened his mouth to ask her if she could access Ron's Marine Corps records, though he already knew the answer.
Then something, or several somethings, fell into a new shape in his brain. New patterns. The dates of Ron's deployment. The victimology. Whoever Ron had served with.
The victim profile had changed by the time Ron came back from Iraq. Angela wasn't the first.
Breathless, his voice skidding upward, he said, "I need a search. Iraq, Marines, a crime against a woman, probably Iraqi. They weren't convicted. Three, maybe four men, probably a fire team. It would have been--would have been a, a serious assault, a rape-murder, something like that." He rattled out the dates, Ron's platoon.
Long before he finished Nizhoni was keying. "No point in checking Stars and Stripes?" she asked, desert-dry.
As she typed, her screen filled and changed and filled, so like Hafidha's. He was breathing too fast and too shallow, but it wasn't phobic. It was the headlong rush of knowledge.
"This could be it," said Nizhoni.
On the screen, a report from Al Jazeera's English-language site on the rape and murder of a civilian Iraqi woman.
On the screen, a photo of Ron Shayle with three men Chaz had never seen, all in service uniform, walking into a sunbaked building past a pair of MPs. The first in line was the tallest, handsome, walking with his chin up and smiling into the camera. The other three weren't smiling, and their heads were bent. Ron was second from last in the line. Ron's fire team, leader first, on their way to face the military inquiry that would dismiss the charges. None of the men were named.
On the screen, a photo of a dark-eyed, black-haired, smiling woman. Roba Bahjat. She leaned on the shoulder of someone cropped out of the frame. She wore Western clothes.
She wore earrings, lapis in filigree gold.
Nizhoni tilted her head up and back to stare at him. "You okay?"
He nodded. "I need a printout of that." He pointed at the photo of the woman. "A color printout."
"You got it." Nizhoni tapped, and a printer two desks over growled and clacked.
Chaz grabbed the sheet out of the hopper and shot back across the room. "I have to get to Ron's mother's place."
"She'll be asleep," Marti said.
"I'll wake her up. Can you take me?"
She looked to Baxter, who nodded. She turned back to Chaz. "Let's go."
Chaz knocked on the apartment door. Nothing. So he pounded. Nothing. He pounded again. Down the outdoor hallway with its other apartments, a light came on in a window, a door opened with the chain fastened.
"She won't answer," Marti whispered.
From Ellen Shayle's apartment Chaz heard a sound, a scratch. "Mrs. Shayle, it's Chaz Villette!" he shouted through the closed door. "Please, I need to talk to you."
He closed his eyes and willed her to listen. The deadbolt clunked. The door opened to the end of the chain.
The air had the same powdery smell of air freshener and carpet cleaner. A clean apartment, clean of history. Clean of any taint.
He'd read it wrong. Ellen Shayle lived in a fortress of cleanliness, of order. But the fortress only had room for her in it.
Ron hadn't turned away from his mother. She'd rejected him.
She peered through the three-inch opening. She was still dressed. A fellow insomniac. She clutched the collar of her sweater to her throat, and the lapis earrings trembled on their wires. "Do you know what time it is?"
"Mrs. Shayle, I need to know where Ron would go if he were on the run. His wife's--Angela's life--he has her, and he's going to hurt her if we don't find him."
"My Ron wouldn't--"
"Mrs. Shayle, you lied to me. You saw Ron after he got back from Iraq. He came to you. He told you about a terrible thing he'd done. You shut him out of your life. It was Ron you were talking about when you said he took your son away from you, not your husband. Ron did a terrible thing, and you couldn't forgive him. Your son wouldn't do that. So it wasn't your son who came back from Iraq."
"I'm not going to talk to you." Her shoulder moved.
He jammed his right foot in the door before she could slam it.
Marti, her face gray in the security lights overhead, said, "Mrs. Shayle, this is a police matter now. Don't make us come back with a warrant. We want to find Ron before it's too late to help him."
"I haven't seen or heard from Ron. Not since he went over there," Ellen Shayle said, her voice shaking.
Chaz took the printout from his jacket pocket, unfolded it. "Mrs. Shayle, I know you have." He held the picture of the dead Iraqi woman up to the opening.
Ellen Shayle stared at the photo. Her face came apart as he watched. Her hands went to her earlobes, jerked away, and one lobe, torn, began to well blood. She threw the earrings out the door. They pattered on the concrete, skittered under the railing and over the edge.
"I didn't know," she whispered. "I didn't know they were hers."
"Please, Mrs. Shayle," Chaz begged. "Tell us where Ron might be."
A drop of blood fell on her sweater. Her eyes filled up, overflowed, and she turned her ruined face up to Chaz and shook her head. "I don't know."
When she closed the door this time, Chaz didn't try to stop her.
He stumbled down the stairs to the first floor, to the sidewalk and the curb and the Jeep. The printout was still in his hand. He stuffed it into his pocket.
"He gave his mother her earrings?" Marti's voice was higher than usual, unsteady.
"They were a trophy he didn't want. He had to take them, just as he had to--to take part in the kill. He gave them to his mother as part of cleansing himself. He thought she was... In his eyes, she could grant absolution. 'To forgive, divine.' When he found out she--she was just human, after all, he... Women weren't sacred anymore."
Chaz nodded. "He wanted her to prove him wrong, but there was no way she could help him. He couldn't talk to her, and she couldn't read his mind."
"They'll find him," Marti said. He wasn't sure if she was reassuring herself or him. "He can't get away."
Ron had gotten away with so much. Someone should have told on him long ago. Chaz should have done it.
But Chaz wasn't the only one. He couldn't have been; Ron knew what he was doing by the time he went after Chaz. It was a script by then. That was why Ron had been afraid of him, in the bar: because Chaz had been the last one. The one Ron hadn't been able to terrorize, humiliate, control. The one who escaped.
"Marti. I need a map. High-res, U.S. Geological Survey, Nevada Gazetteer--something that shows mining roads, BLM access roads--"
She was digging under the driver's seat before he stopped talking. She handed him a USGS topo map and a flashlight.
He tried to keep his hand steady, but his finger trembled as it traced its way from Angela's house in a neighborhood of cramped printed-circuit streets, north along highway 95 (shivering in t-shirt and jeans, only emerging to stick his thumb out for the semis with their high headlights), then north and east below the dunes, along the colored thread of an unpaved road at the edge of state land (stumbling against the signpost, cutting his hand on the bloomed-out edge of a bullet hole in the stamped metal).
On the map, it was a hairline of blue. He remembered it as a rutted dirt track past the buildings of a sand and gravel company, long abandoned. He'd climbed halfway up the ruins of the conveyor ladder, rusted metal groaning and flaking away under his sweating hands, thinking about broken bones and tetanus and dying alone in the dark. The glow of the valley lights silhouetted Gass Peak like a frozen sunrise.
When the Camaro roared past in a shower of stones, the driver hadn't thought to look higher than the side of the road.
Chaz was the one who'd escaped, who'd made it back. So he was the one who knew the route.
But he hadn't gone to the end of the road. That was the point of breaking the trunk latch, the point of braving the roll over the back bumper and the drop to the iron-hard dirt when the car slowed for a turn in the darkness. He hadn't gone to the end. And the hairline on the map branched, three ways, beyond what he knew.
One branch ran to the abandoned gravel pit. It felt right. It was right. The quarry would contain whatever happened there, rising like bleachers for a secret audience. There might be water at the bottom. There would be loose rock, to hide the evidence. The dark wall of the mountains would stand between Ron and the lights of the city, but he'd still see the glow. All that power, and not enough to stop him.
"There." He jabbed his finger down on the map. "Call Baxter. He's taking her there."
It looked different in the headlights, from the seat of the Jeep, from years away. But he was still surprised it didn't frighten him. He remembered what he'd felt at the time, but all that was left was memory.
Marti shot into the turn for the quarry road, rear wheels sliding. Barely a track: all rock and ruts, just drivable in a street-ready car. At the speed they were going, it was just drivable in a Jeep. Fluffy leaped and tilted. Chaz grabbed the roll cage with both hands and shut his eyes.
"What's wrong?" Marti asked.
"I'm trying not to remember the rollover statistics for a Jeep Wrangler."
"Fluffy's not that kind of girl."
He opened his eyes, peered ahead into the night beyond the headlights. A glow of other lights against the black shape of the mountain. "There!"
"Got it." She sped up. It still felt too slow.
The blue panel van sat like scenery on a stage, lit by the headlights and battery-run spots of squad cars and the SWAT vehicle. The van's side cargo door was slid open a hand's width, for a view or a clear shot, but showed nothing of the inside. Behind the van was darkness and the drop-off into the quarry. If Ron had thought of that for an endgame, at least he hadn't used it yet.
Chaz half-fell out of the Jeep, aware that Marti was doing the same. The rest of the players had just arrived. The SWAT team was checking weapons, light glancing off their helmets. Uniforms crouched by cars and pulled on ballistic vests. More lights behind him--what looked like two paramedic units coming up the road.
He spotted the signs of a command post coming together by one of the county vans and loped over. Two Metro cops turned to watch him, frowning, and the SWAT team leader gave him a baffled look. A copper-faced man in uniform and captain's insignia jerked his head up and glared at Chaz. "Who the fuck--"
Baxter stepped out of the dark. He had a vest over his polo shirt. "It's okay, Lou. He's the Fed who got us the location. Special Agent Charles Villette, Captain Luis Ochoa."
Chaz had forgotten, until Ochoa looked up, that he really had no business there. He'd heard that greyhounds and Thoroughbreds would run by instinct, too.
Ochoa eyed him again, smothered a snort. "Our guy's holed up in the van." He pointed with his chin at an officer with a bullhorn talking into a car radio. "We gave him the speech, but he's not budging. I'm going on the assumption that he's armed, that he's got the woman in there, and she's still alive. But he's got no reason to shoot anybody the fuck up. We'll wait him out. He's got to know he won't be sleeping in his own bed tonight, but unless he's a lower-functioning whacko than it sounds, he won't do anything that'll get him SBC'd."
Suicide by cop. Chaz had a sudden, vivid mental picture of how that would play out, and resolved to prevent it at any cost. "Ron Shayle and three other men committed the gang rape and murder of a civilian woman in Iraq. He brought that home. That's why he's here. He's likely to escalate and kill his hostage and himself. The only reason he doesn't have an endgame is because he's disorganized and reactive, and hasn't had a chance to think that far ahead. If you try to wait him out, you'll give him that chance."
Ochoa stared as if Chaz had grown an extra head, but not as if he didn't believe him.
Chaz looked out at the spotlit van. History of family violence. Stressor: torture and murder as a bonding ritual. Trigger...
Trigger: Chaz Villette. Something would have driven Ron across this line eventually. It happened here, now, because Chaz had crowded Ron off his precarious balance.
"Jimmy says you're BAU," Ochoa said. "Got any good tricks for getting Shayle out of there?"
Marti came up out of the darkness. Baxter met her, put a hand on her shoulder. "We're pretty sure she's in there. We don't know anything else."
Marti nodded. "I heard. Talked to the guys on my way up." She was wearing a ballistic vest; she must have got it out of one of the cars. Her eyes were huge in her tight-drawn face. She caught Chaz's eye, and he recognized the plea she sent him.
"I'll see what I can do," Chaz said to Ochoa.
"Put your damned vest on," he said.
"I...don't have one."
"He's on vacation," Baxter added, sounding apologetic.
"Find an extra someplace. Jesus." Ochoa headed off toward the edge of the circle.
"I don't think he likes you," Marti said. The ghost of a laugh in her voice made his throat hurt.
The SWAT van provided. He shrugged out of his corduroy jacket, and the SWAT driver smirked and handed him the vest. "Know how to put this on?"
Chaz nodded and dropped it over his shoulders. He loosened the strap of his belt pouch so it would fit around the vest, snugged up the Velcro around his ribs, and tossed his jacket on the front seat of the van. It was strange to look down at his chest and see the wrong letters reflecting the headlights. No time to think about it. Showtime.
He penetrated the armored line around the van and found himself crouched next to Ochoa. "Ready," he muttered. He wasn't sure of that, but it sounded good. He could hear his heartbeat inside his ears, feel his lungs working too hard.
Ochoa was silent beside him. Then he said, "Tell me if we're gonna get this guy alive."
"Pardon?" An instant later he understood, and was queasy.
"If one of my guys gets the shot, do I tell him to take it?"
"No." Chaz had seen the mad dogs, the ones with whom there was no option but to take the shot. And the gammas. At least I don't have to try to explain that to Ochoa. No, Ron was still human. "If he comes into the open..."
"Then we'll reassess." Ochoa jerked his head toward the van. "Do whatever the hell you do." Ochoa began to murmur into his radio link.
Chaz considered the options. He could shout, but it would sound thin, weak, unofficial. The bullhorn would have authority, but less intimacy, less humanity. Face to face was best, a phone next after that, but it would have to be the bullhorn. He needed to say--
No. Of course not. He wasn't the voice of authority, he was the trigger.
The borrowed vest weighed on his shoulders. He looked down at the white block letters, meant to be visible in streetlight, moonlight, anything but total darkness. No, not the voice or face or body of authority, no rank, no power.
Show him what he expects to see. Even if it's true.
Chaz began to rip at the Velcro tabs.
"What the fuck--" Ochoa said behind him.
Chaz pulled the vest over his head. His shirt glowed in the reflected lights. Like the letters, but writing a different message. The cold night air breathed down his open collar, pierced the cloth to his skin.
"Put the goddamn vest back on before--"
And the belt pouch. The pistol inside tugged heavy at his waist, and the weight itself made him feel stronger. That was why he had to take it off. He felt a miserable little noise trying to climb up his throat. He swallowed it, clicked the buckle open before he could stop himself, and handed the vest and pouch to Ochoa.
No one on the team would let him do this. Brady would knock Chaz down before he'd let him walk out there without the vest. They'd be furious if they heard about it.
Especially if they heard about it at his funeral.
"I'm going to draw him out. Tell your guys to hold their fire, and to move in and grab him as soon as-- As soon as they can."
He crouched and scrambled back from the line, back to the outside of the perimeter of vehicles. That rim was studded now with the irregular, angular silhouettes of rifles like fingers pointed at the van. One of the SWAT team turned as he scrambled past, and Chaz saw the sneer under his helmet. Ah, yes, this was open to misinterpretation. Not his problem.
When he reached the end of the line of vehicles, he stopped to catch his breath. The position was good; Ron could focus on Chaz or the police, but not both. He needed Ron to think of him as separate from the headlights and the guns.
The edge of the quarry was maybe twenty feet away to his right. Chaz couldn't tell how steeply it dropped off. Stay away from it, and he'd never need to know.
He raked his fingers through his tangled hair. Tidy enough in the dark, maybe. Tidy enough for a desk jockey, a Washington soldier, no sand in his teeth or blood on his hands. He rubbed his eyes, pressed the bridge of his nose until it hurt. Then he focused on the van, made himself hard and smooth and shining to catch the reflection of the man inside.
He was afraid. Afraid, and hating it, hating anything that made him frightened. Grind those things down, and he was safe. He was small. Make sure they knew they were smaller.
He stepped forward almost to the edge of the light, feeling as if someone else was inside his body. The hardpan felt different under his feet. His fingers curled and straightened and stayed straight, rigid with that churning mix of fear and hate.
Chaz Villette had made Ron do this. Chaz Villette was a sneak, a coward who never got within reach, who never missed a chance to hamstring better men so he could pass them up, slip off with what they should have had, get away with everything. Chaz Villette, taking a government paycheck to pry into other people's business.
It was true, because Ron believed it. Hate was a sour taste in the back of Chaz's mouth, hate for himself. He accepted it. He wrapped himself in Ron's vision of Chaz Villette. He concentrated on being someone whose hands wouldn't shake, whose voice would carry with self-righteousness, who would sneer at people like Ron Shayle.
It would be easy to show Ron his own reflection. But the reflection Ron needed to see was of the Chaz Villette in his head.
Speak the right words in the right voice. The wrong ones would get people killed.
"Ron! It's Special Agent Villette. Come out of the van."
Muttering ran through the line of cops. Shut them out. Beneath his notice.
"Ron?" He let the pause build a little. "Yeah, that's what I thought." His voice was harsh, scratchy, unreliable. In his own ears it was maddening, like a buzzing fly that kept coming back.
Silence from the van. Then Ron's voice: "What?"
"I figured you were too much of an ass to come out."
A bark of bitter laughter. "Still think you know every fuckin' thing. How about you come over here, Mister Ef Bee fucking Eye?"
Never get within reach. Never miss a chance to hamstring the bastards and run.
"Is this how you do it in the Corps? Hole up in the bunker and and tell each other how great you are until someone else figures out a way to rescue your asses? Oh, Semper Fi, man."
"Shut the fuck up."
"You're a war hero, huh? Look at you. Squatting in your delivery truck while a bunch of poor underpaid bastards stay up all night watching you do it. Yeah, they're putting you on the recruiting posters." Angela was in there. Alive, he hoped. Don't remind Ron that she was a weapon he could use.
"I was there, God damn it. You don't know shit."
"Ron. I'm an FBI special agent. You drive a delivery truck. What's to know?"
His voice didn't weaken the horrible words. It made them worse. Because they were true, weren't they? Ron was losing at life, and Chaz was happy about it.
Or was that the reflection of Chaz, Ron's image of him? How many monsters did the mirror show?
No response from Ron. Push him. Let one monster speak to another.
"In Iraq you crawled for somebody else. Just like you used to make other people crawl. You did everything he told you, didn't you? You and the rest of the fire team. You finally came up against somebody bigger than you. And you caved." More truth, clear and dreadful in the mirror. "When the four of you kidnapped the woman in Iraq, when you raped her and murdered her, Ron, did you have the spine to object even once?"
Not everyone in the circle of armor around the van had heard about that. The rustle of reaction made it through Chaz's altered state.
"I didn't want--"
"But you were too scared to refuse, weren't you? And now you're scared of me. How's that going to play at the next high school reunion, Ron? I know I'm going to feel pretty good about it."
Ron gave a whine of rage, like a chained dog. "You got cops with guns backing you so you can run your fuckin' mouth. You got a gun, so you think you can bring it on me. You skinny little faggot!"
Now. Or never, and he was dead. Chaz stepped forward into the light. His hands were at his sides, fingers spread. "No gun. Am I supposed to be afraid of you, Ron? Remind me why."
"You fuckin' smug faggot son of a bitch--"
"Ron! Which of us is hiding in the God-damned van?"
He must have blinked. He must have been too deep in reflected identity to see out his own eyes. The van door was open.
Chaz felt a blow like a cannonball in his chest. At the back of his skull, pain shot his vision full of clots of light and dark. His back hit something hard, sharp, rough. He wanted to howl but his lungs were empty, and nothing was coming down his throat.
He saw Ron's twisted face close above his own, felt Ron's hands at his windpipe and his own fingernails digging hard into Ron's fingers. He let go and slammed both palms over Ron's ears.
Ron shrieked, lost his grip, jerked out of reach. Chaz got his knee up and levered. He rolled away as Ron pitched sideways.
Noise, shouting, running feet, metal on metal. Other people around them--it seemed like dozens. Chaz lay in the dirt and hoped they didn't step on him. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think.
Someone--two someones--helped him sit up. He began to shake, from adrenaline and shock and the desert night cold that he'd ignored until then, and the amount of his personal candle he'd just burned. Something tickled the back of his head and neck, like bugs crawling down his scalp under his hair.
His vision was clearing; he could see the van. A paramedic team bustled around the door, lifting out--Angela. Alive. Whatever the damage was, she was alive. She was crying shrilly as they laid her on the stretcher.
Bright light in one eye. Oh--another paramedic. Someone draped something around his quaking shoulders. Someone parted the hair on the back of his head, probed--ow.
"Cut on a rock when he went down, looks like. Maybe a stitch or two."
Someone handed him a vacuum bottle cap of hot coffee, wrapped his vibrating fingers around it, helped him get it to his lips. He smelled the sugar in it, saw the sheen of fat from the cream. Who had thought to bring coffee to a hostage crisis? Brilliant. He managed to swallow more than he spilled. The heat loosened his throat, fought the shakes from the inside.
He hated this. He'd won the game and ought to be able to enjoy it, but there was his body reminding him and everyone in sight that he was frail and frightened and mortal.
But he'd bought two lives. A fair return for a little humiliation.
"Thank you," he croaked, and handed the cup back. One of the paramedics took it, a dark, heavy-built man. The other, a woman with shaggy blonde hair and a long, thin mouth, had the penlight.
"Hold still, will you?" she ordered, and thumbed his other eyelid up.
"You okay, bro?" Chaz recognized the voice of the SWAT van driver. The thing draped over his shoulders, he realized, was his jacket.
"He'll answer that as soon as I tell him what to say," the blonde paramedic replied absently.
Chaz tried to laugh. Instead he coughed, and everything hurt. He wanted to tell her she reminded him of someone.
Ochoa crouched on the dirt next to him. "That was fun. Especially the part when I thought I was going to have to explain how a Federal agent got his fucking head blown off while I sat and watched." He handed Chaz his belt pouch. Chaz managed not to clutch it to his chest like a teddy bear.
He licked his lips. "Sorry." It still hurt to talk, though not to breathe.
"Do all you BAU guys scare the crap out of people, or is it just you?"
"It's...universal." Among his teammates, at least.
Ochoa looked out at the van, still spotlit, overrun by the crime scene team. "Two automatic rifles, a .45 caliber Glock, a big-ass Desert Eagle, and a fuckin' double-action sixgun, maybe just in case he met up with Billy the Goddamn Kid. And enough ammo to take out the buffet at the Mirage at dinnertime. And you said he didn't have an endgame."
Chaz shivered, not from adrenaline or shock. "Can't be right every time."
Ochoa turned his impassive face back to Chaz. "You ever need anything, call me. Anybody here'll say the same."
It's okay, he thought, fighting back another cough. Statute of limitations. There might be a speeding ticket someday, though.
The blonde paramedic came back from wherever she'd disappeared and squatted in front of him. "No concussion. But you still get to meet my friend Mr. Emergency Room."
Chaz nodded, carefully because of the hurt and the whatever-it-was stuck to the back of his head, and let her and Ochoa help him to his feet. He managed to not look unstable, so they let him walk to the ambulance unsupported.
Fifteen feet off the ambulance's bumper, two cops held Ron, cuffed, while a third opened the back door of a cruiser. Ron stood with his head hanging, the way he'd walked in the photo of the fire team. A small-time predator who found out, too late and too close, what a big-time predator looked like. Ron would testify. They could find the other three men, particularly the one who'd smiled into the camera. But Ron was broken, and nothing would ever really fix him.
Ron raised his head suddenly, as if Chaz had spoken. His face was like wax, blank and empty until the heat of rage melted it. "Don't you fucking pity me!" he screamed at Chaz, and the uniforms on either side jerked him back.
Ron was right. It didn't help, and it wasn't fair.
All the monsters were born from some point of fracture. But Chaz had known this one before he broke, been there before the result became inevitable. Some part of the weight of Ron's ruin settled on Chaz's shoulders. He evaluated it. Not too much to carry. He felt his own expression shift, from sympathy into something neutral and still.
Game face. So that was where it came from, and what it felt like. Well.
Ron closed his eyes and let himself be stuffed into the cruiser.
Chaz stood with his feet braced against a tendency to wobble and the effect of the web of flashing blue and red lights on his vision. The other ambulance stood open and glowing across the way, the space between crisscrossed by passing uniformed people. Some of them acknowledged Chaz, a single dip of the chin. He'd seen Falkner get that, and Brady, and Reyes. It looked strange from straight on.
At the rear of the ambulance, Marti stood by the gurney and held Angela's hand, smoothing her hair back before the EMTs slid the frame over the bumper. Chaz seemed to have lost his own minders temporarily, so there was no one to protest when he walked over.
The ambulance doors closed, and Marti turned to see him watching. She stepped toward him carefully, as if the ground were spongy.
"I'm going to follow them in," she said. She was hoarser than he was. "To be there--"
Chaz nodded. "I've--" He tipped his head toward the other ambulance. "--got a ride. You go."
She swallowed, and her gaze bounced off him. "Thank you."
The people she loved were mortal. It was possible that, next time, help would come too late. The knowledge was new and raw, and she wanted to refuse it, but that wasn't how it worked. And it wouldn't improve anything if he put that into words.
"Call me," she added. "When they're done with you."
She would see worse than this; it was the nature of the job. But if she was lucky, it would never be so personal again. "Marti, don't--"
What? Break? He knew how useful that was to say. Be in a position where you could be broken? Anyone could be, anywhere, any time. Nobody believed it until it happened to them.
She peered up at his face, maybe reading something in it. Blue, red, blue, red across her cheek, as if it changed from cold to hot and back again. He reached out one shaky hand to see. Her skin was warm under his fingertips, which meant his fingers were as cold as he'd been afraid they were.
"Just...be lucky, okay?"
He thought she might have understood, a little. "It's Las Vegas," she replied, and the fracture in her words could have been a shot at laughter. "Everybody's lucky."
When the ER staff let him go, Chaz was at least presentable. He had a Steri-Strip under his hair, and the blood was rinsed out of it and off the back of his neck. The stains on his shirt collar and the rest of the dirt were hidden by his jacket. He was glad he'd taken off the jacket; he was low on presentable sport coats already.
He walked out into daylight, the kind of clear autumn morning that brought tourists to Las Vegas, and which hardly any of them ever saw, even from a hotel room window. The palms rattled in a rise of wind. When it dropped, the blackbirds hidden in the fronds went back to arguing.
He spotted a cab at the end of the hospital's circle drive. Under the circumstances, he felt he was entitled to spring for a cab. He took three strides toward it before he realized he had no idea where he was going.
He was living at the Riviera. Most of his significant belongings were in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and the rest were closed in a bus station locker. None of those places were the right one, quite. He needed the jet again. He needed another sacred space.
The wind slapped his hair into his eyes, and he figured it out. It would cost like hell, but it felt right. He walked down to the taxi, slid in the back passenger side door, and said, "Hoover Dam, please."
Black Canyon funneled the wind into his face and made his eyes tear. He closed them and breathed, deep and slow, smelling river and dust and car exhaust and metal warming in the sun. It felt healing as sleep.
It was Boulder Dam for fourteen years--even though it wasn't built in Boulder Canyon after all--because Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior didn't want to give Hoover credit. The first concrete was poured in June of 1933. If it had been done in a single pour, without the refrigerated-water piping technology Union Carbide invented for the job, the concrete would have taken 125 years to cool. But the structure wouldn't have stood long enough for it to happen, since the heat of curing would have cracked the dam. Even so, the concrete was still curing, still getting stronger. There were seventeen turbine generators in the power plant; together they could produce 2,074 megawatts of electrical power, if humans and the Colorado River let them. Los Angeles consumed 15.4 percent of Hoover's output; the state of Nevada claimed 23.37.
He tipped his head back and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets, leaning into the wind like a figurehead on a sailing ship. See? I'm still from here. The dam had been a talisman for him, when he was a kid; it reminded him that intelligence and creativity and knowledge could solve problems beyond the limits of human strength.
He came from Las Vegas. And he came from a landscape of knowledge he'd built himself, when his environment had seemed hostile to human life and beyond his strength.
A landscape with no one else in it. A fortress. Like Ellen Shayle's spotless apartment.
But he had let other people in. Ramona, until her canopy opened on an off heading. Amarilis, until she realized mortality wasn't optional. The team, until they failed to read his mind, or read it a little too well. Daphne and Hafidha, until he needed them enough that it scared him, and he had to bolt.
So what was the difference between a fortress and a prison? Which was he living in?
He stood halfway between Arizona and Nevada, between coyote and hero, between whatever had made him and whatever he was going to make himself.
I'll take care of you, baby boy. My angel..
Terror kicked him in the chest. It tilted the world around him. He clutched the railing, leaned into it, fighting vertigo, nausea, racing heartbeat. It's flashbulb memory. It's brain chemistry. It's not real.
I'll always be with you, William Villette replied.
All that wind, and nothing to breathe. It wasn't real.
Of course it was. Real as brain chemistry. Real as the monster he lived with.
I'm okay, cowboy. I just cut myself. And his mom had left him to the mercy of a world she knew didn't have any. She'd run away. Why shouldn't he?
Breathe. Straighten up. Open your eyes. Survive the next five minutes.
Or you could kill the monster. That was his job, what he was made to do. Who else would do it? He was the only one who knew what he really was. ...What evil lurks in the hearts of men.
Quick. Before it hears you thinking.
He'd tipped the balance, fed Ron's hate and fear, and pushed Ron to feed Angela's and spread the horror to Marti, Baxter, Ochoa, every officer in the desert last night. The monster thrived on horror.
Then he'd saved everybody.
You can't save everybody.
He couldn't undo the damage they'd already suffered. But Angela would live. Marti would still have her sister, and the chance to work out the old hurts between them. Ron's secret would be opened to the light, and if he could survive that, he might heal from it. Ellen Shayle might, too. And last night's responders could say, "We had one last night could have been a real mess. Turned out okay, though."
He'd robbed the monster. He'd done his job.
You made the mistake. You can't be trusted. You'll let them down.
Maybe he would. But everyone deserved a chance to repair the damage. Even him.
"Young man? Are you all right?" It was a woman's voice, from somewhere beside and below his right shoulder. She was small, round, with permed white hair and the big boxed-in sunglasses made to fit over eyeglasses or an eye bandage. She wore a t-shirt, knee-length shorts, and sandals, and the maple leaf on the t-shirt said that as far as she was concerned, this wasn't autumn.
He squeezed his eyes closed, felt the stiffness in his hands on the rail and the moisture drying on his face. He must have been standing there a while. "Yes--yes, ma'am. I just... The wind. I guess."
Her head bobbed once. "I wanted wind, I could have stayed in Alberta." A frown crease showed above the dark plastic of her glasses as she looked out at the glaring white arc of the dam. "A hell of a lot of concrete. I guess someone thought it needed doing." She eyed him sharply. "You should get in out of the sun. You look a little peaked."
"Yes, ma'am," he said breathlessly, and watched her march away toward the Nevada side.
A hell of a lot of concrete. He began to laugh. One person's inspiration was another person's damned tourist attraction.
He turned and started toward Nevada himself, jamming his hands into his jacket pockets. His left one curled around an unfamiliar hard palm-size object. Oh--his temporary cell phone.
The last entry in the "recent calls" list would be the one from Ron. He could clear the list. Or, instead of making his mistakes disappear, he could try to amend them. He couldn't fix what he'd done to Ron, but that wasn't his only error in judgment.
He flipped the phone open and thumbed in the number from ridiculous, useful memory.
"Todd," Solomon Todd said in his ear.
"You want a shot glass? From Caesar's?" Chaz asked, feeling as if he'd just caught up to the conversation back in D.C.
A silence long enough to make him wonder if he'd lost the signal. "I do."
"Duke, I know you have an abiding appreciation for absurd Americana--"
"Good grief," Todd said in a failing voice that was probably assumed. "You sound like me."
"Don't distract me when I'm refusing to do you a favor." He felt weird, giddy and floating, and he didn't think it was low blood sugar. "I can't have something like that on my conscience. Or my credit card statement."
Chaz could hear Todd's determinedly solemn expression. "No, no, not one out of the gift shop. I want a shot glass off the tray of a beautiful waitress on the casino floor."
Low blood sugar didn't cause auditory hallucinations. "You want me to steal a--" Pedestrians' heads turned. He lowered his voice. "And how would you know where I got it?"
"Oh, documenting provenance is up to you. Good luck." Call ended.
Chaz frowned at the open phone and shook his head. "One of us," he said to the man who wasn't on the line anymore, "is a bad influence."
He was so filthy he itched. Howard Hughes, indeed. He lengthened his stride. Shower at the Riv, and then, damn it, he was getting bread pudding if he had to walk all the way to Fremont Street to get it. Everything else could wait.
No, he had another call to make first. Call me when they're done with you, Marti had said.
Oh, god. And he was going to have to ask her to help him get his backpack out of that luggage locker.
He was never the star of the movie. Yet here he was--location, lighting, big character growth moment. No soundtrack, though. But Bob Mould's voice popped into his head, clear as if he had his earbuds in: Standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam...
All right, then.
...And if you've made a deal with the guy with the horns and the cape...
Chaz walked on, imagining his very own crane shot climbing, climbing, turning him into a dot on a hell of a lot of concrete.
"...but you really do need a cast-iron frying pan."
"Sure I do. I'll save it for when there's someone else around to scrub the fried egg out of it."
"Properly seasoned cast iron is practically non-stick!"
"You are such a food geek."
"And I see you're eating the results."
"Hello? Do I look crazy?"
Chaz watched Marti smear ginger marmalade on her last biscuit half. God, he loved feeding people. Instant evidence that he'd made the world better for somebody.
"You're welcome to come do my dishes anytime, you know." She bit into the biscuit as if to keep herself from saying anything else.
Except he was going home, and home wasn't here.
She must have read it on his face. She swallowed the bite and said, "Does the department have to officially call in the Feds before you'll set foot in Las Vegas again?"
"No! No. I'd like to visit. I like you." Take what you're offered, for fuck's sake, Chazzie. It's not your responsibility if somebody else gets hurt. But this moment, with Marti in her kitchen, was a happy one. He didn't want to turn it into a moment when he could have done the right thing, and hadn't. "So--so I have to be honest about it."
She held her half-eaten biscuit over her plate. He was glad; if she set it down, he suspected it would be a bad sign. "No happily ever after?" He tried to decide what her lifted eyebrows and pursed lips meant.
He weighed all the possible answers. "No," he said at last, because that was what they all meant, and Marti wasn't the sort of person who'd appreciate it if he made her decode them.
She twisted her lips a little, a shrug with her mouth. "I didn't think so." She popped the last of the biscuit in her mouth. "Friends?"
"Jesus," he said, more emphatically than he'd meant to, but not more than he felt. "I hope so."
Marti grinned and licked crumbs off her fingers. Chaz tried not to watch like a dog following a forkful of bacon. She said, "Quantico offers seminars for local police, did you know? Helps build a good working relationship between the FBI and the cops. And they look really good on a girl's resume when promotions come around."
His heart revved a little. "You're just going to use me to advance your career?"
Watching him, she licked her index finger once more. "Honey, you've got way more uses than that." She used the finger to swipe a dab of marmalade off her plate. Then she smudged the marmalade in the center of his slack lower lip, leaned across the table and the ruins of breakfast, and kissed him.
There was a plastic evidence bag on Solomon Todd's desk.
He looked left and right. It was early; Reyes's and Falkner's offices were shut and dark, and Hafidha's sanctum, when he'd passed it, was empty. The desks in the bullpen looked as they had when he'd left work the night before.
Popular entertainment taught a person certain lessons, valid or not. One of them was never to open a head-sized box or the equivalent without gloves and backup. Possibly not without the bomb squad. Someday one of the prey was bound to start hunting the hunters, after all.
This could be that day. Or it could be the beginning of a practical joke, but no one had the heart for jokes lately.
Or it could be from Down the Hall and full of evidence. Stranger things had happened.
None of the info blanks on the bag were filled in. Inside he could see a fist-sized ball of paper napkin. He lifted the bag by its zip-lock top. Correction: something heavier wrapped in a paper napkin.
He'd look like an idiot if he waited for backup and it was nothing. He opened the plastic bag and took out the napkin-wrapped bundle.
The napkin fell open around a shot glass. At the rim of the glass was a smudge of cherry-colored lipstick.
On his desktop monitor, the "new mail" alert was blinking in the menu bar. He opened his mail reader. The top message was from a dot-gov address he didn't recognize. He clicked on it.
There was no text, just a camera-phone photo. Chaz stood near a casino blackjack table, wearing his corduroy jacket over a black t-shirt printed with "I (heart) LV." Laundry day? Todd thought. Chaz's eyes were closed--of course, in almost any photo of Chaz his eyes were closed--but his mouth was stretched in a closed-lipped, self-conscious grin.
The woman beside him, wearing a charming and historically-improbable Roman-goddess cocktail waitress uniform, barely reached Chaz's shoulder. She was tugging him off-balance by his jacket sleeve; his cheek was almost in reach of her pursed lips. She had smooth, caramelly skin (Salted caramels, Todd thought, and made himself blush). Even braided, her thick dark brown hair hung to her waist. The lipstick that was about to be transferred to Chaz's cheek was cherry-colored.
Behind him, a familiar throat cleared itself.
Chaz's jacket had survived the photo session, but had gone back to covering a shirt and tie and holding up his backpack strap. Only Chaz's face could manage to do smug and apologetic at once. He was distinctly more brown than he'd been when he left.
"I hope I didn't promise to forfeit anything," Todd said. His throat felt tight. He refused to be embarrassed about it.
"Success is its own reward."
"Did you use your badge to get this?"
"Of course not," Chaz replied, affronted.
"That must be why it took you so long."
Instead of rising to the bait, Chaz's eyelids dropped to half-mast, and his smile got one-cornered and private. "I promised to make breakfast for a friend."
Falkner appeared over Chaz's shoulder. (Genies used a cloud of smoke; Falkner didn't indulge in that sort of theatrics.) Mild and unemphatic, as if to a nervous dog, she said, "Las Vegas field office called."
Chaz flinched and paled under his new tan.
"They said next time we send someone to consult with Vegas Metro, would we please let them know first?"
Chaz opened his mouth. He looked as if he were trying to think of something to say to a man with a gun. "I... That wasn't..."
Falkner held up one hand, pressed the air with it. "Just passing on the message." She walked soft-footed past Chaz to the kitchenette. Chaz, eyes round and eyebrows up, watched her the whole way.
Consulting? Vegas Metro? Oh, no, nobody could expect Todd to let that lie. He'd built two careers on hunting information to its lair.
Based on the set of Chaz's jaw, Todd doubted there was anything to be gained by questioning the suspect. Hafidha might be induced to pull up the Vegas police logs, however. "Welcome home, young monotreme." He patted Chaz on the shoulder lightly, just to see him roll his eyes, and sauntered off toward Hafidha's sanctum sanctorum.
At the door, he looked back. Chaz was in his desk chair.
All was not right with the world. But at least the possibility existed.
Hafidha was taking a video iPod apart. On three of her monitors, status bars showed something uploading or downloading, or, for all he knew, loading in three dimensions, this being Hafidha. Her laptop was running some kind of news reader sort-and-save.
"Doesn't that void the warranty?"
She snorted. "Warranties are for amateurs."
"Silly me. Of course they are. May I ask a not-entirely-work-related favor?"
Hafidha eyed him over the tops of her glasses. They were the glossy purple ones that looked as if they were made from grape hard candy. The bottom inch of her hair matched them. "I'd say, 'What's in it for me?' but my Uncle Duke knows how to take care of a girl."
"You will have cheesecake wherever you go. Can you pull up some Las Vegas police records from last week for me?"
"I can." She rolled her chair away from the desk and put her feet up. "I'm just not going to."
Todd studied her profile. "You already know what Chaz got up to."
Hafidha had the best "Hello, duh" expression of anyone he knew. "My little brother's back is always covered. Always."
Todd pretended he didn't notice the break in her voice on the last word.
"I respect your judgment," he said. "I withdraw the request. And you can still have the cheesecake."
Chaz contemplated the box of toothpicks on his desk. They were holding down a folded piece of half-sheet note paper. He decided to reserve judgment on the visual aids until he read the text.
He slid the paper out and unfolded it. In black ink and precise, confident handwriting: I got a prescription. That was all. No signature, but it didn't really need one.
Some damage took a long time to heal. Some never healed at all. There was no way to tell one from the other except to keep up the treatment until the patient got better or died. Why should he think that wasn't true for everyone?
Falkner walked out of the kitchenette, mindful of her full coffee cup. She swept the bullpen with a look--taking stock--and met Chaz's eyes.
Chaz nodded. One game face to another. Falkner walked down the aisle and into her office.
Lau slalomed between the desks with a case folder and followed Falkner in. In a minute, they'd be called into the briefing room because somebody somewhere, broken beyond endurance, had done something horrible. Time to go back in the closet with the monsters.
If all he could do was stack up toothpicks, that's what he'd do. He could prop himself up with them until he was strong enough to stand by himself.
When he was strong enough, he'd tell his friends about the mirror. Maybe he could be strong enough that he'd never need to use it. They'd never have to know. Take that, voice in my head.
"Welcome home," he whispered.
His eyes fell on the bare surface of the privacy barrier between his desk and Todd's. The push pins studded it, holding up nothing. He pulled his backpack onto the desk, groped into the front pocket, and found the photos. He pinned them back where they belonged. Then he rose and headed for the kitchenette and coffee. He'd be ready by the time Falkner called them.
"Home is not where you live, but where they understand you"
Music live cues and lyrics:
Amanda Palmer, "Runs in the Family"
Justin Sullivan, "Home"
Jo Dee Messina, "My Give a Damn's Busted"
Regina Spektor, "On the Radio"
Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"
Sugar, "Hoover Dam"