Shadow Unit


1.08 Refining Fire - by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull

Days 1-3: Act I | Act II | Act III | Act IV

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.

To Stella Evans and Sunil Shipman.

Day 1

Act I

Tyler County, TX, May 24, 2008

Chaz remembered Hafidha's comment about speed traps, but only after the lights wobbled red/blue in the rearview mirror of the rented Hyundai. They were half-invisible against the glare of the sun in the back window.

He pulled over and rolled his window down. Pine scent, smoke, and warm, humid air wrestled with the aridity inside the car. He kept both hands in sight on the wheel. The trooper's steps grated on the roadside gravel; Chaz mostly registered sunglasses when he leaned down to peer in the driver's side window.

"Driver's license--" The trooper's head turned, sweeping the inside of the car. He jumped back like a cat and snatched at his hip. Chaz froze in the glare of a large-bore, unblinking eye. "Both hands outside the car. Now!"

Chaz remembered. His holstered pistol lay on the passenger seat. Brady had harangued him about knowing where it was at all times, but the butt dug into his ribs if he wore it while driving.

He laid his hands carefully on the outside of the car door. "I'm sorry, officer. I'm an FBI agent. I've got I.D. Can I get it out?" Just at the moment he didn't look like an FBI agent. Actually, he never looked like an FBI agent. But at least he knew how to use his voice, which was soft and light and inclined to crack, to convince people he was harmless.

"Open the door from the outside and step out of the car."

Chaz nodded. He knew the drill.

Outside, he got his I.D. case from his back pocket and fumbled it open one-handed. The cop accepted it, glanced down at it, up at Chaz, down. Chaz could see in his shoulders the moment he chose to trust it. Now that Chaz wasn't preoccupied with not getting shot, he noticed the trooper was maybe a little older than him, blond and sunburnt. Chaz bet there were already squint lines behind his Statey sunglasses.

"Special Agent Charles Villette." The cop pronounced the "i" as long. Chaz's mom hadn't.

Chaz nodded.

"That sounds familiar. Villette."

" was from around here."

"That must be it." He handed Chaz's I.D. back and holstered his revolver. "Sorry about that."

Chaz half expected him to say, "So you're the lamest FBI agent ever, huh?" But if he'd expected to be stopped for speeding, he wouldn't have been speeding, and never mind where he left his gun. "No, I'm sorry. That was dumb of me. I can wait here while you write the ticket."

The trooper's eyebrows climbed, and he pulled his head back. "No, no. No call to write a ticket on one of our own. But you want to slow down. We got deer in these woods, and cattle get through the fences all the time. Hit a two-thousand-pound Angus, and you won't be able to find all the pieces of this Korean tin can." He finished with a man-to-man sort of grin, absolving Chaz of responsibility for the Hyundai's sins. Chaz resisted telling him it seemed like a nice car, actually.

"Um. Thank you. As long as you're here, can you tell me how far it is to County Road 4643?"

"Another five-seven miles or so along that way. You can't miss it."

"Thank you," Chaz said.

The trooper smiled and nodded and went back to his unmarked, and Chaz slid back into the Hyundai, heart sinking. He already knew in East Texas, if someone said, You can't miss it, it meant you probably would.

Seven miles on, Chaz admitted he probably had. Next time he tried to find anyplace in rural America, he'd build in at least two hours for getting lost. If he got to the house after dark, there was no point to the exercise.

If it had a point at all.

He could turn west, wend his way to an interstate. He was going to miss his dinner date, but he could still be in Kerrville by the evening concerts, if he did it right now.

For twenty-five years (and a half) he'd done without whatever East Texas had to offer. He was wasting a piece of the next twenty-five on a sentimental attachment he didn't feel. He didn't need to do this.

He couldn't know that for sure. Not until he'd been to the house.

A wildcat gas station with a wood-frame store appeared around a corner and promised to address Chaz's four most pressing needs. He pulled up, stuffed his holstered gun in the glove compartment with the rental papers, and climbed out.

The gas pumps didn't have card readers; they didn't even have "Please Pay Inside" notices, so customers must have expected it. He filled the tank and spotted the restroom signs on the side of the building. They weren't kept locked, but the men's was unassumingly clean and in good repair. Human nature's rural side. He'd bet there wasn't an unlocked bathroom in the D.C. metro area.

The store offered, in addition to the standard quick-stop snacks, drinks, snacks, sunglasses, and snacks, live bait, ammo, snacks, and deer scent lures. The woman at the register was tall, heavy, and brown-haired, and watched Chaz cruise the four long shelves at the center of the store with no attempt to make him think she didn't.

He consulted his inner fuel gauge. Man doth not live by Snickers bars only, but by every amino acid that proceedeth out of the process of digestion doth man live. And also some fiber. Besides, the Snickers would melt. An opened box of individually-wrapped granola bars on a bottom shelf caught his attention--nineteen of them. Chaz took the box up to the counter.

He looked longingly at the coffee machine, but he knew better than to try to drink convenience-store coffee in any straits short of desperate ones, and he wasn't going to find a Sobe here. He settled for a Dr. Pepper and a Starbucks iced coffee drink. Any port in a storm.

"Pump number two, and these, please?" There were Snickers bars at the counter. They called his name. He dropped one on the box. "And that."

The brown-haired woman blinked. She had blue eyes and long, dense eyelashes. "Those all for you?"

"Oh, yes."

"Damn. If I did that, there'd be enough of me to make three big women." She rang up the sale and ran his Visa. "But three more of you'd barely cast a shadow."

How strange, to be in a place where everyone sounded like his mom. "No bigger 'round than a fencepost," she used to say, so Chaz said it out loud, and the woman at the counter laughed.

"Is this Fred?" he asked.

"Strictly speaking, no. We're a mite north of it. Nearest post office, though. You heading there, honey?"

"Actually, I'm looking for County Road 4643." Though he was pretty sure it was a lost cause.

"Half mile on. You look out for a white shed with a green roof, and an old red horse trailer parked by it. Turn left on the paved road there." She shrugged. "Road crew took the sign down when they fixed the ditch, never put it up again. Hereabouts nobody needs it, I guess."

"Oh. No, I suppose not. Thank you." Huh. Unless someone had moved the horse trailer and painted the shed, he might find it after all.

"You goin' far? Wildfire's over that way, further east. Weather service says the wind might swing, and you don't want to be out there if it does. The fire crew's working up on the county line, but I expect I'll have a yard full of fire camp if that wind shifts." She seemed pleased by the notion.

Then he had to get to the house today; it might be gone tomorrow. Would that be so bad? "Everything's so green. Is there that much danger?"

She blew out through her lips. "Fourth year of drought, honey. Understory 'round here's dry as a Methodist picnic." She laughed at her own joke.

Chaz smiled and slid his card back in his wallet. "Thanks again."

"Drive safe, sugar."

He pushed out the door and back to the Hyundai. It was silver, compact, easy to drive, unassuming to look at. People in East Texas drove pickup trucks, based on what he'd passed between Tyler and here. Well, he wasn't undercover.

Chaz unwrapped the Snickers before he started the car. The chocolate dimpled under his fingertips, clung to his skin in rough sticky peaks. He sucked them clean, glad the rental was an automatic. He had the whole thing eaten before he turned back onto the highway.

The shed and the horse trailer were as advertised. The county road was only paved for the first mile. After that it was washboard gravel, and the Hyundai's steering vibrated like an unbalanced washing machine.

The ranches he passed--no, farms, according to Brady--were small, scrabbling things, clearings chipped out of the heavy dark pine woods. Wherever the road ran straight from the afternoon sun, the warm glow turned the gravel pink, the trees blue-green as if there were light inside the needles. Where the road turned, twilight fell, blue road and black walls of forest.

Chaz slid his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. Maybe one of the team had left a message, an emergency recall. But the only message was the display reading, "Looking for network..." until it gave up and told him where he was, satellites hadn't been invented yet.

Still looking for an excuse to turn around. He could jump off a building, but this scared him. What did he think he was going to find? The worst parts of the story were long over.

His MP3 player was in his duffel bag in the trunk. Bad planning. He gave the radio one last try, and got four Christian stations, all in talk mode. Todd enjoyed arguing with the radio; if he were here, Chaz would enjoy hearing him do it. He turned it off. The rhythm of the road throbbed up his arms and called a tune out of his head.

I am a poor wayfarin' stranger
Traveling through this world of woe
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright land to which I go.

Chaz could imagine his mom singing it with him. She used to improvise harmonies; sometimes he thought it had helped fill his head with math. Thirds, fifths, minor sevenths. Her voice was more flexible than his. She could add ornaments to the melody line that he had to simplify and smooth out. But in his head he could hear them.

She would have learned that song here. Most of the ones she taught him would have come from here.

I'm going there to see my loved ones
Who've gone before me one by one

But they hadn't gone before her. She left them. She must have had a good reason. Because he was certain of it, he'd never tried to find her parents, living or dead.

When the letter came from the lawyers for the estate, and he learned his grandmother had died only a year ago, his grandfather eight months before, he regretted it. They could have told him about her. Given that they'd left her the house and land, maybe it would have been something he wanted to hear.

In the end, it was too late for reconciliation. Aye, there's the rub. No one had reconciled, but Chaz was still the beneficiary of the gesture. He owned forty acres of Tyler County he didn't want, and didn't feel good about profiting by. If he sold the place, he wouldn't get half the price of a condo in Arlington, anyway. Unless there was more to these pine trees than met the eye.

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But golden fields all spread before me
Where blessed saints their vigils keep.

I'm going there to see my mother
She said she'd meet me when I come...

It was hard to tell from the perspective of seven years old, but Chaz thought his mom had liked him. They had a lot of fun, anyway. And he loved it when she counted on him for things. Balancing the checkbook made her nuts, so she'd read him off a column of numbers and he'd add them for her. She never seemed to think he was odd; instead she regularly told him, "I don't know how I'd manage without you, baby boy." They'd sing together, in the car, making dinner, at bedtime. She loved that she could sing a song to him once and he'd remember it.

There were the nights when he had to stay downstairs with Mrs. Korolenko, but Chaz understood about those even then, though he didn't really know the details of the process. He never saw any of her customers; she didn't bring them home. And Mrs. Korolenko fed him outrageously well.

Looking back, he thought the heroin was a late development. He knew something was off the rails when he found her crying over the kitchen sink. Not that she never cried; but if she did, she told him why, and whether there was anything either of them could do about it. That way it didn't scare him. This time wasn't like that. This time she was leaning on the counter, rocking back and forth, making a thin keening like a hurt animal.

When Chaz asked her what was wrong, she turned and took his face in her hands and peered at him, as if he were a jar of marbles and she was trying to count them and win a contest. Then she made an awful noise, part gulp, part cough, part hum, and pulled him close. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, baby boy," she said. Which was nice, but not as nice as it would have been if he hadn't been scared.

I want to wear that crown of glory
When I get home to that bright land
I'm gonna shout salvation's story
In concert with that blood-washed band.

She counted on him. And he'd let her down. He hadn't called 911 in time.

The road ended, so he knew he was there. The track that bent off from the course of the road had been a good gravel drive once, with a steel farm gate. Now the gate hung open, dug into the ground at its free end; the weeds were eating the drive from both sides and the middle. He steered around potholes to turn in.

The farm buildings stood thirty yards from the road on a little rise of ground. Afternoon sun lit the front of the ranch-style house and made the white paint glow; the broken-backed barn seemed small and shy behind it. From the drive it looked no worse than any of the farms he'd passed. But when Chaz parked the car in the dirt beside the house, he saw the paint was alligatored and flaking and two of the black ornamental shutters had fallen off.

An orange trumpet vine grew over the end of the house, rank and invasive, tendrils snaking to claim the drive and the roof shingles. Weed trees thrust up from the sprawling junipers around the foundation. Two yellow rosebushes guarded the front steps. They'd probably been kept pruned once. Now their canes flung out in all directions, like the arms of sea urchins after prey. They didn't seem to mind neglect; they were heavy with big double yellow blooms.

The yard was a muddle of weeds and high grass, already browning and going to seed in the heat and drought. Across the drive beside the barn a swing set frame stood, so rusted Chaz wasn't sure what color it had been. There'd been two swings, but they were gone.

His mom's swing set.

He should have come before they died. He should have met his grandparents, and told them she'd been a good mom, and heard whatever they had to say, no matter what it was. He might have hurt them--his very existence might have been a sharp-edged discovery. But he should have come, taken down the barriers if he could, finished the unfinished sad story.

Even a profiler could only get so much information out of a scene, out of a neglected house, a rusted swing set.

Chaz reached for the gearshift to put the car in reverse. No. He'd regret that later, too. Why multiply regrets? He turned the engine off instead, and got out.

The heat slicked his skin. When he scratched his neck, his fingernails came away black; the smoke he'd smelled all day, accumulated. The heat was a relief--for the first time in a long time, he was warm enough--but the humidity was as bad as D.C. Somebody had to be from East Texas, but did it have to be his people?

The Hyundai's engine ticked as it cooled. An insect chorus droned around him, everywhere and nowhere. He couldn't hear cars, or a plane, or voices, or even wind in the grass.

The rail for the porch steps was black wrought iron, its surface crusted and bubbled with rust. He didn't reach for it. It looked solid, but there was no telling where the metal might be weak from years of traffic, weather, a little girl leaning... It would be a hell of a thing to fall off the steps and break a leg, and have to lie in the weeds until someone came to get him. Daphne would tease him half to death if he did, once she stopped fussing.

He lifted the rose canes gingerly out of the way. One lashed the back of his hand when he let go too soon, and he had to pick the broken thorn out of his knuckle and suck away a drop of blood. Another cane fell across his shoulder as he reached the top step, pinpricking through his shirt. "Prince Charming has arrived," Chaz muttered. "Please don't stab me with a spindle."

The king and queen were dead, and the princess as well. Based on the evidence, the prince, charming or not, had proved unsatisfactory. There'd be no wicked fairies here.

The aluminum-framed screen door was braced with scrollwork to match the stair rail. A half-circle arch of window filled the front door's top panel. UV had faded the paint--afternoon sun every day--but it had been cherry-red, warm, welcoming. A door you'd be happy to unlock and pass through at the end of the day. Someone had loved this house once, painted it, planted roses by it.

His mom had still left.

Chaz felt for the key in his jeans pocket--he'd better have put the key in his pocket and not left it at the attorney's office, yes, that was it--and unlocked the door. It opened easily; the weatherstripping was worn out and crumbling around the frame. Chaz flinched from a wave of hot, stale, moist air, the exhaled breath of a dead house. Then he stepped over the threshold.

He fumbled for the light switch as his stomach grumbled. Lau would say you could set your stopwatch by his gut noises. If he couldn't make his dinner date in Austin--he'd have to call when he had cell service again, and apologize--he wondered what he could find to eat in Tyler County. Barbecue? The history of Texas was the history of smoked meat, dating back over a hundred years. Before refrigeration, you had to preserve the excess somehow.

The light switch wasn't on the left, away from the hinges, where any sensible person would have put it. Maybe a step inside the hall?

Chaz wondered if East Texas barbecue allowed of back ribs, and dreamed briefly of pork under a sweet-sharp glaze, falling off the bone. Or brisket, smoked until it dropped apart like stew meat. He groped along the wall and extended his contemplation to side dishes. Slaw, redolent of vinegar. Turnip greens, pinto beans. Did Texas barbecue involve corn bread, or the squishy overprocessed white stuff, useful only for mopping up sauce? Brady would know.

Maybe he could have a pulled pork sandwich for dessert. He had to be far enough east for pulled pork. He was nearly in Louisiana.

Ah. There was the switch, on the wall beside a full-length mirror and the coat closet door. Senseless place for it. He flipped it, felt the contacts meet. No light. The attorneys had said he'd have electricity and water: the estate was paying the power bill. Damn. No power meant no well pump and no water, and he'd been planning on a drink and a pit stop before the long drive west. Granola bars were dry, and caffeine was a diuretic.

He squinted through dimness at the ceiling. The glass globe was off the entryway fixture, and the sockets empty. That explained that, then. It didn't matter: he had a mini Maglite on his keychain, and there was daylight left. Get in, do the profile, get out.

Chaz sniffed, and listened. Stale air. A whiff of mildew. Smell of rodents. There were probably mouse droppings all over the place. Was East Texas in the hantavirus belt? Thirty-three cases in Texas since 1993. He didn't know the locations of all the outbreak sites, but the ones he did know were in the western half of the state.

When he held his breath, he could hear a hum. Something electrical, maybe the pump. He took another breath about sticky enough to drink and wished the attorneys had turned on the air conditioning.

He thought about leaving the door open, for the light. Nobody out here but him and Leatherface, and the occasional mule deer. But with his luck, if he left it open a critter would run inside and he'd be here until midnight getting it out. The door wasn't hung level; when he let go, it swung and slammed.

He clicked the Maglite on, to supplement the sun that got through the dusty glass. The flooring was tile by the entry, then sand-colored wall-to-wall, dingy and flattened with years of people walking around the same furniture in the same places. A vacuum cleaner only did so much. And an elderly couple would hoard their strength for better things than housecleaning. The walls were taupe. Why was everything taupe, everywhere you went? Hafidha, bemoaning her landlord's taste, had referred to it as "white, three percent rat shit" and the memory made Chaz smile.

When he stepped on the carpet, black dots speckled his shoes and socks and popped off again, hopping in and out of the rug fibers.

Wonderful. Texas had fleas.

This must have been a pleasant place once. A ranch-style house, open-plan, a breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the great room, which he thought was a converted one-car garage by the size. Or would his grandparents have called it a family room? When they did the conversion, did they still have a family?

The furniture consisted of a tweed sectional couch and two matching chairs, a set of glass-and-wrought-iron coffee and side tables with built-in magazine racks, and a TV unit with an elderly Panasonic television. The screen was pale and dull with dust, a blind eye. His reflection moved across it like an eddy of smoke.

Against the back wall stood his mother's piano. Chaz knew it was hers; she taught him to play, on Mrs. Korolenko's upright, her hands covering his on the keys. He crossed the room, lifted the lid to reveal the keyboard. The varnish was sticky and peeling, but that could be fixed. It would be out of tune, of course--

But his first pressure on the skin-oil-stained middle C made him wince. Not just out of tune; he would bet the soundboard was cracked. Still, he stroked the white keys, high to low, with his fingertips, too lightly to make them sound. Was sentimental value enough to make it worth fixing?

Something of hers. Something she had touched for years, and tried to give to him.

He bit his lip, and closed the lid as gently as he might stroke a sleeping child's hair, and turned to survey the rest of the room.

Past the breakfast bar the kitchen wallpaper was sepia-and-tan, printed with antique farm implements. The refrigerator and the dishwasher were off-white; the electric range was gold. Dead palms and one philodendron with three green leaves sat in Navajo pots.

Chaz blinked at the philodendron. He knew they were stubborn, but that one must be hanging on from atmospheric moisture alone. Maybe he should figure out how to get it back to D.C.; a green plant that might survive an FBI agent's care deserved to be rescued.

In the corner by the fireplace--who the hell needs a fireplace in East Texas?--ivy grew through the join of the roof and the wall, leggy from lack of sun, curling down toward the picture window.

Texas was already taking the house down.

That'll cost a little something to fix. Only after he'd thought it did he realize he was considering keeping the place.

It could be a nice house again. And somewhere back there was a bedroom that had been his mother's. But what would you do with forty acres of Tyler County, Chaz? Well, it wasn't as if the taxes amounted to much. Maybe he could rent it.

He looked for a bookshelf, but the only shelf was devoted to knickknacks and empty space. He grimaced as he imagined growing up in a house where the reading material consisted of piles of Redbook and Better Homes and Gardens and the county extension bulletin.

He shone his light across the shelf. There were marks in the dust there from picture frames. There'd been photographs, but somebody had removed them. The attorneys, for safekeeping? He'd ask when he returned the key.

The floor plan built itself in Chaz's head. He guessed when the great room had still been a garage, the funny little L-shaped entryway had accessed the house on the other side, and what was now a breakfast bar between support columns had been a weight-bearing exterior wall. So if he went around that wall, through the connecting arch, he should be in the old living and dining room--

Motion in the shadows, right in front of him. "Jesus!" He grabbed for his gun. In the car. Face-to-face with a tall thin man, brown-skinned, with wavy flyaway hair--

Himself. The panicky expression tipped him off. The far wall of the dining room was surfaced in gold-flecked mirror tiles, and his own face stared back from between another stand of dead palms.

Good thing he'd left the gun in the car. Shooting the house would be embarrassing. And unlike the speeding stop, he'd have to explain that one, when he accounted for the spent cartridge.

On his left was the kitchen with a back door, and on this side of it a dark corridor that must lead to the bathroom and bedrooms. The dining room faced the front of the house; low sun burned through the green boughs of those yellow roses. The window must be open a crack, because their scent and the drone of bees filled the room.

Chaz sneezed. Twice. As his eyes cleared, he realized that what he had taken for a pile of debris under the table wasn't that, exactly.

Somebody had been tearing up the tile, and the house's slab foundation lay exposed at the center of the room. The glass-topped table and white metal chairs were pushed against the far wall, and Chaz could make out tools--a power drill with a cement bit, a heap of chain, other scraps of hardware.

Apparently, he had a squatter. And one who had come prepared to do some digging and hoisting.

Treasure hunters?

Maybe it wasn't such a lucky thing he'd left his gun in the car. He switched the Maglite off and silenced the jingle of his keys with his palm.

Discretion was definitely the better part of valor. He could drive back to the gas station and call for assistance. Wouldn't it be funny if he got the same cop?

Silently now, picking his footing, Chaz slipped back through the archway into the great room, and turned the corner towards the entryway. This time, when he caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror by the coat closet, he managed not to jump out of his skin. More damned mirrors. Those are coming out.

Then his reflection raised its head and said, "Addy?"

Not a reflection. A tall man, thin to the point of emaciation, cheekbones pressing brown skin taut under sunken eyes. He stepped forward, and Chaz stepped back, wishing his mini-Maglite were the heavy club-shaped variety instead.

"I'm a federal agent," Chaz said. Which counted for exactly nothing right now. Pretend otherwise. "You're trespassing on private prop--"

--erty. The half-word caught in his throat, stopped there. His tongue was as sluggish as if he were trying to speak through a mouthful of cotton candy. His hands tingled; his head spun. And yet with the disorientation came a sense of tremendous satisfaction, comfort--triumph, even.

Chaz turned. The location of the back door was recorded in his near-perfect spatial memory. Retreat, escape. He fumbled around the corner into the archway, saw himself--again--in the mirror of the dining room.

Waves of dizziness rolled up him from toes to crown. He leaned on the wall, pulled himself spider-fingered through the arch. That distant crash must be his keys hitting the tile. The stranger loomed behind him, reflected in the mirror like a shadow twin.

Chaz raised his hands, as if he could ward off whatever came next, but his flailing hit nothing. He could see the man behind him in the mirror. In front of him? They couldn't both be true.

He wobbled on unsteady legs. He was excited. Eager. It made his stomach twist. That and the sweetish, sick-cloying scent--

"No," Chaz said. He heard himself say it, his voice as it would sound outside the chamber of his own skull.

And the stranger must have heard it too, because he said, "It's only ether, boy. You use it to make ticks back out," and pressed a cloth over his mouth and nose.

He grabbed the man's arm and dug his fingernails in. The blunt pain on his own skin shocked him. He breathed in.

Act II

Chaz woke, convulsively retching. His diaphragm knotted; his abdominal muscles ached. Gelatinous strings of bile slipped from his mouth, and something--gritty tile--pressed his cheek. In the darkness, he couldn't tell where he was, but the air was cold and full of the scent of roses.

He lifted his face from the puddle of vomit and assessed the situation.

Something tight on his wrists, blood-warm, unyielding. He tried to turn them, to press them together or pull them wide. But they were locked a relentless four inches apart, and when he lifted them from the floor, clanking weight dragged beneath. He remembered the chain and the drill, and--heart sinking--felt his way down each link to the end.

It was padlocked to a staple, fixed to the floor with cement bolts with three-quarter-inch heads. He couldn't twist his fingers to feel what bound his wrists, but he rubbed it against his cheek and got a sense of the design: two U-shaped hasps, hinged to a bar and padlocked shut in the center. Another lock held a loop of chain closed around the home-made manacles. The chain itself was welded steel, by the weight, and he'd guess the breaking strain at ten thousand pounds.

Not a chance.

To add insult to injury, his stomach rumbled.

Chaz retched again, turning his head so the vomit would splash to the side, but there was nothing left to come up. He might vomit up his shoes at any second, he thought, except he was barefoot. Barefoot, and his shirt was untucked, the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms. Irritably, he reached to push the tails of the shirt inside the waistband of his jeans, but his arms wouldn't bend that way.

When Chaz wore a button-front shirt, he liked it tucked in and the cuffs fastened. Not to be able to fix it was like a rock in his shoe.

If he had shoes.

Oh God, this was bad. Bad, stupid, careless--

He sat still and listened to the darkness. Night sounds, crickets, some sort of frog or spring peeper. No sense of anybody else in the house. No sense of motion.

He patted his front jeans pockets, shifted to feel the back ones. No keys, no phone, no wallet. No I.D. case. The only comfort was that, from what he could remember, the stranger looked even less like an FBI agent than Chaz did.

When he thought he could move without vomiting, Chaz pushed himself to his feet and tested the length of his chain. One step in each direction, standing. Probably three if he was on his knees. About a yard of chain, then; maybe four feet. Enough to stand up. Enough to lie down. Enough to crawl away from the pool of vomit.

Not enough to get his back against the wall, though he could touch it with his feet in one direction.

God, it was dark out here.

And cold. Chaz didn't have much insulation on his best day; now, he was hungry and dehydrated and his muscles ached from the ether and vomiting. He wondered if the stranger would leave him here to starve. It wouldn't take long, even if he tried to limit his activity. That might be why there didn't seem to be many gammas and betas in earlier days; the sheer caloric load would be unsupportable in a culture of scarcity. You needed a society that could provide ice cream by the half-gallon year-round to have a chance of making it.

The crunch of car tires on the gravel drive, the swing of headlights across the front of the house, ended that line of speculation. Chaz heard the thump of loud music--ZZ Top--and male voices, cheerful and laughing. He stood and peered out the window, but couldn't see anything through the canes of the rose bush except a silhouette stepping out of the car, carrying a heavy bundle. Was the stranger working with a partner? Teams egged each other on. That could be a worst-case scenario--

No. In that case, whatever was going to happen was going to happen. And it might be a bystander, hope of rescue.

Chaz drew breath and yelled, screamed bloody murder, leaning against the chain. But the tail lights dimmed as the vehicle pulled away.

Loud music. Maybe they were right about the hearing damage.

The key turned in the front door lock, and this time the entryway light came on. He must have replaced the bulbs.

Other lights too, in the living room, before the man came through the arch, lugging two bags of groceries. His gaze swept over Chaz, but he didn't speak. Chaz could see white bread, the plastic frill on a bag of apples. The man ducked around the corner into the kitchen. Chaz heard the rustle of the brown paper, the clank of cans against each other, the flat knocking of plastic jars and bottles--the man had set the bags down. He emerged, raising a hand to the wall to bring up the dimmer-controlled light in the dining room.

They stood facing each other across twelve and a half feet, and Chaz realized he was standing hunched, cowering, shaking like a starving Chihuahua, the links of the chain shivering against one another with the motion.

Comfort flooded through him, warmth and ease and strength. He trusted this man. He liked him. Everything was going to be okay.

Projection, Chaz thought, through a wave of bliss. He's a host. Well. If I'd been listing ways this could be worse, that would have been near the top.

Awkwardly, Chaz fought through the emotion. There was no reason to trust and care about this man. This man who had drugged and chained him, who appeared to be laying in supplies for a siege. This man who looked strikingly like his mother; not a little like himself. Cheekbones, height, skin tone, shape of the nose and eyes--

He wasn't supposed to have any living relatives. Yet here, incontrovertibly, was one. A host.

Reyes would be fascinated. Maybe jammers did run in families.

"Are you comfortable?" the stranger asked.

It was the kind of question a victim heard from a power-reassurance rapist.

Chaz took a breath. First step, humanize yourself. Personalize. Build a connection. We're relatives, we have to be relatives. Start with that. "My name is Charles Villette. I'm from Nevada. I have friends there. I have a family. This was my grandparents' house. Did you grow up here?"

The stranger's eyes dilated--a sign of sudden interest, and Chaz desperately hoped it wasn't sexual. But what he said was, "She sent you back, didn't she? Did she send you to me?"

Addy, he'd said, when Chaz surprised him in the entry. No, not surprised; the chain had been ready. He'd been waiting. Waiting not for Chaz, but for Chaz's mother.

He didn't know Addy was dead, any more than Addy's parents had. Chaz had a sudden sickening set of ideas about why a young girl might decide streetwalking in Vegas was better than staying in her parent's house.

Don't let him control the conversation. "What's your name? Are we related?"

The stranger stared at him, and Chaz had a disorienting sense of pity and concern. His reflection in the mirror-tiled wall suggested that wasn't unreasonable. Chaz looked terrible; vomit smeared his face, and he couldn't quite straighten up--not because of the chain, but because his gut muscles were hunching him forwards in a protective comma. The stranger nodded, as if to himself, and turned the corner into the kitchen again.

If Chaz had been in the great room, he could have seen what was going on in there, but it didn't sound too bad. The rush and thump of water--waterboarding, that would be worse than being chained to a staple bolted to the concrete pad, wouldn't it?--into a plastic pail. "You know we are, baby boy. You're Addy's, aren't you?"

Fine. He was a relative, then. That wasn't as reassuring as it might have been, given what Chaz knew about family dynamics. But he cleared his throat and said, "You're Addy's brother?" He had to be. The resemblance was too close.

His mom had never mentioned a brother. But then, the only reason he'd known she had parents was because everyone did.

Establish the connection. Expand it. Humanize yourself. Anything to make them care for you. Stockholm syndrome worked both ways. Shared fire was a bond. Work it, reflect it back at him, make it shine.

Silence followed, so Chaz tried again. "I'm your nephew."

The laugh from the kitchen was unpleasant, and Chaz remembered that nobody was as likely to kill you as your own family.

"You've got no earthly kin anymore, child." The Relative--Chaz refused to think of him as his mother's brother--came back in, lugging the sloshing bucket. He set it down in the doorway, off to one side, and leaned against the frame opposite. "The daughters of men are weak and corrupt in their flesh. Full of treachery. It matters not if they are pure or impure; every one is a whore in her heart. What did your mother, the whore, tell you of me?"

Nothing would be the wrong answer, though it would be satisfying. Chaz swallowed; the smell of the water hung heavy on the dusty air. "Can I have a drink, please?"

"May I," the Relative said, patiently, as one might instruct a child. Oh, he had to be kidding. One look at the man's face proved otherwise, though; it was stern and calm, commanding.

"May I have a drink?" Chaz asked. Cement dust gritted between his bare feet and the tile. He needed water, and if he could get the man to care for him, that was a connection, too. "Please? I'm very thirsty."

The Relative studied Chaz narrow-eyed. "When were you born?"

A connection was a connection. He'd rather have water. "1982."

"What day?"

"October 31st. Halloween. Isn't that funny? When were you born?"

The Relative only smiled. "Tell what Addy said on me."

Stall. Hafidha and Falkner knew where he was. They knew when he was supposed to be home. The team would be coming for him in three days, four at the outside. He just had to stay alive that long.

Chaz tried not to think about water, about the taste of vomit still caking his mouth, the yellow bile drying in flakes around his lips. "What's your name?"

"God sent her a messenger, baby boy, and she denied him, didn't she? William. William is my name, and you know it."

Bucket swinging from his hand, he crossed the space so fast Chaz barely had time to flinch away. The bucket hit the floor just out of Chaz's reach, sloshing over. Then the Relative's foot was on the chain, and Chaz was on his knees, hard, his hands pinned an inch from the floor.

The Relative had a rag. He hooked the bucket closer, and Chaz pulled away as hard as he could. The Relative had all the leverage, though, and Chaz found himself dull-witted, as if drunk, unable to think how to resist.

"It's okay, baby boy. Nobody's going to hurt you." He wet the rag, keeping his weight on the chain. "Shhh," he said. "Just let me take care of you."

Said it, or crooned it, and pushed Chaz's hair from his face, and scrubbed the strings and crusts of vomit away.

Inasmuch as he had a choice, Chaz let him do it. And when he was done, before he stepped back and took the bucket away, Chaz lifted his face and asked, "May I have a drink, please?"

The Relative looked at him, and looked at the bucket. "It'll only tie you longer to weakness and the body."

Oh, God, thought Chaz. I hope so. "Please."

The Relative chewed his lip, frowning. He grunted, tossed the rag away, scrubbed his hands on his pants, bent down, and scooped up water in his palms. "Drink," he said, and offered the cupped hands to Chaz.

The smell of the water was chalky, mineral. Limestone water, sweet and hard as hell. Chaz was too dry to salivate, but his eyes and nose stung. "May I have a cup?"

"Here's water," the Relative said. It dripped between his fingers, spattering the floor. "Drink."

Drink from his palm, like a trusting dog. Chaz imagined the taste of water, of salty skin. His gorge rose up his throat again, and he turned his head and gagged, though nothing came.

Beside him, the Relative let the water splash from his hands back into the bucket. "You'll drink when you get thirsty enough, I guess," he said. "Or if you don't get thirsty, that means something too." He bent down and tossed the rag to where Chaz could reach it. "Mop up that puke on the floor. You'll feel better if you don't have to lie in it."

When the Relative's steps faded away, Chaz examined the rag. He found a clean corner. But there wasn't enough moisture to be sucked out of it to put him to the trouble of swallowing.


It seemed William Villette was an early riser. Chaz heard him moving in the back bedrooms while the light seeping into the house looked filtered through charcoal: gray, and cool. The Relative whistled softly to himself, an old lullaby.

Black and bay, dapple and grey,
Coach and six little horses,
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.

Chaz knew that song from his mother, too. Complete with the second verse, which went:

Way down yonder, down in the meadow,
Lies a poor little lamby,
The bees and the butterflies peckin' out its eyes,
The poor little thing cryin' mammy.

The things people will sing to their children.

The melody came with an odd little flush of contentment, a bowl-of-oranges-sunny-morning satisfaction Chaz knew wasn't his own. Leakage from the gamma; why he was so smugly pleased to have Chaz in chains in the dining room was something else to worry about. However, that and the earlier projections told Chaz something about the nature of the manifestation. One of the mind-control ones, involving serotonin and oxytocin. An empath-in-reverse.

He wondered which of his grandparents had had the interest in gospel music and creepy-ass cradle songs, and tried not to think about the rumbling of his stomach, or how badly he needed a toilet. And a toothbrush. And a big plate of scrambled eggs, toast, corned beef hash and potatoes. He rubbed his arms against his body, trying to chafe some heat into his skin. Soon he would be as hot as anyone could desire, and sweating. And needing water more and more.

The beige plastic bucket still stood beside the kitchen doorway. Chaz thought he could smell the water. Stale, now, not as sweet. He was losing the aroma as the roses outside warmed up and released fragrance, and the scent of char lay over everything. When the sun got higher, the light would be dyed orange by the distant fires. It got that way in Vegas, sometimes, and the whole valley would smell like a woodstove.

Okay, maybe he was tempting fate in saying so, but things could be worse. He hadn't been left to starve, for one thing. He was cold, and soon he'd be hot, but it could be winter. In North Dakota. In an unheated house.

The thought made him smile. Just a tiny twitch of the corner of his mouth, but every bit helped. The hardest part was staying brave, and staying yourself. Not letting the identification process take hold. The Relative hadn't shown any signs of sadism yet. Just religious delusions. Hafidha knew where Chaz had gone. If he could stay alive for two or three days, Falkner and Reyes and the gang would just come and fetch him. And give him holy hell about leaving his gun in the glove box.

And he'd be happy to have it. Piece of cake. Things could be much, much worse.

To prove it to himself, he started a list, visualizing it on blue-ruled yellow paper, era: second grade.

Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half

  1. It could be winter in North Dakota.
  2. Waterboarding.
  3. Rats.
  4. Snakes.
  5. Death.

A door opened, a toilet flushed. The sound of running water was not music to Chaz's ears. Between the dehydration and concentrating his urine, he would probably wind up with kidney stones. Something else to anticipate...

"Uncle William?" Personalize. Connect. Make yourself somebody the hostage-taker knows. There were flow charts and decision trees, and he'd memorized them all.

The Relative appeared at the end of the hall, dragging a comb through his wet hair. He still had plenty of it, and male-pattern baldness tended to be inherited on the female line. Well, there's some good news. Chaz was proud; his banter might only be internal, but it didn't sound hysterical to him.

"Morning, baby boy. Did you sleep?"

Chaz rattled his chains, standing. He might look more inoffensive sitting, but standing when the Relative entered the room should be seen as a sign of respect. "Not very well, I'm afraid. Could I, I mean, may I use the bathroom, please?"

That might get his hands free, or at least the chain unhooked from the staple. It was worth a try, and if the Relative would let him clean up the vomit, he probably wouldn't want Chaz lying in urine and feces. See? Another way it could be worse.

Also, Chaz needed to figure out the Relative's agenda and what drove it, so he could manipulate it. He had to keep him talking.

The staring made him uncomfortable. The Relative turned his head, his cheeks and lips working as if he considered spitting, and jerked his head hard to the side. "I'll get you a bucket," he said, and Chaz's heart sank.


By midmorning, the drone of bees in the rosebushes outside was loud enough to make his spinning head throb. Dehydration. Caffeine withdrawal. Any minute now, he'd start seeing migraine auras.

He'd located the source of the cloying scent; one pane in the west window was broken out, so cleanly you had to look for the lack of reflection to see its absence. Chaz had to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth to lick dry lips. He was sure the Relative heard his stomach grumbling; William had rummaged around in the kitchen for a while, making sounds of tearing wrappers and crunching like mice nibbling corn. He set his plate on the glass-topped table, and sat down to eat three peanut butter sandwiches and drink two glasses of reconstituted sweetened condensed milk. The smell was enough to make Chaz gnaw his cheek. He would have been swallowing saliva by the mouthful if he weren't losing so much moisture to perspiration that he couldn't have spit if his life depended on it.

He wished he could get his hands up to wipe the sweaty cords of hair from his eyes, but because of the way they were chained, all he could do was rub his forehead against his knuckles or shake it aside, and it fell right back where it had come from.

The Relative scraped his chair across the floor and got up to take his plate into the kitchen, and Chaz wished he could lean back against a wall. His back hurt; his ass hurt; and his arms and shoulders didn't bear thinking about. His wrists and ankles were already dotted with flea bites. He tried supporting his arms with his knees. That was a little better.

Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half

  1. It could be winter in North Dakota.
  2. Waterboarding.
  3. Rats.
  4. Snakes.
  5. Poison.
  6. Roaches.
  7. I could be sitting in pee. Or vomit.
  8. Concussion/head trauma/brain damage.
  9. Death.

When the Relative came back, he had something brown and crumbled on a piece of foil cupped in his hand. Chaz sat with his outstretched arms resting on his upraised knees. He caught the scent of honey and cinnamon, and his stomach clenched audibly, like a child grabbing after a sweet. He looked up, his head turned as much by welling emotions of proprietary pride as the nearness of food.

Oh, God. The Relative adored him. And all he wanted was for Chaz to love him back--

The Relative hunkered down. "I brought you something. A gift. Something sweet." Delicately, he lifted a bit of food--trail mix?--between his fingers.

Chaz swallowed, and asked, "What is it?"

William laid the crumb of food back on the pile, and turned up one corner of the foil wrapper under it to read aloud. "Oats. Honey. Almonds. Salt. Peanut butter. Hydrogenated vegetable oil. High fructose corn syrup. Puffed rice with soy protein. Soy lecithin. Cinnamon. Other natural flavors. Sweets for the sweet. Won't you eat, angel?"

Chaz closed his eyes. Oh, God. My granola bars. I wonder what he's done with my gun.

He just had to stay alive, and the team would come get him. And Brady would never let him hear the end of it. Was there anything worse than a cop losing his gun?

He opened his mouth.

The Relative laid a half-cubic-inch segment of granola bar on his tongue like a communion wafer, and Chaz pushed it between his teeth, crushed, and chewed, trying to work up enough saliva to swallow.

His mouth was sanded with the rubble of rolled oats and almonds, about as likely to make it down his throat as the cement dust on the floor. "Poor angel," the Relative said, and set the crumpled granola bar on the floor. "You've got yourself in a state, haven't you? Just like your mama. She'd hurt herself fighting what was good for her, and she taught you some bad habits. But that's all done now. I've got you, and you're safe."

Chaz thought if he tried to speak, he'd choke. Maybe if he held the food in his mouth long enough, it would soften, and--

"Scoot over here," the Relative said, and Chaz might have challenged him, but there was no point. He checked himself, though, to make sure he was thinking about why he was obeying, rather than just obeying because the Relative was in a position of power. He was obeying because he needed to build the Relative's trust in him; because he needed to establish and maintain that human connection; because there was no percentage in appearing defiant until he was ready to fight.

The Relative wanted him sitting, and at the end of his length of chain. Bad news; it meant the Relative had thought about the possibility that Chaz could drop to the floor and get extra range, if the Relative came up on him when he was standing.

Chaz wondered where he was keeping the key.

"Come further," the Relative said, and Chaz would have argued--he'd have to turn back toward the staple and extend his hands to move any farther from it, but he had to stay alive. Two more days. Maybe three. That was all.

He slid around in a half-circle and obeyed.

"Stay there," the Relative said, pleased, and walked away. Footsteps into the kitchen, the sound of sloshing water and then the sound of the tap. Footsteps returning. The square water bucket landed on the broken tile three feet away.

The Relative wasn't going to give him a cup this time, either, and Chaz thought he had steeled himself against that inevitability. But when the Relative slid the bucket just out of Chaz's reach and crouched beside it, and said, "Turn your head, angel," Chaz's gorge heaved.

Chaz did not like being touched, unless he had a say in who was doing the touching. He did not like being dependent; he hadn't since he was eight years old, a problem foster shuffled from house to house around Las Vegas. He'd been pawed, controlled, told he didn't know what he wanted or needed--by foster parents, social workers, pitying teachers, child psychologists. The sort of people who loved a victim, as long as the victim was suitably indebted by their charity.

If Chaz could pick one word to be engraved on his tombstone, he hoped it would be ungrateful.

Now the Relative crouched before him, and lifted water dripping in the bowl of his two cupped hands, and Chaz felt the skin about to crawl off his underlying tissues at the prospect of putting his lips to the water in that man's palms.

Maybe the tombstone word should be stubborn.

Slow down, cowboy. Don't be thinking about your tombstone now. Drink the water. Do what you have to do, and stay alive. Two days. Maybe three.

Teeth still blurry with last night's bile, he put his mouth to the Relative's hands and drank. The Relative's hands came around his face like the doors of a cage.

They're going to find me. They have to find me alive.


The water--oh, God, the water. The first three mouthfuls went down so fast he barely tasted it; he had to sink his teeth into his lip to keep from licking the last drops from the hollow of the Relative's palm. It was so good it left him lightheaded, and when he tipped his head back he gasped. "May I have more, please?" he asked, praying it was the right question.

The Relative smiled, and Chaz, if he had been standing, would have wobbled under the weight of pride, triumph, adoration. "You can learn to be a good boy," he said. "It isn't your fault she didn't raise you right."

Don't you talk about my mother that way, you son of a bitch. Chaz swallowed hard--this time it didn't hurt--and managed to keep his indignant response behind his teeth somehow. He needed the water more than he needed to bite the Relative's hand. Sorry, Mom.

His mom would understand. She, of all people, would understand that you did what you had to do to stay alive, and pride didn't enter into it.

Isn't, the Relative said. Not ain't. Chaz's mom had been particular about his manner of speech, too, even though she tended to slip and say "ain't" when she was tired or emotional. The family--his family--took pride in appearing well-spoken. It was something they valued.

The Relative dipped more water in his big spider-fingered hands, and again, Chaz lowered his head and drank, the Relative's crooked thumbs coming forward to steady on his cheeks. This time, he tried to take the mouthfuls slowly, to savor them. He didn't know how much the Relative would give him, and he needed every drop. The water had a distinctive flavor, sweet but mineral-heavy, not Las Vegas's simple limestone acridness. Chaz tasted the salt of the Relative's sweat. His mouth touched the Relative's palms, and though he had expected it he jerked back, shuddering.

A sharp moment of disappointment, followed by warmth, praise and satisfaction. The Relative smiled at him, and dipped more water. "Drink, and be refreshed."

Even now that the thirst was no longer killing him, he gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, lowered his head and drank. He needed the water and the strength it brought. His hair fell into the palmful of water; strands got between his teeth. He couldn't do anything about it. And when he was done, holding the last swallow in his mouth to savor it, the Relative reached around into his back pocket and brought out a dark blue plastic comb. Slowly, gently, careful of Chaz's ears, he combed his draggled hair out of his face. "You need a haircut, boy."

When he was done, he put the comb away, and touched Chaz's eyelids, nose, cheek lightly with his fingertips. Chaz had never felt such pride, such possession. A sociopathic trait, that need to dominate others, that Old-Testament paternalism. At an extreme, it externalized in a serial killer's desire to completely control his victims.

Chaz was going to have to use that. If he was going to live.

More water, cupped and presented. Drink it now; you will need it later. Chaz lowered his head to the offering, while the Relative bent over him and murmured tenderly. "That's my angel. That's my baby boy. You'll be all right now. You're safe. Your papa's taking care of you now, and Addy can't take my boy away from me again."

Chaz choked, spraying water. And when he looked up into the Relative's eyes, saw nothing but absolute conviction, and love.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Day 2


He'd dozed off. Oh, hell.

The migraine and the ache in his back, arms, and legs should have kept him awake. Heat and hunger and keyed-up exhaustion trumped them. The body said sleep, and wait for the torment to be over. Sleep, and conserve your strength. But now he'd lost track of the Relative. He couldn't afford that.

The house was quiet. Could the Relative be so quiet Chaz couldn't hear him? Couldn't feel him?

A whole new meaning to the expression, "Too much sharing." It didn't seem as funny as he thought it should be.

The sun shone straight in the dining room window, and the mirrored wall reflected it. He'd been right about the orange tint from the smoke. It was good to be right. You got a little serotonin kick from it.

Keep it up; solving problems increased morale. Morale was all he had.

Even filtered by the jungle of the roses and the smoke, the sun was like light focused through a magnifying glass, the heat pummeling. Sweat pasted his shirt to his skin; the salt itched on his chest and back and under his arms. In the humidity, the cloth wouldn't dry, not the way it would in the Mojave. When the sun went down, he'd be shivering in his wet shirt.

He was thirsty again; when he swallowed, the lining of his throat rasped against itself. He had a sense-memory of the bits of granola bar: sugar, cinnamon, the crunching between his teeth. His stomach clutched at nothing.

Hunger sharpened the mind, up to a point. He was afraid he might be a little past that.

The manacles seemed heavier. He knew it was his arms weakening, but he couldn't shake the idea that they were being pulled toward the floor.

All right, enough of the catalog of grievances. Get back to working the profile.

Chaz's mother's brother was a gamma, organized, possibly religious-delusional. How long had that been going on? It would be a good reason to get the hell out of East Texas. Especially since he seemed to hold a grudge against his sister. Anger-retaliation behavior. What, besides chaining her to the dining room floor, had he meant to do?

Don't answer that. But he had to, didn't he? If this were a random anomalous crime, nothing to do with him, he'd need to answer that. The personal connection made no difference.

The Relative was delusional. Everything in the streaming data of his emotions told Chaz that. He'd cast Chaz as his child as part of laying claim to him. Would it be better to go along with the delusion, or try to reassert the real relationship?

Chaz was tired, and hot, and his back muscles burned from sitting unsupported. It would be easier to lie on the floor.

No. Sit up. Find something to keep awake with. Song lyrics.

"I am a poor wayfaring stranger," he sang under his breath, his voice cracking and rasping in his dry throat.

Traveling through this world of woe
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright land to which I go.

He wouldn't mind toil. He loved his job. He hunted monsters and saved lives. That was who he was, that was all right, and even the danger, within limits, had never stopped him. It wouldn't again, once he got out of here. Three days at most.

The sound of the front door knob turning brought him alert, breath coming shallow. From an analytical distance, he catalogued the stress reactions. It wouldn't be long before his body started to habituate to the adrenaline dump, to harden off to the stress.

The Relative passed through the archway and on into the kitchen, carrying a grocery bag and a plastic sack with a drug store logo on it.

"Uncle William?"

No answer; only the crackle of bags, cabinets opening, clattering, water running.

"Uncle William? May I have a drink, please?" And food, and the damned bucket if he couldn't have the actual bathroom.

The Relative came around the corner into the dining room. The drug store bag dangled in one of his bony long-fingered hands. His shoulders were loose and relaxed, and his face wore a stern and settled calm. Chaz tried to brace himself, but there wasn't any way to brace against that tide of feeling: satisfaction, pride, excitement, wonder. Not mine! But he couldn't say it aloud, and it didn't lessen the flood.

"You know Genesis, baby boy? Did Addy teach you your Bible?" the Relative asked. "In Genesis, there's the story of how the angels of the Lord looked on the daughters of men, and found them beautiful in their sight. But the daughters of men were flesh and not the fire of angels, and their children, the nephilim, were mighty, but only men, and tempted to wickedness. The world fell, because the flesh of the daughters of men was weak and impure."

Not quite how I remember it, Chaz thought. "Uncle William, if I could please have some water--"

Pride and wonder. Chaz was dizzy with thirst and emotion. "But you'll be pure, baby boy. You'll shed the clay Addy put on you." His mom's name came lapped in righteous anger. "I'll see to it there's no taint of the whore left in you." He crossed the room and set the bag on the glass-topped table in the corner.

Chaz hadn't realized how many examples of ritual purification of victims he knew from case histories. Not useful; well, not unless scaring himself to death was useful. Better to be scared by what was actually happening.

And that wasn't so bad. The Relative didn't seem to want him to starve or die of thirst. He wasn't torturing him. Chaz knew he could bargain for what he needed, even if, so far, he hated the terms.

Two days, three at the outside. He might improve the conditions. Hell, he might even get away. He could do this. Reyes was going to flay him verbally, but really, how could Chaz have known he had a dangerous gamma uncle squatting in his house?

The Relative was calm and certain when acting from his delusion. But the anger that slipped out of him at the mention of Chaz's mom--it was a crack, it was something the delusion didn't account for. Delicately, now, poke at it, ask without challenging. "Why do you say my mom was a whore?"

The Relative's hands hovered over the bag. "Where is your mama, baby boy?"

"My mother loved me."

William shrugged, fretting his fingertips against the thighs of his trousers. His mom had had a nervous gesture just like that. "Of course she does. Addy isn't a bad girl. She just hasn't accepted her Lord. God is hard; he makes demands. But if she loves you, well, I love you--" And he did; Chaz couldn't deny that seasick possessive love. He felt it every time the Relative looked at him. "--and I'm right here, baby boy." He fished an apple from the pocket of his flannel shirt, polished it on the sleeve, and took a bite.

Chaz's mouth watered at the crunch. Not as desperately thirsty as he had been, then. "My name is Charles--"

Crunch, crunch. Swallow. The Relative's lips were shiny with the juice. "I know your name, child. Where's your mama?" He stared at Chaz. His mom hadn't been so tall, and her bones had been lighter. But still.

"She's dead," Chaz said, and watched the apple roll as if in slow motion from the Relative's hand.

Two hard breaths. Then the Relative leaned forward, hands flattened on the glass tabletop. His face in the mirror tiles was blank. "Addy's dead?"

Oh, crap. Do not let the suspect direct the conversation. He knew the Relative hadn't known. He could have held the information back for when he needed it. One of his pieces taken off the board. "Uncle William--"


"She died when I was seven," Chaz said, thinking, If that was an error, use it. My mother is the crack in his delusion. This is the tool. "I was raised in foster care."

The Relative stepped back. And again, until he was almost in the dark hallway, and Chaz was drowning with him. This wasn't projection; it was leakage--quick brutal flickers of grief and disbelief and wrath, a fury so intense Chaz nearly gagged. Then the Relative's expression firmed and his chin came up. "Of course," he said. "She denied God, denied the messenger he sent her, and died in her denial. I should have known. If I had not fallen--"

He shook his head. Hard, as if shaking off sweat, face screwing up in agony. Chest heaving, while Chaz laid his hands across his knees and tried to make himself small.

The Relative's eyes opened and he stared at Chaz, shoulders relaxing, though his breath still lifted his chest visibly with each gasp. "Oh baby boy," he said, all sorrow. "It's all right. I'll redeem myself in you."

Chaz could not have made himself any stiller, any smaller. Oh. Shit.

"She left you behind. And you came to me. Baby boy, she never told me. Little angel. Did you grow up all alone? I would have taken care of you."

Chaz sank under a tide of love, heavy as carpet. "Please, I--may I--" He couldn't remember what to ask for.

"Sshh. I'm going to take care of you."

The Relative fetched the water bucket from the kitchen. He set it down, cupped up a double handful of water, and held it under Chaz's chin. Chaz understood how animals could smell that and follow the smell for miles.

"Please, could--may I have a cup this time?"

The Relative's disappointment was, of course, palpable, and Chaz winced under it in spite of himself. The Relative let the water fall back in the bucket. The splash made Chaz's throat ache.

The Relative shook his head. "You've got some bad habits to unlearn, is all. She taught you some bad things. She couldn't help it. Didn't know any better herself. But it's okay now, papa's here."

"I'm your sister's son. You're my uncle." It was worth a try. Anything was.

With wet hands, the Relative brushed the sweaty hair off Chaz's forehead. The comfort of it shocked him. Frightened him. "You're thirsty, aren't you?"

"Yes. If I had a cup--"

"You have my hands. You will always have those, baby boy." He dipped out another double handful of water and held it out to Chaz.

He had to live. The real world still existed outside that house. He had to get back to it.

He lowered his face into the Relative's hands and felt his calloused fingertips against the skin of his throat and jaw. He shivered when the Relative's rough thumb stroked his cheek as he drank, when the Relative's proprietary love filled him like dirty water in a drowning man's lungs.

The Relative stood, lugged the bucket across the room, and sat down at the table. Chaz shifted and stretched his spine. "Our Savior was born of a virgin girl. You know the story?" The Relative took a box out of the plastic bag, then a smaller box. "God sent an angel to Mary. He called her Favored One, and said the power of God would cast its shadow over her. And Mary answered, 'Here I am, the Lord's slave.'"

The Relative wasn't projecting. But the whole room seemed to tremble under the weight of what he held back. Chaz denied his aching muscles, the craving in his stomach, the pounding in his head. He was a good hunter. Whatever it was, he could wait for it.

Next thing out of the bag: a ten-pack of syringes. Chaz looked again at the little box. He couldn't read the packaging, but it was the right size for a ten-milliliter vial. God, let him not O.D. If he does, I starve to death. Syringes, a vial of something--from a pharmacy? How did he get this stuff?

Oh, Chaz thought. A projecting empath never has to worry about getting a ride home. Somewhere there was a pharmacist who was still feeling the glow of helping a nice customer.

Maybe he'd moved, after all. The Relative turned to him and nodded. "Pull your knees up to your chest."

Again the decision tree, weighing obedience against the alternatives. Chaz drew his knees up, between his arms.

"That's a good boy. Now, put your feet on the bar."

He meant the bar between Chaz's wrists, the one the hasps were welded to. He had long arms. He had longer legs. "I don't think I can--"

"Come on, now, angel. If you do it, papa'll give you something nice."

Something to stay alive with, and he was going to stay alive, after all. Today was almost over. That meant two days, max, before the team showed up. He had to do it. The Relative wanted him to.

Chaz pulled his knees hard against his ribs, stretched his arms until he got his bare toes over the bar. The balls of his feet wouldn't go.

"That's my boy. Just a little more."

Happiness and pride and hope drugged him into pushing for one more inch.

The happiness and pride were inextricable from the pain of the manacles jammed into the bones of his hands by the pressure of his folded body. His shoulder joints screamed. Tendons and ligaments in his hip joints twisted. Sweat stung his eyes.

He'd done it to himself. He should have resisted. He should have been smarter. Stronger.

"That's my brave angel. It'll just be for a minute or so." The Relative turned back to the table, tore open the pack of syringes, opened the little box. Yes, a vial of something. No, no, no, tell me it's not for me instead... He opened the bigger box and took out a little glass tube with a stopper. Not a medical-supply test tube; maybe something from the craft department.

"When an angel of the Lord comes to her, child," the Relative continued, not looking up, "a good woman listens and obeys. Her heart is humble and glad, like Mary's." He drew a quantity of clear fluid out of the vial with the syringe and shot it into the glass tube, propped it in the corner of the box.

The year he turned six, Chaz's mom had read the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke to him on Christmas Eve. He could have read them himself, but it was more fun to share it, to accept it as a present. Besides, she didn't mind if he made comments, like, "If I were Zacharias, I wouldn't have believed it, either," which made her laugh.

The Relative pulled a length of rubber tubing out of the bag and tied it around his left biceps. Chaz would have relaxed if he could. It's for him. Back to the original worry. His neck ached from keeping his head raised to watch.

But the syringe was empty and the plunger depressed when the Relative pricked it into the humped vein inside his elbow. He released the tubing and drew the plunger. The syringe filled with blood, a red stain thick as milk. He pulled it, put it in his left hand, and licked his thumb and pressed it to the puncture, held it there while he shot the blood into the glass tube, pressed the stopper on one-handed, and shook the mixture.

"Your mama wasn't good. The Lord sent his angel to her, to cast his shadow over her, and she wasn't glad. But the Lord's will is done whether we like it or not, baby boy. Where would you be if that wasn't true?"

When his mom got to the story of the Annunciation, her voice had faltered. She'd read, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord," and stopped. "Mary must have been so scared," she said, in a voice smaller than the one she read to him in.

The Relative refilled the syringe with the contents of the glass tube. He retrieved the rubber tubing, walked over to Chaz, crouched, and pushed Chaz's rolled-up sleeve over his biceps.


Chaz tried to pull away, but only lurched over. The Relative pulled him upright again and bathed him in love and sorrow. "I fell, baby boy. God must have known I would, when he sent me down from Heaven. It was her fault. But you'll redeem her. Pure angel's blood will wash her taint out of you. Your papa may have fallen, but he can still make you an angel like he was."

He fetched the syringe.

"Please, don't do this--"

The Relative stood behind Chaz, keeping him from falling over by pinning him between his knees. He pressed Chaz's head down, half-smothering him against the fabric of his own jeans. Chaz felt him lean forward. "Now, don't move, baby boy. Don't want the needle to break off in you."

The Relative was an angel. The angel of the Annunciation. Who'd come to his mom, and been rejected, but who'd cast the shadow over her anyway, because his will was God's and not to be denied. Chaz couldn't breathe.

He'd raped her. That's why Addy Villette left home.

Oh, Mom. I'm sorry. I won't give you back to him, I promise. You got away, and I can keep you safe.

Glory. Exultation. The needle stick. All at once. The threat of HIV, hepatitis, bacteria--new pollutants for already-tainted blood. The Relative had contaminated Chaz from inside long before this. From the beginning.

He's my father.

Oh, lord, why did she keep me?


Blinding headache, day two.

Again, Chaz hadn't meant to sleep, but exhaustion and something closer to comfort, a blanket and a pillow--his reward for good behavior, sayeth the Relative--had claimed him. He'd gone under fast. It doesn't matter, he told himself, as dawn glowed pink through his eyelids, and his knees, shoulders, hips throbbed with inflammation from the twisted position of the day before. It wasn't a failure. The meatware is only being sensible.

And if the first day of his captivity had proved anything, it was that vigilance wouldn't help him. He couldn't physically prevent the Relative from doing anything the Relative wanted to do. His hope lay in negotiation, the appearance of cooperation, deception, and stalling.

In the profile.

He would have to play the trickster. Fortunately, it wasn't a new role. Chaz Villette wasn't done for yet.

Not easy with his hands bound into what was essentially one big inflexible paw, but he'd managed to improvise a sleeping bag by folding the wool blanket so two-thirds of it lay doubled beneath him. Between that and the sofa cushion the Relative had given him for a pillow, he was tolerably warm. Thank you, Brady, for that survival tip, and for the information that most body heat is lost by conduction rather than radiation. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

When the team got Chaz back, the first thing he was going to do was shower for an hour. And then he was going to eat about three steak dinners. And ice cream. And then he was going to buy Brady a beer, even if he would only drink Coors Light.

"Silver bullets are for werewolves, man. It wouldn't kill you to drink a Sierra Nevada." The corners of Chaz's mouth twitched as he anticipated the familiar arguments. "I'm just not comfortable giving Coors my hard-earned money."

Brady would answer, "It may be your money, but it's my mouth. Do I complain about buying that sissy stuff you drink?"

One more day. Maybe two. That was all it would take, and they would be here for him. There would be the scary bit with the hostage negotiation, Reyes would figure the Relative out in about seventeen seconds flat--it had only taken Chaz a couple of hours--and the worst Chaz would have to face was six months of HIV prophylaxis and everybody on the team knowing where he came from.

He minded that less than he minded knowing it himself.

Oh God. As long as nobody told Frost.

Frost would have questions.

So Chaz lay supine on the tile-over-cement floor and wondered how long the Relative would let him get away with not opening his eyes. Dehydration and caffeine withdrawal and hunger might be killing his head, but at least he didn't have to urinate yet, which meant he could preserve his dignity and this fragile moment of peace a little longer.

He needed to buy that time. To preserve the integrity of his personality, his purpose, his ability to maintain separation from the Relative, he needed to use every second of downtime he got to reinforce those things. The Relative would be working on chipping away Chaz's autonomy, making him complicit and wearing him down.

It was a siege, and Chaz was the defender. The castle was strong, but not impregnable. He would have to shore up where the Relative sapped, buttress where he brought his ladders and siege engines to bear. He would have to keep fighting until reinforcements arrived. He pictured Reyes on a white horse, like Gandalf, charging down a hillside to scatter the orcs, and tried not to laugh and draw the Relative's attention.

In a survival situation, it was important to keep one's spirits up. So while the drone of insects increased and the morning grew hot and bright, Chaz worked on his list because he couldn't sing.

Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half

  1. It could be winter in North Dakota.
  2. Waterboarding.
  3. Rats.
  4. Snakes.
  5. Roaches.
  6. I could be sitting in pee. Or vomit.
  7. He could be nailing parts of me to things.
  8. Poison.
  9. Concussion/head trauma/brain damage.
  10. Third-degree burns.
  11. Death.

In the back of the house, he heard bedsprings creak, and his pulse rate jumped twenty beats per minute. The already-familiar sounds of William's morning routine followed, and then his footsteps in the hall. Chaz swallowed hard and brought his hands up, under the blankets, so they lay on his chest. The manacles cut his wrists when he moved. His bones were bigger than Addy's would have been.

Oh, Mom, he thought. Did anybody ever tell you how brave you were? Tears stung his eyes; he would have cried for her, but he couldn't stand to have the Relative see him weep. He drew breath between gritted teeth and sat up, shedding the blanket as the Relative paused by the edge of the circle defined by Chaz's chain and set the bucket down softly. Chaz pressed his knuckles to his eyes, pretending sleepy helplessness. Three days of itching stubble rasped the backs of his hands.

"Morning, angel," the Relative said, while Chaz tried not to gag on the tide of affection and pride and anticipation that filled the room. He had been a good boy, and the Relative was pleased. Chaz wondered how long it would take for him to be pleased that the Relative was pleased, and pushed the thought away. One more day. Maybe two. "Did you sleep well?"

"Better, thank you," Chaz said, doing his best to sound as if it didn't come through gritted teeth. He rose. He was getting the hang of standing up without using his hands.

"You do your business. I have something to fetch. I won't be a moment." The Relative nudged the bucket within Chaz's reach and stepped back. For a moment, Chaz thought of using it as a weapon, but he wasn't Daniel Brady, trained killer, and he had no idea how you'd incapacitate somebody with a Rubbermaid pail. And even if he did, he was still chained to the floor.

He took advantage of the few moments of privacy to put it to its intended purpose, instead. What urine he passed was rank, a disheartening shade of orange. You could drink it, if you got desperate enough; it was sterile from the body, something that had kept a certain percentage of the victims of seventeenth century bladder surgery alive long enough to heal. That would be worse, too, being cut for the stone. He should put it on his list.

But urine was also full of toxins, and the sorts of things the body preferred passed through rather than recycled. He'd hold out, and hope the Relative meant to give him water. William wanted him alive, dependent. He wanted Chaz to rely on him, to love him. Food and water would be forthcoming, as long as Chaz didn't give him any reason to withhold.

He pushed the bucket away with his toe, and bruised himself zipping his fly. The home-made manacles did not want his wrists to twist, even a little.

When the Relative returned, he had something in his hands, and Chaz cringed, remembering the needle. The Relative nudged the bucket further away, as if the smell distressed him, and gestured Chaz to his knees.

Deep breath. One, two. Chaz knelt. He didn't feel like being put there with a foot on his chain again, and so he chose to obey. A conscious and aware choice, manipulating his captor. That was all right. That was still a decision.

"Open your mouth, baby boy," the Relative said, and Chaz again did as instructed. Carefully, the Relative put a foot on Chaz's chain--not jerking him this time, just holding him in place--and squatted down before him as if before a child. The thing the Relative had held half-concealed was a toothbrush, the bristles wet and smeared with gel toothpaste.

Gently, the Relative cradled his face in one palm, stroking Chaz's cheek lightly. The thin stubble of his beard caught on the calluses and whorls of the Relative's fingertips. "Good boy," he murmured. "Baby boy. Little angel. I'm so sorry, sweetheart. So sorry you grew up alone. I would have taken care of you. But it's okay now, papa's here and papa's going to make you an angel. The angel I should have been, if it weren't for that whore. You're going to be a good boy for papa now, aren't you?"

"Yes," Chaz said, trying to let the lies and endearments wash over him, through him, unheard. In one ear and out the other. He should be profiling, memorizing, working. But he couldn't stand to listen. "I'm going to be good."

The Relative's hand tightened on his chin. "Ah ah," he said. "Mouth open."

Chaz swallowed, hard, and opened wide. He closed his eyes, and felt the Relative slide the brush into his mouth.

Careful brushing, gentle, properly done in small circles. The flavor of toothpaste choked him. One more day. One more, while William crooned in his ear, breath stirring his hair. "Your papa's right here, angel. I'll always be here for you now."

That's what I'm afraid of. But Chaz held his tongue, and suffered his teeth to be brushed. The Relative brought him water in the clean bucket, and he rinsed and spit into a bowl the Relative held for him. Then he was allowed to drink his fill from the Relative's hands, slowly, a cupped palmful at a time, asking politely for each as the last was finished.

It did not get any easier, and he was glad. Chaz did not want to be tamed.

The Relative dispensed with the buckets, and took the cushion and the blanket and folded them on the table against need. Then he came and sat on the floor close by Chaz with a bag of apples and a jar of peanut butter, feeding them each alternately from his fingers by biting pieces from the apples and dipping them in the jar.

The apples were full of juice, though the lingering effect of the toothpaste made the first bites bitter. The peanut butter was store-brand and cloying. Chaz ate everything the Relative offered, wishing there were more.

"Would your momma do this for you, baby boy?"

My mom never would have chained me to the floor, William. "My mom loved me," Chaz said, his mouth sticky with peanut butter, knowing as he gave the Relative the words that he shouldn't have said it.

"Of course she did. No one in the world couldn't love a baby boy like you, and you should be loyal to her. Honor thy father and thy mother, baby boy. But she gave you up, didn't she? And she hid you from me. So she couldn't have loved you as much as I do. As the Lord does."

Chaz blinked, wondering if he had misheard. Then realized, no. He had lied without meaning to, played into the Relative's delusion of Addy's wickedness. I was raised in foster care.

In the Relative's world, Addy had abandoned not only himself, and God--but their son.

I'm going to have to play to that. It puts us on the same team, the Relative and me.

Jesus, Chaz thought. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Day 3

Act IV

That night, the evening of the third day, Chaz earned his blanket and pillow through consistent polite obedience, like a child who does not wish to give a parent any excuse to withhold a treat. He even managed not to fight the needle. It was easier, this time, knowing it was coming, knowing that at least the Relative wouldn't be doing anything new and horrible. The devil you know, he thought blackly, while the Relative performed his alchemy with syringe and anticoagulant and tube. It would be all right. It was nothing Chaz hadn't endured before.

For his reward Chaz was given a drink of water and half an almond Hershey bar, bloomed with white from being stored in the refrigerator. After the Relative went to bed, Chaz lay in his blanket, thinking.

Chaz never got enough to eat once his mom died. None of his foster families--who, after all, got a fixed income supplement for his care--could believe a seemingly healthy kid needed that much food. After he had been endlessly tested--for Type 1 diabetes and intestinal parasites and a malfunctioning thyroid--the doctors gave up and let nature take its course. His equally endless sessions with the child psychologists often concentrated on what they referred to as his "eating disorder."

Chaz had bargained with his fosters: I don't really need new school clothes, new sneakers, a haircut--could we spend that on food instead? He stole sticks of margarine from refrigerators, a habit that probably kept him alive, as well as ensuring that he never stayed in one foster home for long. When it got bad, he descended to scamming kids in school for their lunches. He hated doing it even though he told himself they were going hungry for an afternoon, and he was going hungry all the time.

He wondered if anyone on the team knew he could shark three-card monte.

He would have starved in any city in the world except Las Vegas. But Vegas was the home of the all-you-can-eat breakfast, the nine-dollar sixteen-ounce prime-rib dinner, the holy grail of the casino buffet. For a while, when he was fostered at the ranch estate near Decatur, the guys at the Texas Station Buffet line had known him by name.

God, he loved that town.

He'd memorized a lot of calorie charts and nutrition tables when he was younger. Memorizing was easy for him, and it helped him make sure he got as many calories and vitamins as he could.

He knew he wasn't getting enough food now. If only he could eat the stink of those roses, or the orange light and the scent of smoke.

Apples plus peanut butter plus chocolate, something around five or six hundred calories. Less than a third of what a normal person his weight needed for a sedentary day. For Chaz, it was the equivalent of that normal person having nothing to eat for two and a half days, and it was the second such day in a row. He could feel his jeans loose on his hipbones already, the extra space in the shoulders of his shirt.

There was food in the house; the Relative burned calories as fast as Chaz did. But Chaz didn't get to eat as often as the Relative did, or as much. Because the Relative was trying to turn Chaz into an angel. To burn him clean of the earthly clay that the Relative's rape of Chaz's mother had imprisoned him in. Angels do not eat or drink. Angels don't need to eliminate into plastic buckets.

Chaz wasn't used to being hungry anymore. In two more days, if he couldn't talk the Relative into giving him more to eat, this was going to get ugly.

He needed a scam.

He would have thought the wrenching of his stomach would keep him awake, but it wasn't so. He was still thinking about that as sleep claimed him.


In the cold between light and sunrise in the morning of the third day, Chas woke thinking, Today.

Today. Maybe tomorrow. They'll come.

Somewhere, a time-zone east, Hafidha and Falkner--the early risers--were already in the office. Hafidha was sitting down at her desk, booting her computers. Falkner was bringing her a cup of coffee, because Falkner believed that good bosses took care of their reports, not the other way around.

And at some point over the course of the morning, Hafidha would appear at the door of Falkner's office, and she would say--


"Es?" said Hafidha, from Falkner's doorway. Amazing how much urgency could be put into a syllable. "Have you heard from Chaz?"

Falkner turned from the neat tower of jacketed case files on her desk. "No."

Hafidha's eyes were wide beneath the tumble of her braids. Falkner had been a parent long enough to recognize the "help me" expression, even on a thirty-year-old woman's face. A woman who hardly ever needed help with anything. Falkner hid her own inward twitch of alarm.

"He isn't back. He was supposed to be back last night."

"Maybe his plane got delayed."

"Chaz late without calling? Doesn't happen. He's a Post-Industrial boy. He can push buttons. And the girl he was supposed to have dinner with Saturday said he never called, never showed." Her left hand was yanking the rings off her right hand and putting them back on, one at a time, over and over. "He's not answering his cell. He's not answering his home number. There's no email."

They had good instincts, everyone on the team. "All right. Have a look."

Hafidha lunged off.

Falkner looked again at the case files. Then she turned to follow Hafidha. She had instincts, too.

Hafidha was already pulling up screens of information when Falkner got to the computer room. "Okay, he must have rented a car. Companies that rent out of Tyler Pounds Regional Airport...hah, only four. Nope, not there, aaand not that one..."

The information went by too fast; a rental car company logo, a list scrolling by, another logo and list. Falkner caught her breath. It was Lau who'd first called the manifestation HafidhaWire. Hafidha had left the FBI's hardwired network somewhere in the middle of the search. Falkner wondered if she'd even noticed.

"Hah! Got him. And he returned his rental--" The screen stopped changing; there was a rental record on it, company logo on the top. Hafidha's hands were stiff on either side of the keypad.


"He returned it Saturday night. Es?" Hafidha looked over her shoulder and up at Falkner, eyes big, teeth in her upper lip. "Es." Her voice was small and crumbling. "It's all over colors."


The sound of the Relative in the bedroom made Chaz open his eyes. He sat up, struggled to his feet--he had to pause, one knee up and one down, his knuckles resting on the floor, when he rose too fast and went lightheaded with hunger. It could be worse, he chanted, and slowly recited his list.

It was getting kind of long.

Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half

  1. It could be winter in North Dakota.
  2. Waterboarding.
  3. Rats.
  4. Snakes.
  5. Roaches.
  6. I could be sitting in pee. Or vomit.
  7. He could be nailing parts of me to things.
  8. Home surgery.
  9. Poison.
  10. Concussion/head trauma/brain damage.
  11. He could cut off my feet.
  12. Ditto hands.
  13. Blinding.
  14. Flaying alive.
  15. Impaling.
  16. Vivisection/disembowelment.
  17. Disfigurement.
  18. Emasculation.
  19. The house could burn down.
  20. Blood eagle.
  21. Boiling in oil.
  22. Third-degree burns.
  23. Breaking on the wheel.
  24. Stretched on the rack, iron maiden, etc.
  25. Death.

He suspected he'd read too much medieval history, based on the list, especially since he could have kept listing forms of torture under that etcetera--strappado, bastinado--for a good long time before he ran out. Rats and roaches, he admitted, were kind of grandfathered in at this point; he'd rather have rats than needles. But he wasn't ready to start crossing things off yet. Not while there was still a chance of making it to 26.

Chaz pushed himself to his feet, morning air cold across his thinly-clad shoulders. He folded his blanket neatly atop the pillow and stood straight facing the doorway, waiting for the Relative to bring him breakfast, because he was not going to wait on his knees. His own face in the mirror wall looked drawn and haggard, eyes sinking over cheekbones that projected like his hips.

"Good morning, William," he said, when the Relative appeared in the hallway entrance. The greeting was answered by silent, crushing disappointment. Chaz swallowed convulsively, wondering if he should try again, and instead decided to meet silence with silence.

The Relative frowned, and if Chaz had not been at the limit of his chain, he might have stepped back. But the chain rattled as he stretched it, and he was grateful for the Dutch courage. Oh no, Charles Travis. Don't you even think that.

He set his teeth, and waited.

And after ninety-three counted seconds, the Relative turned away. As Chaz reminded himself to breathe, the Relative said, "And who taught you to call your father by his Christian name, baby boy? Is that how you show respect?"

Chaz opened his mouth to correct himself--stay alive, give him what he wants, bargain and negotiate--but his voice turned into empty breath as he tried to say the words. He shuddered, swallowed again.

Say it. It was just a word. A meaningless word.

A word that had never meant anyone he cared for, or anyone who cared for him.

But the breath he took to try again was a sob, harsh enough to burn his throat like vomit. He sank his teeth into his lip. His breath came sharp and shallow through his nose, dizzying, and when he did make a sound it was a moan, involuntary, hard at the back of his throat. One more day. Just one more. He will not make you cry.

Mouth open, a sharp jerk, tasting blood, and he gulped air, got a full breath or something like it. "I--"

The Relative was waiting. And how ridiculous was he, that he should break at this, when he had already abased himself in every imaginable fashion? It was just a lie. Profilers lied all the time. It was a professional skill.

He couldn't say it.

If you can't work through, Reyes would say, work around.

Do what you have to do.

He thought of it, and gulped, and said, "I'm sorry. Sir. I'll try to do better."

Stern consideration. Chaz, holding his breath again, lowered his eyes to the Relative's shoes. Submission, a pose right out of Norman Rockwell goes to Hell. Or the appearance of it, just the appearance. He could watch the Relative's face sidelong, in the gold-flecked mirror tile.

And so he saw the moment when the Relative softened, and his austere expression relaxed. "I know you will, baby boy. I know you're doing your best," he said, and went into the kitchen.

Water, please, Chaz thought, but didn't dare ask for it. Instead he hunkered, buttocks resting on his heels, aching arms supported by his knees, and listened hopefully for the sound of the water running into the pail. But there was only the click of the refrigerator door, the hum of the motor. And when the Relative came back, he was carrying the syringes.

"It's not time yet," said Chaz, as the Relative laid out his tools on the table and took a seat in his habitual chair. A little hysterically, Chaz remembered fragments from a Gregory Corso poem--my big papa chair--and tried to keep his face calm, his voice smooth.

"It's for your own good," the Relative said. "I know it hurts, baby boy, but you have to be brave for me. You have to be strong. You need more blood if you're going to be an angel. It's the blood of the daughters of men in you; it needs to be burned clean. Women are temptresses. Whores. She lied to make them love her best, but they would have loved me if they knew. She seduced them. So I have to burn Addy out of you, sweetheart. And then you can be pure, like your papa."

The Relative was obsessed with Addy Villette. He was gentle and considerate with Chaz, albeit with complete disregard for Chaz's needs or desires.

Chaz knew that profile. Inside and out.

My papa, the anger-retaliation rapist. And what are the odds you were his only victim, Mom? Chaz breathed to steady himself. No book in Vegas would take those odds.

First victim, maybe. God help me, how many more?

He had to do the victimology. He had to understand the trigger. He had to stay alive.

I'm sorry, Mom.

His mother would understand. She'd chosen to give him birth. She'd brought the monster's spawn into the world, and she had sacrificed everything--dignity, pride, her life--to keep it safe from the monster.

She hadn't given him up. Why not? Chaz, if he'd been in a position to sit judgment, wouldn't have blamed her for a moment if she had.

"Sir--" Sir was easy. Sir was a thousand people Chaz had hated... and one or two he respected. "If I'm good... if I help, m-may I have the manacles off? I need--I really need to stretch my arms, and wash. There are sores on my wrists, sir. They're infected. I'm worried about my hands."

The Relative rolled up his sleeve and twisted the rubber tubing around his upper arm. Chaz could see the veins pop from where he waited. "The flesh is weak, angel. But it's going to be okay."

Be good, Chaz told himself. Be good. Be good, be good, be good, be good. Stay alive. Do what he wants. You can't fight him with your body. You just have to stay alive.

And as the needle went in, he wondered if his mother had recited the same chant to herself, while come Hell or high water, Chaz was getting himself conceived.


Esther poked her head around the office door, and Hafidha pretended she didn't notice the piece of white office paper twisted into a spill between her hands. "We're going to go get him," Esther said, and Hafidha closed her eyes in relief. Not that there had ever been a chance they wouldn't, but in the beginning was the word, so to speak, and whatever Esther said had a way of being translated into immediate action.

"Gotcha. I can send the Texas Stateys to his grandparent's house-- Oh. Es, this ain't good."

Esther crossed the office to lean over Hafidha's shoulder, one hand on the back of her chair. When anyone else did it, it drove her crazy. But Esther's presence felt warm against the nape of her neck.

"The whole damned county's on fire. I mean, yeah, that's why Chaz went down, to look at the place before it burned, but--Es, if he's in there, he's trapped." Her fingers traced the arcs marked on the Forest Service satellite images. Fire here, and here, and here.

"Do you know anything about wildfires?"

"It's an anomalous burn pattern." Hafidha tapped the three arcs that changed colors like opals in the sun, before she remembered that Esther wouldn't see them that way. "Somebody is doing that on purpose."

Esther straightened. She dropped the twist of paper into the wastebasket and frowned. "Tell the team to get their go bags. Yours, too."

"What about Reyes?"

"I'll tell Reyes," she said, and turned on the ball of her foot. Sensible shoes don't click on tile, but Hafidha could imagine it.


"What do you mean, missing?" Reyes said, frowning. At least he was frowning at her. Falkner would have liked to have known which of the folders on his desk was so damned engrossing that it took him this long to look up.

"He was due back today."

"Planes don't get delayed anymore?"

Falkner considered using Hafidha's post-industrial comment. "When was the last time Chaz was late? He planned to look at some property he inherited from his mother's family in Texas, then drive to a music festival west of Austin. Hafidha says he returned the rental car early instead, at the airport in Tyler. And that's the end of the trail."

Reyes stared up at her in a way that made her think she wasn't what he was seeing. "How do you know where he was going?"

"Spooky profiler skills. I asked."

A muscle contracted in Reyes's jaw. And that, Falkner thought, is all the satisfaction I'll be getting out of that line.

"His cell?"

"Hafidha checked. It's off. No trace. She tracked down the rental car record."


"She read anomalous activity off it."

His right hand closed, hard. "Did you ask Dallas field office to check it out?"

"They verified the car return; the employee at check-in remembered him. After that, they know less than we do." Falkner pinched the bridge of her nose. Damn it. I shouldn't have to tell him these things. But she knew better. These things were what she kept track of. "If there's any chance he's still in Tyler County, we could have our work cut out for us. They've got a forest fire." She had to stop, and swallow. "An anomalous wildfire."

Reyes was too dark to turn pale, or flush, or any of the useful Euro diagnostics her own skin offered. But she knew from the set of his mouth that he was biting the inside of his lip.

"Tell the team, wheels up in thirty minutes. We'll brief in the air."

Falkner kept the relief off her face. "I already told 'em."

"The whole team?"

"Can you think of anyone we can spare?"

Reyes let out an unsteady breath. "Not this time."


"How did Addy die?"

"I don't know," Chaz lied.

He sat on the cushion, arms extended, pulled to the length of his chain, where the Relative had placed him before tending the rubbed wounds on his wrists with sharp-stinking alcohol and antibiotic ointment. The pain was just more pain, now, and at least the hurt was clean, eyewatering.

But then the Relative scooted him forward and sat down behind him, near enough for Chaz to feel his body heat, to smell him even over the rankness of Chaz's own sweat and the woodstove alkali of the distant--Chaz hoped it was distant--forest fire. The Relative slid close and put his arm around Chaz's chest and pulled him back, as gently as he always touched him.

For a moment, Chaz panicked, and if he had not been so awkwardly balanced he might have surged to his feet and bolted to the chain's far reach. Instead he jerked, gasped, and caught himself before he thrashed away. The sudden motion sent a spasm up his back that made him appreciate the mornings when Falkner came in moving like she'd just been in a car accident, her breath smelling of chewed aspirin. He blinked, shook his head, and said, "It hurts."

It all hurt. The needle stings in the crook of his arm were barely noticeable; the shackle galls on his wrists were just blisters rubbed raw, after all, heated and slick as any he'd ever given himself with a new pair of climbing shoes. His hips hurt from the floor, sleeping and sitting on it, and being twisted up inside his bonds. His elbows ached with the weight of the shackles.

But his back and shoulders and neck were the pièce de résistance; everything else--even the migraine, now that it was fading a little--were only grace notes. "It's just the weakness of the flesh," the Relative said. "Soon enough left behind. It's hard, baby boy. It's hard. But you're strong. And where you aren't strong, your papa will carry you."

He placed his hand under Chaz's forearms and lifted them against his chest. The bar of the manacles faced out and Chaz could rest his chin on his own curved fingers. The Relative pulled Chaz gently back into his chest and shoulder, taking the strain of Chaz's weight and tension, making a backrest of his own body. He bathed Chaz in mellow relaxation, the domestic contentment of a man cradling a beloved son in his arms.

"Use me as your chair," the Relative said. And Chaz, God help him, relaxed by increments into the Relative's embrace, almost moaning in relief as the knots in his back began one by one to release. He let his head fall back on the Relative's shoulder, soaking in the warmth and support, and realized he could not remember having decided to use him for that purpose.

It was not a slip he could afford to repeat. He needed to remember where he was, who he was, and why he was doing what he was doing. Choosing this, because it lessened his pain and kept him stronger. Not because he needed the comfort. Not because he needed to be held.

Chaz bit his lip. Focus. Think of your mother. Oh, there was the hate. Hate was good. Hate was his friend. That white, undulating, undiluted loathing was the thing that would keep him sane and himself, in the face of the Relative's brainwashing.

He thought of the piano in the living room. Music was one thing his mother had given him that no one could take away, though Chaz hid it now. He didn't sing in company. He hadn't touched a piano with serious intent in years. Music got you noticed, if you were any good at it. Noticed, and remarked upon.

And you only had to overhear once, some adult's headshaking pronouncement that little Charlie, picking deftly away at the piano, was nothing more than an idiot savant, a sorry mimic with no more understanding of the math or the magic behind music than a mockingbird, to stop playing where grownups could hear you. Come to think of it, that was probably the same condescending bastard who pushed for the diagnosis of Williams Syndrome he'd lugged around like a millstone for years when any idiot knew Williams Syndrome was marked by a deficit in spatial intelligence. Any idiot but a pediatrician, apparently.

Chaz hadn't willingly acknowledged anyone calling him Charlie since he was thirteen years old.

But now the music was a weapon, and Chaz reached for it. "Wayfaring Stranger," because it was there at the top of his mind.

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep--

Somewhere in there he felt the vibration in the Relative's chest as he began to sing as well, and Chaz nearly fell silent. But singing together was a bond, another way to create a connection, and the Relative was following his lead.

But golden fields all spread before me
Where blessed saints their vigils keep--

Nobody sang it that way, except Chaz and his mother. And apparently the Relative.

And of all the things that had brought the reality--the inescapability--of his situation into relief, that was the strangest, and the one that ran through him like ice water, like venom, making his voice falter and fail.

The Relative continued, on to the chorus:

I'm going there to see my Savior
To sing His praise forever more
I'm just-a going over Jordan

"I'm only going over home--" singing it soft and true by Chaz's ear. Chaz closed his eyes, and realized that with the Relative holding his arms folded, taking the weight of meat and bone and manacles, for the first time since he awakened vomiting, his elbows and shoulders did not hurt. I'm going there to see my mother, Chaz mouthed, afraid to give it too much voice. She said she'd meet me when I come.

Chaz had no faith.

But his mother had. And he cursed like she had, a blasphemer against a religion he'd never believed in. It always amused him when he noticed a reflexive Jesus! leaving his mouth. So the song gave him comfort, though not in the way it had comforted her.

The Relative finished on an upswing that was just how Chaz's mom had done it.

I'll drop this cross of self-denial
And I'll go singing... home to God.

The Relative let the dregs of his last breath sing through his teeth and lifted his right hand to stroke Chaz's hair. Chaz suffered the touch uncomplaining. Or rather, permitted it, as the price of a few moments comforted and free from agony.

They sat together in silence, the Relative holding Chaz up, Chaz letting him bear the weight. For now, just for now.

The Relative took another breath, and Chaz felt the rise and fall of his chest, the vibration of his voice, the caress of his hand. Big hands, dry and capable, with callus on the fingertips that snagged in Chaz's hair.

If that diamond ring turns to brass,
Papa's gonna buy you a looking glass.
If that looking glass gets broke,
Papa's gonna buy you a billy goat--

One more day. Less than twenty-four hours. It was Tuesday. The team would come tonight. At the latest, tomorrow.

All he had to do was hold on.

Chaz opened his eyes to a room filled with bright, reflected light, the heat of the day rising through the stain of smoke. He had almost forgotten the smoke, the roses, the cheerful drone of toiling bees. But it was there waiting for him as soon as he lifted his head from the Relative's shoulder.

The Relative let him do it, still cradling him, holding Chaz comfortably hammocked in his arms. It might have been the light, tier upon tier of reflected light. It might have been dehydration, exhaustion, hunger. But as the gold flecks on the mirror tiles started crawling before his vision, Chaz realized that his head was swaying slightly, side to side with the Relative's singing.

Oh, God, Chaz thought. I'm breaking.

And the evening and the morning were the third day.

Continued tomorrow...