1.08 Refining Fire - by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Lau's dad and brothers were career Air Force. She'd grown up knowing what a Flying Fortress was. It always surprised her when she found herself thinking of the jet as one, with the initial caps lower-cased. But with the team huddled over documents, sharing information and synchronizing brains, the cabin seemed to enclose them in fragile strength. They were suspended between threat and threat, untouchable.
Now the cabin was flooded with the clear colorless light above the clouds, and they were here and huddled. And every one of them was moving and talking and thinking around the empty space where Chaz was supposed to be. They weren't untouchable anymore.
Settle down, girl. We're going to get in, find him, grab him, and get out. Nothing wounded but his pride. Yes, that sounded better. That was the public face.
She tossed Brady a bottle of water and joined him in the aisle. The seat back she leaned over was Todd's; Hafidha was beside him by the window. Across the table, Brady stood behind Reyes's rear aisle seat like a Secret Service agent behind the President. Falkner sat on the inward-facing couch, her legs stretched into the aisle. Worth pretended to be comfortable in the seat between Reyes and the window. Lau caught her eye and smiled, and jammed a section of hair behind her ear when it threatened to sweep Todd's scalp.
"Review," said Reyes. "What do we know going in?"
"We know a bunch of things that don't make sense." Hafidha drummed her fingers on the lid of her laptop. She sounded personally offended by the not-making-sense. "Chaz flew into DFW and transferred to an American Eagle flight to Tyler Pounds, for which he had a one-way ticket. He rented a car from Saturday through Monday, and apparently planned to return it at DFW and fly home from there. Instead, he returned the car to Tyler Pounds on Saturday night and vanished into thin air."
Reyes lowered his chin and fixed her with a grave dark stare. "So far the anomaly isn't that good."
Worth shuffled the printouts on the table. "Well, his return ticket out of DFW was never used. And no one saw him in Tyler, at check-in or the gate. There's no record of him taking another flight on either airline that flies out of there--at least, not using the Visa card Hafidha hacked into the rental car and airline reservation systems to find. And he never checked into any local hotel." She frowned and crumpled the corners of her mouth. Trying not to look scared, Lau thought.
"So we know he's not at the farm," Reyes said. "We know he's not at a hotel in Tyler--under his own name, anyway--and we know he didn't fly out of Tyler, again unless he used an assumed name. And he didn't drive out, unless he stole a car to do it."
"Why would he use an assumed name?" Brady objected. "Whatever Chaz meant to do, he didn't have to sneak around to do it."
Reyes looked down, just for an instant. But Lau saw a muscle go tight beside his mouth. That was a mistake, she thought. Why?
She asked, "Did the local field office get a positive I.D. from the rental agency?"
"Verbal description," Falkner said, shaking her head. "Unsolicited. But it matches Chaz. It's not like he's a... nondescript individual."
Brady frowned, and his chin came up like a listening animal's. "But you said he was going to the Kerrville Folk Festival. There's no point coming back to Tyler to do that; you're going three hours in the wrong direction. If you stick to the speed limit."
"Does Chaz stick to the speed limit?" Todd asked, wryly.
"Does Chaz believe that rules are anything other than arbitrary guidelines for people who don't know how to run a scam properly? So if I were him, I'd have driven on that night, maybe even made it to Kerrville. He's 25. Driving all night is still fun."
Todd shook his head. "There's no percentage in growing up."
"We'll have to go over some of the ground again when we get to the airport," Reyes said. Everyone knew what he meant; Dallas field office wasn't looking for the things Shadow Unit was.
"I'll talk to the guy at the rental agency," said Lau.
Reyes shot her a narrow-eyed look, and nodded. "Brady, back her up. Hafidha, widen the net on the records. Worth, Todd, establish contacts with law enforcement, emergency personnel, hospitals. Find out if anyone's seen him, and make sure if anyone does, they know who to tell."
"Dallas has arranged for a couple of vehicles when we get there," Falkner said.
"Four-wheel drive?" Brady's voice said, They'd better be.
"You Texas boys." Falkner smiled as if she'd forgotten she could do it. "At the suggestion of the Dallas field office, yes. Worth, copies of the photo?"
Worth nodded, pulled a thin sheaf of three-by-five glossy prints from her folder, and passed them out.
The image was cropped, Lau thought, from a larger picture. For once, Chaz wasn't mugging and didn't have his eyes closed. He stood against a background of sunlit gray rock. His smile was white in his tanned face; his eyebrows were a little lifted. He wore a faded black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, smudged with pale dust. The silkscreening on it, battered but still legible, read, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?"
Another dab of dust the size of a thumbprint marked his forehead off-center. His brown hair was tumbled by whatever he'd been doing; a lock clung to one of his preposterous cheekbones like a question mark. The resolution and the lighting were good enough to show his two-colored eyes: one brown, one hazel. Heterochromia, he said it was called.
Lau's throat ached. A recent photo, unposed. The real Chaz, not the driver's license version. Chaz had the worst driver's license photo she'd ever seen. No, this was the Chaz who would have been driving through Tyler County, happy, expecting a weekend of fun. How could he disappear? How could someone not have seen where he went?
Someone besides the person who'd made him disappear.
"We land in ten minutes," Falkner warned, stretching where she sat.
Lau went to the front seats, dropped into the one by the window, and buckled in. Brady slid into the seat next to her a moment later. His profile, perfect as Renaissance statuary, was sharp against the opposite window.
She opened her mouth to say something off-subject and innocuous. What came out was, "Chaz goes to music festivals?"
"He sings in the shower." He and Chaz shared a hotel room occasionally. "He's not half bad."
"I didn't know that."
"Well, there's plenty even we don't know about each other, isn't there?"
He turned to her. "We'll get him." He smiled. "We have to. I haven't got my licks in for that goddamn cockroach joke."
She laughed, as she knew she was supposed to. "He'll probably hate having to be rescued, so try to be the first guy through the door."
Chaz had secrets. Well, maybe not secrets in the usual sense--things one actively hid from others. But he had a life he didn't share with the team. Intellectually, she'd known he must. But hearing it now made him seem further away, gone out of reach, like a distant relative whose life comes into focus only at the funeral.
What Lau saw out the window as the jet came around for its landing at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport was a single strip of asphalt laid across sere brown grass, pine woods dusty and unwashed on either side of it. She pressed her forehead against the window for a better view. "It's tiny."
"We're not staying at the airport," Brady said. "They don't have a hotel. The closest place to sleep is a Holiday Inn."
"Welcome to Texas." She grinned.
"Humph." He leaned back in the seat. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."
The teasing should have been part of how they prepped for the case. Today it was cursory, strained. A hasty bulwark around the gnawing fear.
She picked at a flaking cuticle. "So, an assumed name?"
Brady shrugged. "I think Reyes is just covering bases."
Lau licked her lips and settled her shoulders into the seat. The tires touched, bounced; the plane juddered. She said, "An assumed name can cover a lot of other assumptions."
Brady nodded. "Got a hunch?"
"Brady, how would you make a man disappear?"
Brady followed Lau through the plate-glass and brick corridors of the terminal. It might be small, but it was modern and more beautiful than terminals had any right to be: precisely the opposite of what you'd paint for the set of a small regional airport. "Which agency?" he asked.
"Hertz." Lau pointed. "There are only four. I wonder how many employees this place has."
"Right time of day." Brady offered. "Maybe we'll get lucky."
There was only one customer at the counter, and they waited for him to finish his business and walk out front to wait for his rental before stepping up. It wasn't that they weren't in a hurry; it was that they were playing the game of looking unworried.
It was a different script.
The guy behind the counter was Caucasian, thin, sallow, in his mid-twenties with dishwater hair curling long around his ears. Pressed shirt, carefully tied tie. Wedding ring, but he perked up when Lau walked over. Well, heterosexual men did. Brady started taking bets with himself as to how long it would be before the counterman asked if she was Michelle Yeoh.
He crossed his arms, his coat binding across his shoulders. Too hot for Texas, but it made him look like a proper FBI agent. And Hollywood Bodyguard was one of the ones he could do.
Lau spoiled his fun by flashing her I.D. immediately. "I'm Special Agent Lau. This is Special Agent Brady. Were you on duty Friday night?"
The counterman shook his head, looking faintly disappointed. "Special Agent... Lau? Not me."
His accent did interesting things to Lau's vowels, and Brady winced in recognition. It had taken a certain amount of spit polish to get that out of his own voice. Sometimes he missed it.
And right now, he put it back on and said, "If you don't mind, we'd like to talk to whoever was."
Pretty girl and a big blond authority figure with a local accent: 20 percent increase in friendly cooperation.
"Is this about that guy? It was Dave Boswick who checked the car in. Do you want to come behind the counter? Dave's on break, but I can get him."
"Thank you," Lau said, and waited for Brady to lift the hinged countertop for her. They stepped through, and the rental agent showed them into an office behind the Venetian-blind-cut window in the back wall. "It'll be just a second. Thanks."
The door shut and Lau tipped her head at the computer. "Amazing what a badge will get you, huh?"
He said, "Do you suppose the guys at Homeland Security know about this?"
"Don't you dare tell them."
"Pinky swear," he said, quoting Hafidha. A hazard of the job. "You're onto something, Lau. Spill it. How would you make a man disappear?"
She shrugged. "Magic trick. There's two basic ways. You move one man from place to place, out of sight of the audience. Or--you use two people. Twins, or close enough to twins be mistaken for each other from the front row. The penny was never under the cup at all.
"What's odd is that Chaz apparently came to East Texas, did whatever he had to do here, returned his car to this particular airport car rental place--and vanished into thin air. And so if I were a magic trick, how would I do that?"
"You wouldn't be Chaz, is how." He blinked. "You are the queen of misdirection."
"Cha," she said. "Princess at best. My aunt was an Exotic Inscrutable Oriental Assistant to a stage magician, until she couldn't stand the high heels any longer. She taught me a few things."
"Like where to look for the trap door?"
Lau winked, and Brady pretended he didn't notice her hands jittering. Pretend you're cool, and you're cool. A technique used by cops and soldiers since time immemorial. "Right under where the lady vanishes."
As promised, they didn't wait long. Dave Boswick was also Caucasian, but older, balding, a little soft around the middle. He looked nervously from Brady to Lau as he paused in the doorway.
He nodded and stepped inside.
"I know you spoke with Special Agent Milner," Lau said. She reached into her breast pocket and slipped the glossy three-by-five into her palm. "We just have one or two more questions."
"Whatever you need."
"Did the car come back clean? Was there anything in it? Luggage? Anything in the glove box or trunk? Under any of the seats?"
"Nothing," he said. And then he laughed. "Snack food wrappers."
When Lau glanced over at Brady, he was already looking at her. She tucked her hair behind her ear. "What kind of snack food?"
"A Snickers wrapper. Bojangles chicken, a big box. Some hippie chow wrappers and empty coke bottles. Seemed like somebody ate four or five meals in the car, really."
Brady moved closer to Lau, so she'd feel the pressure of his body heat. She leaned toward him, an acknowledgement, and handed Boswick the palmed photo. "Is this the man who returned the car?"
"Mmm." To his credit, he examined it carefully. "Was that taken about twenty years ago?"
"Then noooo. But man." He shook his head. "You know, this guy here--is he black? I can't really tell from the photo."
Brady leaned forward. "The man who returned the car was African-American?"
"Well," Boswick said, holding the photo out, "He wasn't a white guy. And he was what you would call a memorable individual. Not just the way he looked. Really nice. One of the nicest customers I've ever had. Charming, you know. Funny."
Brady and Lau shared a glance. If anything, Chaz could seem cold and a little abrasive to strangers. "And it wasn't this guy?"
Boswick made an open-door gesture with his hands. "The guy I saw was darker. Older. Might be related, though."
"Has the car been rented out again?"
Boswick shook his head. "It was a Hyundai. They're not real popular with the locals. And the state cops impounded it."
"Thank you," Brady said, and took Lau's elbow. When they were clear of the ears, he said, "Chaz was in that car."
"Bojangles chicken," he said. "Every time we're south of the Mason-Dixon line, he's on the biscuits and dirty rice like--well."
"White on rice?"
"Dirty brownish-yellow, in this case. Lau, if the state patrol impounded the car, they have to have pulled the rental records. Let's find out how long the car was out and what the checkout and returned mileage was. It'll give us an outside limit to where he could have parted company with the vehicle, if he was off script."
"Right," she said, and moved far enough away from him to get him to release her.
"Sorry," he said, realizing his grip was tightening.
"It's nothing." She unholstered her cell, flipped it open. "Reyes, it's Lau. It wasn't Chaz who returned the rental car. I think we need to get a sketch artist down here to work with the witness. And I think we need to operate on the possibility that he never made it to Fred. Can we get the Stateys to start checking Bojangles chicken restaurants and convenience stores between here and there, and see if we can figure out which stretch of the Bermuda Triangle he might have vanished into? State patrol also impounded the rental car, if we can get forensics on it. No, that's all. No, it definitely wasn't Chaz. Maybe a relative, though. No, Brady and I are heading back now."
She stared at the phone after she hung it up, and frowned. "What?" Brady asked her.
"Reyes says Chaz is an orphan. No living relatives known."
Brady put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll find him."
"Yeah. But he's been missing more than 72 hours, Danny. And there's a lot of Texas to get lost in." She slid the phone away with a snap. "When we find him, what are we going to find?"
The airport had given them a room--a hastily cleared spare office, still inhabited by a photocopier, shelves of dog-eared manuals, and a coffee-stained table upon which rested a microwave. Hafidha had shoved it aside to clear a spot for her laptop; HafidhaWire was up and running.
Worth hunched over topo maps on the other end of the table. Todd was down the hall with the witness and the sketch artist. Reyes was, as far as anyone knew, out walking up and down in the world.
Falkner paced the room, telling herself that it encouraged thinking. Since there was damned little she could do at present except think, there was no comfort in it for anything except her back.
"Excuse me. Agents?" The airport security supervisor leaned into the room. "There's a state trooper here says he's responding to your request for information. About your agent."
Falkner stopped, and felt Hafidha and Worth intent behind her. "Send him in."
He was young, sunburnt, blond, uniformed, and nervous. "I'm Special Agent Falkner," she said.
Brady and Lau came in as the Statey said, "Trooper Jameson, ma'am. Agent."
"What can you tell us?"
"I had time off, or I'd've been here sooner. Long weekend and all. But I stopped a guy on Saturday afternoon, in a rental, who had FBI credentials."
Lau stepped forward and showed him the photo she'd taken to the car rental agency. "Is this the man?"
The trooper nodded. "Yes, ma'am, that was him. Stopped him on 92 a little past Spurger, southbound."
"You're sure?" Falkner asked.
The trooper turned the photo up to the light. "Dead certain. He had these freaky eyes."
"Freaky?" Brady leaned over Falkner's shoulder. "Like a sheepdog?"
The trooper blinked. "Mismatched, yeah." He touched the photo beside Chaz's hazel eye.
A good trooper spotted tiny details in a traffic stop. Falkner caught Lau's and Brady's eyes. They both shook their heads. The car rental agent hadn't mentioned that.
"There's no record in your log," Falkner said. Hafidha would have found Chaz's name in the system.
"No, ma'am." The trooper shifted his feet. "I didn't ticket him. Just a verbal warning."
"How fast was he going?" The young man blushed all the way up to his crows-feet, and Falkner took pity on him. "He's law enforcement. I know how it goes."
"Well, and he nearly got himself shot. He had his sidearm on the passenger's seat--"
Brady rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that was Chaz."
A very good trooper remembered details even after the adrenaline rush that came from spotting a gun during a routine stop. Note to self: Commendation to Jameson in report.
"Was he alone in the car?" Falkner asked.
Lau took the trooper aside to squeeze more out of him. Falkner turned to Brady. "You and Lau go to the impound lot and see if the car will tell us anything."
"There's got to be some way we can speed this up--"
"Several, and we're doing them all. Go."
She hoped they were doing them. She hoped Reyes was thinking of a dozen more. Where the hell was he, anyway? Almost as soon as she thought it, the door swung open on a limited arc. Four knotty brown fingers burled around the edge, and Reyes' face poked through the crack.
He said, "If you've just returned somebody else's rental car, how do you get back home?"
"Somebody picks you up," Falkner answered promptly. "Or, okay, taxi. Greyhound. Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't too proud to take the bus. So we assume he had an accomplice?"
Reyes shook his head. "We don't assume. But as a precaution, let's pull passenger lists on any late flights on Friday. The Hertz closes at ten thirty. The last flight probably gets in not too long before that, wouldn't you say?"
"On it," Hafidha said, without otherwise acknowledging Reyes' presence. "Bingo. There's a Continental flight that gets in at 10:15. It's a turboprop, so figure depending on what equipment is available, thirty passengers tops?"
"Find them," Reyes said. Someone cleared a throat behind him, and he stood aside to let Todd into the room.
"You know," Todd said, "there's an old Irish curse about being stuck forever on the threshold, one foot in the house and one out."
"Sorry." Reyes stepped inside the door and let it shut, sealing the agents in. "You have the sketch?"
Todd held it out, and Reyes glanced. He was by habit impassive, but despite dark irises, Falkner saw his pupils dilate. A muscle in his forehead jumped. "Hafidha, cross-reference the name 'Villette' to that inbound passenger list."
"Excuse me?" This time she did look up, one hand darting to the number two pencil tucked into her cord-thin braids. She whipped it out and they tumbled around her shoulders, releasing a scent of cocoa butter, but she didn't reach for a pad. Instead, she tucked the eraser between her teeth and bit down on the metal band.
Silently, Todd turned the sketch around. Falkner had thought she was prepared for it, just based on Reyes' reaction. But she had to blink twice to believe the evidence of her eyes, and judging by the crinkling of maps, so did Worth. "That's Chaz."
"It's Chaz in twenty years, maybe," Todd said. "The witness is adamant; we're looking for a polite, soft-spoken man in his late forties or early fifties. Who happens to bear a creepy resemblance to our missing agent."
Hafidha's laptop chimed twice, the second alert overlapping the first. "I have the mileage records on the car. Chaz, or the UNSUB, put three hundred and forty-three miles on the vehicle in a little over eight hours. Oh, and two more charges just hit his Visa card. Damn long weekends."
"Charges?" Reyes crossed to lean over Hafidha's shoulder. She scooted to the side before Falkner could interpose herself, and shot Falkner an eyeroll over Reyes' back.
Hafidha leaned in, reached under Reyes's chest, and pointed. "A Bojangles in Lufkin, and a non-franchise gas station in Fred."
Todd said, "Fred is a place?"
She nodded. The liquid crystal display rippled where she poked it with her finger. "Fred is where Chaz's grandparents' house is. Well, nearest place with a name. It's right next to Warren. Towns doubtless named after the sole occupants."
"So he made it that far," Todd said. "Or somebody using his credit cards did."
"The records are black and white," Hafidha said, with confidence. "It was Chaz. Or it wasn't a gamma, anyway."
Something about the look Reyes gave Hafidha made Falkner's stomach turn over. Stephen, what aren't you telling us?
"So he made it where he was going. We need to get to that house to see if there's a trail to pick up."
"We need to walk through fire, then," Worth said, and Falkner didn't even need to look for it to notice Todd blanching. Worth smoothed her maps significantly. "I'm not even sure we can get a chopper in there. Half the county is burning, and all the roads are closed."
"What are the odds," Todd said, "that an anomalous fire is unconnected to the disappearance of a WTF agent in the same grid?"
Reyes gave Todd The Look. "It's his fire."
"As much as fire belongs to anyone."
"Hafidha," Reyes said, "pull arrest records for anybody named Villette in Tyler County, would you? Take it back thirty years."
"On it, chief." Her fingers were already flying. Falkner wondered how much of that she needed, or if the typing was only a kindness to her audience. "This may take a while and some phone calls. Rural Texas, I don't know how much of the old stuff has been computerized."
"He may be related, and not named Villette," Falkner warned.
Reyes nodded. "We'll start with that."
"Todd, Worth, help her with the phone calls," Falkner said. "Reyes, a word?"
Out in the hallway, he turned to face her. She lowered her voice. "Stephen, you're worried about more than you're sharing."
"Just a gitchy feeling," he said. "Look, I've been wrong before. But when we find Chaz, we need to be prepared for anything."
"Prepared for the worst," she said, thinking, We are. But as long as there's a chance he's alive, we can't give up on him either. There are no fates worse than death.
"God," he said fervently. "I hope not."
When Falkner walked back into the room, Todd was closing his phone. "Falkner, what was Chaz's father's name? Hafidha can't find it in the system."
"Nobody knows," Falkner said. She closed her eyes. Victimology was important; it had no respect for personal dignity; and she had read Chaz's personnel file, his dossier, and the results of his background check. "It's blank on the birth certificate. His mother was a... sex trade worker."
Todd, Worth, and Hafidha shared a look that made Falkner's heart sink into her size eight-and-a-half Nine West loafers.
"There's a William Villette who was arrested twice for sexual assault," Hafidha said. "Never prosecuted. Last known address is the same as Chaz's grandparents."
"So Adeline Villette is a married name?"
"No marriage certificate on file. William's his uncle."
"Family feud?" Worth supplied. "The family disinherits the black sheep son, who lies in wait for the prodigal grandchild when he returns to claim his inheritance? And the black sheep son happens to be a gamma?"
"We're assuming he's a gamma?" Reyes, eyebrows climbing.
Hafidha made a finger go bang at her screen. "The fire is anomalous. And something was going on with the rental return."
"The anomaly might run in families," Todd said. "We don't know. Somebody around here is a gamma. Smart money says it's whatever happened to Chaz."
"East Texas Gothic, hello."
Falkner held up a hand. "Why wasn't he prosecuted?"
Another shared glance. "The victims dropped charges," Todd said. "Falkner, if this is about an inheritance--"
"I know," she said. "Don't say it."
If this is about an inheritance, William Villette has no reason on earth to keep Chaz alive.
She cleared her throat. "Worth, you and Todd get on the road. I want you to interview the victims. Hafidha, when Brady and Lau get back, the three of you start on the victimology. If he's a serial offender, there are more victims out there. Maybe they were too scared to come forward. Maybe they never managed to identify their attacker. But they're out there, and we need them."
Chaz slept in the afternoon and dozed away most of the evening, with the unhappy result that in his fourth night of captivity he rested very little. He huddled in his blanket, listening to the growl of his stomach, popping fleas between his fingernails when he could catch them and wondering if he dared call the Relative from the bedroom to beg him for food. Finally, before dawn, he managed to sleep a little, and with the sunlight awoke determined.
Today. They'll come today. They have to.
The Relative took Chaz's blanket and gave him water and the toilet bucket, then broke his own fast with two cans of pork and beans spooned cold onto half a loaf of white bread. He washed it down with salad oil gulped straight from the bottle.
Chaz, light-headed, hands shaking with hunger, tried not to watch. If the Relative fed him, it would likely be only more granola bars and water. And Chaz would be grateful, properly thankful, though it wouldn't make up for the day with nothing or win him much ground for this one. Four steak dinners, he amended. Extra sour cream on the potatoes. And a pint of Chunky Monkey, and a pint of Peanut Butter Cup. He'd opined once to Hafidha that Ben & Jerry's was run by friendly secretive betas intent on providing tasty high-calorie foods to their brethren. The more he considered it, the likelier it seemed.
He could use a few friendly secretive betas right now. Maybe they had a strike force. The Ice Cream Strike Force, delivering much-needed food to starving genetic freaks the world over.
Chaz. You're raving.
He gulped, and tucked his knees up between his arms. It pressed the U-bends of the manacles into his sores, but the pain was distant, somewhere on the other side of the haze of dissociation and lightheaded hunger. He needed real food, and soon, or his overclocked brain was going to devour his body to keep itself functioning. And the brain needed glucose, which it wasn't going to get from burning muscle tissue without some complicated metabolic processes.
No breakfast was forthcoming.
When the Relative came to give him his shot, Chaz was already lying on his side, knees drawn up, arms extended like a dreaming dog's forelegs, using his right biceps for a pillow. He didn't stir, didn't even open his eyes while the Relative busied himself with tubing and needle.
"Wake up, angel," the Relative whispered, holding his thumb over the pinprick so the wound would seal, after.
Chaz opened his eyes. "Please," he said, voice cracking. "I'm hungry."
"Just let go of the flesh," the Relative said. "Let yourself be purified, and the Lord will deliver you from all pain and suffering. This hurts me more than it hurts you, baby boy, but you are stubborn."
"I want to," Chaz said. He lifted his head, and the Relative helped him to sit crosslegged, steadying him with a hand on his shoulder when he swayed. "I want to be purified. I want to help you. But I can't do that if I die. Sir, please. I know you want to save me. I know you want me to be strong."
The Relative knelt before him. Chaz faltered to a stop when he reached out and touched Chaz's cheek, tilting Chaz's head back gently so their eyes met and locked. Chaz thought, earnestness, openness, honesty. I am a blank slate. I am an open book. Tabula rasa. Please, please, please see me that way.
The Relative smiled, a hopeful little smile, and tucked Chaz's filthy hair behind his ear. "Papa believes in you, baby boy. Papa knows you can be anything you want to. Papa knows you want to make him happy."
"I do," said Chaz. "I want to make you proud, sir."
Chaz felt the Relative's concern, his love and worry. "Oh, angel. I am proud. I've been pushing you too fast, sweetheart. I'm sorry. I know you're doing your best."
"Please. May I have something to eat?"
"Wait here," the Relative said, as if Chaz had any choice in the matter. "I'll bring you some food."
Chaz, his back to the smoke-stained morning brightness of the west-facing windows, closed his eyes and waited. He was learning. This was a lesson in patience, and it would be rewarded. This was his last day of durance. He would make it.
The Relative was banging around in the kitchen, and in a moment the smell of food permeated the air. The Relative was cooking for him.
Chaz's mom hadn't cooked much. Mrs. Korolenko cooked, and Chaz learned a lot from watching her. And Chaz's mom would pack him school lunches and so on, and when she wasn't working they had a regular scam they'd run. She'd scout for places that had those guess-the-number-of-objects-in-the-jar-and-win-a-free-dinner-for-two promotions. Chaz would guess--not that it was really guessing; something squishy and irregular, like Gummi Bears, could fool him a little, but if it was marbles or jelly beans or Life Savers, there was only one way they could go into the jar--and his mom would fill out the form. 'Cause you must be 18 to enter.
It still bugged him a little when he saw one. He didn't enter anymore.
It just bugged him.
The Relative was coming back. Chaz opened his eyes and looked up at him, saw him settling down with something balanced on a piece of paper towel across his wide-spread hand. The smell made Chaz's stomach twist. Slowly, he told himself. Eat slowly, or it'll just come back up. Not that there was any chance of the Relative letting Chaz decide how he was going to eat anything, but it was comforting to chant advice.
The food was canned pork and beans, heated on white bread with orange fake cheese melted between the slices. Three sandwiches, soggy and dripping as the Relative tore bits from them and tucked them into Chaz's mouth. Chaz chewed slowly, judging the Relative's patience, retarding the process as much as he could bear.
"Did Addy ever feed you, baby boy?" the Relative said, when Chaz had--bite by bite--eaten the first sandwich. "Or did she give you up so young you don't know?"
"She didn't cook, I don't think," Chaz said. "I don't really remember." He looked hopefully at the remaining sandwiches, but the Relative seemed to have forgotten them.
He frowned at Chaz. "You don't remember much, do you?"
"She died when I was only little." Chaz winced as he heard his own words. It was a child's phrasing. "I do remember one thing she told me."
"Tell me," the Relative said, his expression sparking with interest.
It would have to be the truth. He was too tired to remember complicated lies. "She told me to remember that Jesus loved everybody, no matter how common, even lepers and prostitutes and the poor. That he loved Mary Magdalene and stood up for her just like he stood up for all the folks that had it hard."
What Chaz didn't say was that it was how he honored her memory, the only way he had ever had of doing so. He might not believe in God, but he could be like Jesus in one way. He didn't have to judge.
"Well," said the Relative, "you're in your father's house now, baby boy. And when you're like me, you'll realize that God's vengeance on those that don't repent their sins is terrible and sure. Addy might hide behind Mary Magdalene, but the fact is she was a whore, and she paid for her sins."
Chaz licked his lips, felt something flare in him, and tried to fight it down. A show of spirit would get him nothing now. He only had to stay alive. Less than a day. Any minute now.
But his mother had saved him from the monster, and he wasn't going to let the monster have her in his place. He glared up through his hair. "It's my house."
A flare of projected righteous wrath almost took Chaz's breath away, but the Relative looked at the sandwiches in his hand and broke a piece off the second one. It dripped glossy red sauce onto the paper towel. Chaz's mouth watered. "It should have come to me," he said. "If they hadn't always taken her side in everything. It's your father's house, baby boy. Don't you defy me."
I'm the one who pays for it, Chaz thought, but had sense enough to open his mouth for the piece of sandwich, and keep the words out of the way. He'd finally caught on, and couldn't believe how long it had taken him. When the Relative said angel, what he meant was monster. He was trying to force Chaz to convert, to turn him into a gamma. He just didn't have the same words for it that Chaz did.
And Chaz was terribly afraid that he was succeeding.
His stomach was shrinking. He couldn't manage all three sandwiches. But afterwards, the Relative brought the water bucket, and gave Chaz to drink, one handful at a time. Chaz thought he had forgotten the taste of water that didn't come cupped in another man's hands.
When he finished, the Relative stoked his hair back with wet hands. "Papa has to go out for a little," he said. "Don't worry, angel. Papa won't betray your faith. I'll be home before you know it."
That's what I'm afraid of, he thought.
And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.