1.08 Refining Fire - by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Falkner stood just behind Reyes's shoulder on the front porch of the neat split-level while he rang the doorbell. She watched the window curtains, the shrubbery, the end of the garage, listened for tires, car doors. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, an interview was just an interview. But there was always that one. You thought you were interviewing a witness, and you walked in on the UNSUB, the partner, the accomplice, and got your head handed to you.
She couldn't draw her gun, but she damned well knew how far it was from her hand.
The door opened inward on a pretty, pregnant blonde, probably just past thirty. "Yeah?"
Reyes showed his I.D. and smiled at her. "FBI, ma'am. We're here to speak to Mr. Spaulding about a man he gave a ride--"
"Oh. Jimmy said you were coming." She swung the door wide and nodded them in. "Jimmy! It's the--the FBI."
Falkner suppressed a wry smile. No, nobody ever felt quite comfortable saying that.
James Spaulding trotted down the short flight of stairs from the bedroom level. He was soft and round-faced and smiling uncertainly.
Reyes smiled back, the smile that said this was all routine, even amusing, it would turn out to be nothing and certainly nothing that would ever trouble the Spauldings again. Spaulding visibly relaxed. "Special Agent Reyes, and this is Special Agent Falkner."
Falkner showed her I.D. and shook Spaulding's hand. Also soft, a little damp, smaller than hers.
"Come on into the den," Spaulding said.
"Would y'all like some sweet tea?" Ms. Spaulding asked, half-turned toward the kitchen.
"Thank you, ma'am, yes."
People who accept hospitality are guests. Guests are safe to talk to. Not for the first time, Falkner wondered if Reyes even had to think about this part anymore.
Spaulding's den had a brown plush La-Z-Boy which he perched on the front of, an armchair where Falkner sat and didn't lean back, and a leather couch. It backed up to the wall, so she left it for Reyes.
"Mr. Spaulding," Falkner said, "on Saturday night you flew into Tyler Pounds at 10:15 p.m." They knew that; Hafidha had gotten the basics from him over the phone. But it sped things up if she started him in the right place. She pitched her voice for warm, interested. I-really-appreciate-this. "How did you meet the man you gave a ride to?"
"He came up to me in the parking lot. I was getting my car."
"Had you seen him before?"
"Did he tell you his name?"
Spaulding thought. "I could have sworn... But you know, I guess not."
Ms. Spaulding came in with iced tea. "Anything else you need?"
Falkner did the smile this time. "No, thank you, ma'am. It's very kind of you." It was called sweet tea in the south with reason, but this batch wasn't oppressively so. She waited until Ms. Spaulding left the room to ask, "What did he say when he came up to you?"
"Well, he asked me for a ride."
"And you agreed," Reyes said.
Spaulding frowned, blinked, shook his head. "I guess that wasn't too smart. But you could tell he was all right. There's just some people you know right away."
Falkner thought of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy and reminded herself that lecturing the witness wasn't on the agenda. "Where did he want you to take him?"
"It wasn't very far. Just a lift. You know."
"Where, Mr. Spaulding?" Reyes pressed.
"Oh, just... I guess it was pretty far. Didn't seem like it, really-- Huh. It was all the way down past Fred, and then out the county road. Ginny was mad as hell when I got home."
Reyes pulled a county map out of his inside pocket and laid it on the coffee table. "Can you show us where?"
Spaulding traced roads on the map. His finger slid slower the further it went, as if he was waiting for reality to catch up with his memory of the events. He scratched his hands through his hair. "Hell, it was hours. I guess..." He looked up, hopeful, as if Reyes and Falkner could explain him to himself. "He was mighty good company. But it was awfully far."
Spaulding seemed disoriented. No, as if he had been confused, as if he were coming out from under anaesthetic.
"Did you have a drink?" Reyes asked abruptly. "Smoke a joint? Eat anything with him?"
"Of course not!"
"Mr. Spaulding, we're not the Highway Patrol," Falkner said, soothing. "We're not going to report you for DUI. But we do need to know everything that happened while you were with this man."
"Nothing like that." But Spaulding was nervous. Falkner had a good idea why; he was wondering if there had been something, and if it was possible he wouldn't remember. Rohypnol worked on men, too.
"And the place you dropped him off--was there a building?"
"Sure. Farm right out at the end of the dirt road." Spaulding shook his head. "How the hell did he get to the airport? I didn't even think..." Falkner could see the fear growing in him.
"That was the only place you went?"
"Yeah--oh! No, first we stopped at the Albertson's outside town. He needed groceries."
She and Reyes exchanged another look. "Groceries."
"Stocking up, by the looks. Said he had his kid staying with him. Damn, I'm glad I'm not having to eat crap like that. Pardon," Spaulding said, an aside to Falkner.
"Like what?" asked Reyes.
"Store-brand junk. Three, four loaves of white bread. Couple jars of peanut butter. Cans of pork 'n' beans. Margarine. Condensed milk. Packages of hot dogs, the cheap ones. I told him he could go ahead and get better, but he said what he had was fine."
Falkner leaned forward, ignored the twinge that went across her back. "I'm sorry. You told him--"
"I had plenty of cash on me, he didn't have to get the cheapest."
"You paid for the groceries?" Reyes asked.
Spaulding's mouth opened. Nothing came out. His eyes widened; he seemed to collapse into himself in a way a man his age ought not to be able to do. "I did," he whispered. "Jesus, I did."
Falkner unfolded the sketch of the man the Hertz employee had described. "Is this the man you gave a ride to?"
Spaulding looked, nodded. "Jesus. What's he done? What did he do to me?"
"It's all right, Mr. Spaulding. You'll be fine now." Except for not trusting strangers for a while. Maybe not such a bad thing.
He was already calmer by the time he showed them to the door. Falkner had her phone out as soon as they left the house. "He makes people trust him."
Reyes's mouth was a hard line. "Or Spaulding is a damned easy mark. Or was drugged, somehow, but it doesn't sound like it."
"It could explain why Villette wasn't prosecuted for the rapes." Falkner swallowed, and speed-dialed Hafidha, and knew she hadn't hidden the reaction from Reyes.
"Gimme some work, Es," said Hafidha's voice in Falkner's ear.
"The house Chaz inherited. It's at the end of County Road 4643?"
"That's where Spaulding dropped Villette off."
A moment of silence. "I'll get a liaison with the firefighters."
Falkner snapped the phone closed.
Reyes opened the door of the field office's black GMC Yukon. "He told Spaulding he had his kid staying with him."
"Might have been justifying the quantity of groceries."
"He didn't need to. You heard Spaulding; he wasn't questioning anything."
"You think we're looking at a father-son team? Father-daughter?"
"Call Hafidha back. Tell her to find out if William Villette has children." His hands clenched on the steering wheel.
The intersection with Highway 225 was marked with the name of the town to the north: Looneyville. Chaz would have broken out in Coyote and Roadrunner jokes. Worth was glad they were going east to Nacogdotches instead.
"I hate this," she said.
Todd glanced away from the road. Light bounced off the rearview mirror and across his glasses. "You've interviewed rape victims before."
"No, it's not that. I mean, I hate that, too. No, it's Chaz. If he'd wanted us to know about his mother, he'd have told us."
"Maybe he thought it wasn't important."
"It wasn't. Now it is. But he doesn't have any say in it. It feels like... picking locks."
Todd raised one shoulder. Given his size, it wasn't the grand gesture it would be with Brady, but it was pretty articulate, even so. "Victimology always does."
"Yeah, but I don't have to see the victims at work every day afterwards."
And she might not get to see this one, either.
"Shit," she declared.
After a moment, Todd said, "Yeah."
Sometimes it was annoying as hell to work with profilers. Sometimes it saved a lot of words.
Worth had started it, so it was her responsibility to get them out of it. "And why are you driving?"
"I've been doing it for an hour and a half. You just noticed? I got to the driver's side door first, that's why."
Worth shook her head. "What's that quote about age and guile?"
Todd grinned at the view out the windshield. "Works every time."
The address they wanted was a fifteen-year-old brick-faced single-story with a lawn and begonias and a security service sign beside the front step. Worth rang the bell. She could feel Todd being unthreatening behind her, a small, bespectacled, middle-aged man. The crime was several years old, but PTSD couldn't read calendars.
A shadow passed behind the peephole (so few suburban homes had them), and a moment later, the deadbolt shifted. The door opened on a security chain.
Good for you, Worth thought. Don't let them convince you you're paranoid.
She couldn't tell much about the woman on the other side of the door. "Shelly Keyser? Agent Daphne Worth, FBI. This is Agent Todd. Agent Gates said you'd speak with us about what happened to you."
"I told the police everything." Her voice was pitched low, and hoarse. "When it happened."
She'd had two hours to think about what she'd agreed to. "Yes, ma'am. But we still need your help. Please. May we come in?"
A sharp intake of breath, an exhale. "Let me see your I.D."
Worth handed over her folder, and passed Todd's in too. A moment passed. The door closed and the chain rattled loose.
Shelly Keyser was taller than Worth and nervous-thin. Her long brown hair hung in a French braid to her shoulder blades, and her brown eyes were wide-open, her gaze hitting Worth's face, Todd's, bouncing off like a Superball. She looked younger than her age, which from the police report was 28.
Her living room was clean and carefully decorated, without surprises. She waved Worth and Todd to the couch and perched on the edge of a painted wicker chair like a hummingbird settling on a twig. "Of course I'll help," she said. Worth was reminded of Chaz in Hafidha's office, saying he couldn't do Tyler County. Everything Keyser said seemed to have twice as many syllables as Worth was used to. "But I try not to think about it. To be in the past. I got counseling after, afterward, and you know, it helped a lot. That's one of the things I learned." Keyser rubbed her palms down the thighs of her jeans.
Todd leaned forward. "Ms. Keyser--"
"Mrs." Keyser smiled. "Dave and I got married right out of college."
He nodded. "Mrs. Keyser. We're investigating the disappearance of one of our agents. We think the man who was charged with attacking you may be involved."
The hummingbird left the branch. Worth was half-prepared for it, but only half. Keyser paced to the other end of the room and stood at the picture window, staring through the partly-open blinds and the sheer curtains between them.
"Why do you think so?"
Curious question, Worth thought.
"We'd like to make sure," Todd said. He was doing his shapeshifter trick, letting his shoulders slope and his eyebrows lift, blinking his indeterminately blue eyes behind his glasses. He looked more like a fingerprint tech than a field agent. Your secret is safe with me. Awfully good trick for a guy who used to make his living publishing secrets. He opened the folder he'd brought in under his arm. "I have a sketch of the man we suspect. Would you look at it? See if it's the man who attacked you?"
Keyser paused long enough that Worth thought she'd refuse. Then she nodded sharply and walked back to stand in front of the couch. Todd held out the sketch. Her eyes clenched shut, and she turned away. "Yes."
Todd caught Worth's eye. The handoff. Worth nodded. "Mrs. Keyser. Why did you drop the charges against him?"
All the nervous motion that had characterized Shelly Keyser disappeared. At last she said, "I wasn't sure..."
"You identified him without hesitation, even this long after the attack. Did he threaten you? Were you afraid he'd retaliate?"
Keyser looked over her shoulder, white-faced, her eyes flitting from Worth to Todd.
Todd curled his hands over his knees, braced. "Mrs. Keyser, might I use your bathroom?"
She met his eyes and looked down. My God, Worth thought. She knows what he's doing. And she's ashamed he has to do it for her sake. Somewhere under all the flutter was an entirely different woman. "It's down the hall." Keyser pointed with her head, not looking up. "Second door on the right."
"Thank you." Todd levered himself up and went down the hall, careful not to look at Worth. He trusted her to get the statement, to catch everything. She hoped he was right.
"Mrs. Keyser," Worth began.
"I work in my church," Keyser said abruptly. "I volunteer at the food bank. I love my husband and my parents. I forgive people. I pray every day. I am a good person."
"I... believe you are."
Keyser shook her head and looked down at her hands. "After--the police asked me, 'Did you fight back?' I saw the nurse look at my hands, and the way her face-- I couldn't testify. I knew they'd ask that. And I'd have to tell the truth."
"Mrs. Keyser, a lot of rape victims don't fight back. They're too frightened, or they think they'll be hurt worse if they do. It doesn't mean they weren't raped."
Keyser flung her head back and took a hard, sharp breath, like a drowning person whose face breaks water for what might be the last time. "He told me I deserved it. He told me it was God's punishment, because I was disobedient to His will."
"To your attacker's--"
"No. To God's will. And it was as if... what was happening didn't matter to him, as if he was just following orders. He was so calm, the whole time." Her words stumbled over the air in and out of her lungs. "And I knew he was right. I deserved it." She started to cough--no, it was crying, and she was fighting it.
"No one deserves that."
"They said that in the hospital. The police officer said it. My therapist-- But you don't understand. I knew. All I could think about was how I'd been wrong. I could feel how angry God was, how He would never forgive me. It was my own fault."
Rape victims sometimes blamed themselves. Trauma survivors sometimes lost their faith.
This was something else.
"When-- Mrs. Keyser, I'm sorry to do this, but I need you to remember. When did you feel that way?"
Keyser shook her head.
"Was it before he raped you, or after?"
Keyser wiped her eyes, rough and angry. "I was... I was unlocking the car. I'm always careful, in parking lots. I saw him. I saw him, and I wasn't scared, I let him walk right up to me, and that was when I knew I was wrong, and sinful, and this was my punishment."
Keyser subsided onto the chair, her eyes closed.
I can't fix this. I can't tell her he made her think those things. Why would she believe it?
But the things that had filled Shelly Keyser's head, that she couldn't get away from, belonged to her attacker. Worth was sure of it.
Cathy Aronofsky, in Lufkin, told them the same story. She told it angrily, with a different coda: she no longer believed in God, or went to church. But the conviction she was being punished for the sins of pride and disobedience had kept her helpless during her rape, and kept her from pressing charges.
Her rapist was stern, aloof. He'd called himself God's messenger. And he was definitely William Villette.
Back at the Yukon, Todd leaned on the fender. "Want to drive?"
"I want a shower. Maybe three. No, you drive while I call in."
"Do I need to mention that Cathy Aronofsky and Shelly Keyser are both tall, slender, dark-eyed, and dark-haired?"
Todd raised both eyebrows. "Do we believe in that now?"
"Ugh." She slumped in the passenger seat. "He made them complicit in their own damned rapes, Sol."
"No, he didn't." His voice was uncommonly sharp. When she looked, so was his face. "He made them think they were. It's just another kind of force and coercion. They had no choice."
It bothers him even more than it does me. "He took away the victim's last refuge." Because after the crime, it was possible to say, "I didn't make it happen," and start rebuilding life from there.
If Chaz was still alive--
"...Then what's happening to him?" muttered Todd.
Worth glared at him. "I preferred not to say it out loud."
"Use your indoor-thinking voice, then." He smiled thinly and started the car. He seemed to be focused on merging into traffic. But he broke the silence with, "Dibs on telling Chaz about the Phoenix landing."
"On Mars. He'll want to know."
Because he'll be alive. And well. He'll want to know. Her breath tried to stutter in her tight throat. But she swallowed, blinked the sting out of her eyes. "You'll have to arm-wrestle Hafidha for it."
Back in the old days, profilers worked solo. It would be horrible to be alone with this. Worth thumbed her phone keypad.
"Geez, I thought we'd lost you, too," Hafidha said. She sounded as if she meant it. "Where are you?"
"Good. Don't come back."
"We'll meet you at the county sheriff's in Woodville. We're shifting ICP to follow the evidence. What've you got so far?"
"Both rape victims were under the influence of some kind of emotional projection." Worth's voice sounded flat and tired in her own ears.
"Yeah, so was the guy who gave our freak a ride from the airport. Want the bad news?"
"You mean that wasn't it?"
"Uh-uh. Bad number one: We think your two victims are the tip of the proverbial iceberg."
It made a certain stomach-churning sense. "There's a two?"
"The fire just jumped the fireline." A little pause, and Hafidha went on, her voice tight. "And the firefighters found a body in the burn area."
Lau and Hafidha, correlating records from the surrounding hospitals and police jurisdictions, had found twelve cases: women who'd come to the emergency room evidently raped, but refusing to call it that, refusing to identify an attacker or press charges. None of them had defensive wounds. The dates of their emergency room admissions were randomly spaced over the past year.
"Get the sketch to local law enforcement," Falkner ordered Lau. "Ask them to find the victims and see if they recognize him."
"On it." Lau nodded once, briskly, and darted off down the hall to make Tyler County's finest jump through hoops. And like it, too.
The best in the world, this team. The best had to be enough. Falkner swallowed two ibuprofen and half her bottled water.
"Head, or back?" Reyes asked from behind her.
"Both. I wonder if I'd feel better if I didn't have daughters."
He was perched on the edge of a counter in the county sheriff's briefing room, reading the rape victims' records, shuffling from one to the other. "Want me to answer that?"
He dropped the pile of paper on his knee, abrupt and graceless. "Chaz is a lot better at this."
It made her insides clench. "I didn't want you to say that, either."
"Why should I suffer alone?" He tapped the records. "Todd's right. He hunts a very specific physical type. Geographically, he seems to operate within about two hundred miles of here in any direction. If we can reinterview these new victims, we might get a better sense of his script. But I'm going to guess, based on the victimology so far, that he hunts more often than he attacks. When something triggers him, he seeks out someone who fits his parameters. He doesn't settle. That has to take a while."
"He's patient. Focused. In control."
"All the victims are from within the past year. When did Chaz's grandmother die?"
"A little over a year ago. It took the lawyers a while to track him down."
A muscle jumped in Reyes's cheek. "He didn't live here. He came back after they died. I wonder where he was before that?"
Reyes was talking about William Villette. The predator, the hunter, was under his skin again. Everything was about prey. Anything else was just tracks to follow, even Chaz. Falkner shivered.
Chaz had given up this trip. They'd caught a case, worked it hard all Friday, were prepared to do the same on Saturday. But Falkner knew how much Chaz had wanted this long weekend.
So when he came in on Saturday morning, she'd said, "You. Go to Texas." He'd missed his Friday flight; Falkner told Hafidha to find him another.
Chaz would be safe in D.C. if Falkner hadn't made him go.
Brady appeared in the doorway, his chest rising, falling. "The coroner says the body the firefighters found was five foot eleven."
Falkner's legs threatened to give way; she groped for a chair. It was Reyes who slid one behind her knees, and she dropped onto it. You didn't say "thank God." It was still a grief to someone. But not to us, thank God. Not to us.
Brady puffed out air, and said, "He also says the corpse had a disposable lighter in his right hand."
Falkner tensed. Reyes did, too, like a cat at a movement in the grass. She said it aloud, for Brady's benefit. "He projects to control his victims."
"And they'll die to protect him, if he puts it into their heads." Reyes's voice was harsh. "I said it was his fire."
"If I've got Chaz, I've got his wallet and I.D.," Brady said. "I know who's going to come for him. Either I move him someplace harder to find--or I block access."
So manipulating the fire could be a hopeful sign. Falkner turned to Brady. "We need to talk to the firefighters."
He nodded, remarkably like Lau. "I've got the name and number of the captain in charge. He'll meet me at their base camp."
"Go with Brady," Reyes told her. "Before you start dismantling the furniture."
Yes, he was damned good at his job.
She stood up and grabbed her coat from the hook by the door. Brady barely had time to get out of her way.
Outside it was deep twilight. She stopped with her hand on the driver's side door latch of the SUV.
"What?" Brady asked.
Until he asked, she didn't know herself. Then she registered the faint winter-night smell of woodsmoke, and the air that made the trees mutter like an angry crowd.
"The wind's rising," she said, and watched comprehension dawn.
The Relative hadn't returned by nightfall. Nor had he left Chaz a blanket, and as the darkness rolled down the sky behind the roses, Chaz began to shiver. He drew his knees up, thinking about his list.
It was the best day of his captivity yet. He was hungry again, but he'd had at least one square meal, and he felt stronger for it. He had the energy to shoo the buzzing flies from the sores on his wrists. Maggots; he should put that on the list, but he was too tired to think about it very hard. Instead, he leaned forward and chafed the insect bites on his ankles with the pads of his fingers as best he could, brushing away hard coagulated crystals of lymph. He didn't dare scratch; his nails were filthy, and the last thing he needed to do was break the skin and give himself another set of infections.
Chaz glanced out the window again, wondering if he heard the crunch of tires in the driveway, and performed a textbook double-take. Something about the sky was wrong. The horizon had been glowing orange with the sunset, but the sunset should have faded by now.
It's the fire. Chaz was on his feet before he'd finished forming the thought, leaning on the end of his chain, trying to stretch toward the window for a better view. He couldn't tell how far away it was, and wondered if the woman at the convenience store had gotten her wish, and a parking lot full of sexy smoke-jumpers.
As he stood watching, the smell of char overwhelmed everything else--the smell of roses, sweet as rot, the reek of bacteria breeding on his own unwashed skin. Supposedly, you got so you couldn't smell yourself anymore, but it hadn't happened yet. Chaz wasn't sure he believed it.
With the burned scent came something else; a trickle of air through the broken windowpane, chilling his face. The wind was shifting, coming around to the west. Pushing the fire this way. "Come on, Reyes," he muttered. "Any time would be a good time now."
Like a kid on Christmas eve, he should sleep. If he slept, when he woke, like magic, the team would be here to collect him.
Magic, indeed. As if his words and thoughts had been an incantation, he heard something on the rising wind. A deep, mechanical stutter; the distant thunder of helicopter blades.
Chaz pushed closer to the window, stretching his arms, pulling against the chain. There might be gliding lights against the dark, green and red. Coming closer. He yearned towards the swelling sound, only mildly surprised to find himself praying. Oh, please. Please. Please. I held on. Please let them be coming.
He prayed out loud, almost, if he could put any voice behind it, his lips moving, his chest heaving. Pleading with God, with the universe, with anybody who could hear him. That sound, out of the real world, the world outside this horrible house, the cold floor, the sweat and itch and thirst and hunger. Deafening now. Low. It was low. It was his, there, salvation.
The team was coming. Perfect timing; perfect. An easy rescue. The Relative wasn't even here. This was the angel Chaz had been waiting for, here for him, an Annunciation from the sane, clean, decent real world outside this hell--
He saw the lights, the sound dopplering on, the helicopter moving past, enroute to the fire, and he knew.
They weren't coming for him.
Close by, someone started screaming.
When they arrived at the fire base camp, Falkner was surprised by the quiet. The space around the little gas station (the same one that had charged Chaz's credit card) was crammed with vehicles in Forest Service faded green, work lights, tarps stretched for daytime shade, equipment she couldn't make sense of in the harsh, contrasting light. Men and a few women in an assortment of uniforms moved from light to light, quick, efficient. They knew what they were doing, just as the team did. No need for shouting.
A man came toward them, bringing with him an overpowering stench of smoke. He carried his helmet and gloves. As he got close, Falkner decided he was a little younger than she was; late thirties, maybe. His white-blond hair was cropped short and irregularly flattened by sweat and his helmet, and his face was ruddy even in the work lights, smudged with soot.
"You must be the Feds," he said as he came up, and stuck out his right hand. The knuckles and thumb were glossy with a line of scar tissue. "Mike Pelletier. Battalion Chief."
"Special Agent Esther Falkner. You've spoken to Special Agent Brady on the phone."
Brady and Pelletier shook hands.
"So you've got a man in there, Agent Brady tells me."
We hope so, Falkner thought. Because it beats the alternative. "We think there's a suspect in the area as well, using the fire as cover."
"He may be making your job harder, in fact," Brady added.
"I heard from the coroner. But if that crispy critter was him, he's not making trouble for anybody now."
"Sorry," Pelletier said. "Hazard of the job, the sense of humor."
"We get that, too," Falkner assured him. "No, we think the body you found was a victim."
"With a lighter in his hand?"
Every time, it was a different story, but the refrain was fundamentally the same. "The man we're after is charismatic, charming, able to convince people to do what he wants. Even strong-willed people. He may have manipulated the victim into starting a new fire. He's probably done it several times already."
Pelletier's mouth pressed tight closed. "God damn. That explains a thing or two. I just sent one of my crew to the hospital because a burn started across the fireline from an area under control."
Brady dropped his chin. Falkner recognized the movement; he was angry. There was no sign of it in his voice when he said, "We think he's blocking access to a residence in the woods. Probably where he's hiding, and where he's holding our agent. I can show you on a map."
Pelletier's map was a big detailed topo on the wall in an office trailer. It was studded with pin markers in a system Falkner couldn't read. Brady picked out the county road, identified the property that county records said now belonged to Charles Travis Villette.
Pelletier shook his head. "Abandoned. We evacuated everybody on that road three days ago. No record of anyone in residence out there."
"Did you follow up?" Brady asked. "Knock?"
Pelletier's eyes narrowed, but to his credit he admitted, "We took the word of the post office and the county auditor. Once we need to evacuate, we're kinda pressed for time."
Three days, Falkner thought. If someone had come to the house, if they'd knocked, if Chaz was there and alive and heard them-- But no one had. "If our suspect is using the fire to block access-- Are the breakouts consistent with that?"
Pelletier eyed the map and its markers. His shoulders rose and fell. "Yeah," he said softly.
"We need to get to that house."
"As soon as we can get a corridor through. But you're not going tonight."
Brady began, "There's got to be--"
"No, there don't. October of '06, four firefighters killed in San Bernardino National Forest in California when the fire caught up with their vehicle. Fifth one died later, with third-degree burns over ninety percent of his body. Good men, knew their work. When I say you're not going, you better damned well believe I know what I'm talking about."
Brady's jaw was set. Falkner touched his elbow and said to Pelletier, "We know you do. You understand how it is."
Pelletier blew air out through his lips. "I do. We'll get you there soon as we can." He looked back at the map. "I'd sure as shit like to know how anybody but my people could be out there. Your perp'd have to walk right past my hand crews to do what you say he's doing. And nobody's stronger-willed than a hotshot."
The back of Falkner's neck prickled. She caught Brady's eye. Yes, he'd realized it, too. "Chief Pelletier, if we wouldn't be in the way, we'd like to set up our team on site here, to speed up our response time."
"I was going to say. You can use the trailer."
It was no smaller than the briefing room. And they were one person short. "Thank you."
She waited until they were outside, out of earshot of Pelletier. Then she looked at Brady and saw the mirror of her own grim expression. "Not just civilians. He's using his projections on the fire crew."
Brady watched Falkner stalk off to the Yukon, saw her open her phone. Then he planted his boots in the gravel, relaxed, and breathed deep and slow. He envisioned afternoon light, an empty parking lot, a whiff of smoke. Turning off the highway from the north, pulling up to the pumps. Exit car, shoes crunching on the gravel. Look down left--yep, there are the bathroom doors, marked on the side of the building. Then, stomach growling, cross to the door of the little building.
If it was Chaz. The trooper had stopped him only minutes before, so yeah, it was. When Chaz left here, was he alone?
Brady shook off the picture of the place as it would have looked Saturday afternoon, and went into the real thing, in real time.
The fluorescents were harsh on cellophane and plastic and the bright ink of ads for beer, chips, soda. He went up to the counter and smiled, and the tall, heavy woman behind it rose from her folding chair. He let the Dallas come back into his words. "Ma'am. I'm Special Agent Daniel Brady with the FBI. Were you working on Friday evening, around six p.m.?"
She looked him up and down and beamed. The big blond cowboy melts another heart, he thought, amused in spite of everything. "Yep, sugar, I was. Something I can do for you?"
"I wonder if I could ask you about a customer you had then. Tall, thin man, brown hair, dark-complected, driving a silver Hyundai. He'd have bought gas and--" Brady felt the store stock looming behind him, "--snack food, and paid with a Visa." He pulled his copy of Worth's photo out of his pocket and offered it to her.
"I remember him. Nice boy, polite, kinda shy. A Yankee. I teased him about his granola bars. He took the whole box." She looked up from the photo. "Dear Lord, he wasn't dangerous, was he?"
"No, ma'am. He's a federal agent. When he left here, was there anyone with him?"
"Nope. Saw him get in the car and drive off south. Asked how to get to County Road 4643, if that helps."
"Have you seen this man before?" Brady slid the sketch of William Villette across the counter.
She frowned at it, at Chaz's photo. "Hell of a resemblance. But this one's older. No, haven't seen him."
She looked again, and nodded.
"If you do, don't draw his attention. Call the county sheriff as soon as you can." How did you warn people that a dangerous man had the ability to make you like and trust him?
But hell, a lot of dangerous men did. They didn't even have to be gammas.
Brady stepped outside, walked to the gas pumps. A Forest Service crew transport arrived as he did; weary, soot-black firefighters staggered off it, collected backpacks and Pulaskis from the cargo compartments, and headed toward the lights of what looked like a makeshift dining hall at the end of the parking lot.
Chaz might have stopped again, on his way to the farm. Something might have stopped him. But there was a good chance he'd got to his destination. The woman he'd just talked to was probably the last person to see him, other than the-- Don't think "killer."
All right, think it. Because they were all talking, acting, as if Chaz was lost, held hostage, captive. But William Villette targeted women. He wasn't a sadist; he didn't take pleasure in the terror and pain of his victims. They'd all said he seemed distant, removed from their suffering. Above earthly torment. Nothing in his psychopathy or his manifestation pointed toward holding an adult male prisoner.
On the other side of the argument, there was the corpse the fire left behind. Suggesting that he didn't stick at murder.
If William Villette was keeping them from reaching that house, why assume it was to keep them from reaching Chaz? Why would Villette keep him alive?
Don't give up on him. But Brady felt his hope eroding.
Chaz flailed. Screamed, screamed harder. Not the chaos-carrying shout he learned at the Academy. Shrieking like a child, burning his throat, hurling himself against the chain again and again and again and again, the snap of links no cushion, metal cutting flesh with blunt edges, thick slick-sticky well of blood sliming his hands, spattering from his fingertips. Screaming, screaming, every lunge with his whole weight snapping his head on his neck, stretching tendons in his elbows and shoulders, more pain, more fucking pain, didn't matter, he was going to die here and he'd trusted them and no one was coming for him. No one. No one. No one.
Bastards. Bastards. Oh god. Bastards. He slammed himself against the chain again, felt it jar taut against the unyielding staple, couldn't stop. More blood, something tore, even the blood wasn't enough to oil the manacles over his hands. One more time, one more. Scream. Scratch. Live, dammit. Live.
A fresh green sound like a finger popped inside a cheek; a flat sharp crack right after. Fresh pain drove Chaz to his knees, hands flat on the tile before him. Electric hurt shot up the right arm; fire dripped down it. He screamed, doubled over, tasting sweet snot and salt and blood copper, and slammed the manacles against the floor, swinging over and over as if a hammer were in his hands. Tile chipped, flew. Sliced his cheek. Again. Again. Harder. Pull.
He reared back, weight against the chain, and the--
--black tunnel vortexed tight down on him, a swirling deeper than the darkness of the dining room: the carousel spin of reaction to sudden, nauseating pain. He fell onto his right side, mercifully, and the impact jarred his dislocated shoulder back into the socket with a wet satisfying pop. Chaz sobbed, his cheek pressed to the tile floor, the throbbing heat of injury rolling up his right arm from wrist to shoulder, spreading along his neck and down his spine.
He would have curled in on himself like a kicked animal, but he was at the length of his chain. He flexed his biceps, dragged himself across the floor until he could draw his arms up to his chest and press his face to the backs of his fists. "Oh god. Oh god. Oh god." The right wrist fired searing sparks up his nerves with every motion; sprained, at least, if he hadn't given himself a scaphoid fracture. The shackles chafed lacerated flesh. Every breath guttered in, then out as if it were his last.
The worst of it was, he should have known it was useless. He had done this to himself before, screaming and kicking and pounding on the door of a little dark place until his hands were too sore and swollen to keep it up, until someone's voice on the other side of the door, a voice he hardly knew, said, "You're not coming out until you can be a good boy."
No one was coming to save him. No one was coming in time.
"Oh, please," he said, gagging on it, every word a bubble of hurt. "Just let me die."
Janeanne Coburn was tiny, light-boned, straight-backed, her hair showing gray at the scalp where the strawberry blonde dye job was growing out. Lau's phone call had gotten her out of bed, but she was dressed by the time Brady and Reyes got to her door. Well-dressed, too: creased slacks and a sweater set, and neat pearl earrings.
She was the living spit of the high school teachers who'd scared Brady worst. If this one raised her eyebrows, his blood was going to freeze in his veins.
She'd offered them iced tea, because that's what you did, but none of them wanted it, really.
"The young lady told me you wanted to know about Adeline Villette," Coburn said. Brady recognized a scaled-down version of Falkner's voice of command. Teaching a generation of sixteen-year-olds probably had a good bit in common with kicking enlisted ass in a war zone. "I don't suppose you know where she is now?"
The answer, Brady thought fleetingly, depended on what you thought of prostitution. Reyes responded, "She was in one of your classes, her senior year."
"History, her senior year, and English her junior year. It was a small school district." Coburn's smile was dry. "I was also faculty advisor for the Drama Club. She was a member for two years."
"Did you know her well?"
Coburn laid her small, thin-skinned hands over her knees and tilted her head. It occurred to Brady that they were interviewing her because she permitted it. If she'd wanted, it might have been the other way around. "Agent--Reyes? No one knows teenagers well. They don't know themselves. But what I knew of Addy Villette, I liked very much. She was a good student, and a nice young woman."
"Was she planning on college?"
"She was offered partial scholarships to Smith and Sarah Lawrence."
"But she didn't go."
"Not with a partial scholarship, no. Farm families in Tyler County are hard pressed for tuition money."
"Why didn't she pick a state school?"
Reyes made it sound like just another question in the list. Brady knew better.
For the first time, Coburn looked away from Reyes; she pinched an imaginary bit of lint off the fabric over one knee. "I expect she wanted to see a little more of the world."
Reyes leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, his hands clasped in front of him. "I expect she wanted to get further away from home."
Coburn's head came up again. "You sound as if you mean more than you're saying."
"Ms. Coburn," Brady said, "What was Adeline Villette's home life like?"
"Her parents thought the world of her."
"Did she get along with her brother?"
Coburn looked straight through Brady's eye sockets into his brain. "I believe it's time for me to ask why the FBI would want to know."
Pity that seventy-odd was too old to join the Bureau.
Reyes looked down at his joined hands and smiled. "You're right, Ms. Coburn. I apologize for keeping it from you this long. William Villette is a suspect in a case we're working."
"Then why are you asking about his sister?"
Reyes was silent for long enough that Brady wondered if he'd fumbled a handoff. "We study a subject's victims as well as the subject himself."
If Brady hadn't been watching, he'd have missed it: the stiffening of her shoulders, the slight widening of her eyes.
Reyes added, "We believe that William Villette has kidnapped a federal agent. The agent is Adeline Villette's son."
Coburn's head went back. Not what she'd expected. She smoothed the veins on the back of her hand with the other thumb. "So it's Willy you really want to know about."
"And his victims, yes."
"When Willy was thirteen, he was hit by a thrown bat while playing baseball. It fractured his skull. He was in the hospital for three months, but he made nearly a full recovery."
"Nearly?" Brady asked.
"He had some mild learning disabilities. I know they weren't enough to keep him back in school. There was a--I think you call it a personality change."
Just the sort of thing that gave the anomaly a toehold. But if Tyler County had had a thirteen-year-old gamma with the ability to project emotions, everyone would have known it. William Villette would have terrorized the place.
"Will you tell me now what's happened to Addy?" Coburn asked.
"She died eighteen years ago," Reyes said mildly. "I'm sorry."
She closed her eyes for a moment. "They aren't supposed to die before you."
"No, ma'am." Reyes sat up. "You might be able to do us one more favor."
"Do you have a photo of Adeline Villette?"
Coburn smiled. "Agent Reyes, I have thirty-five years of the high school yearbook. Which picture would you like to see?"
"The last one, please, Ms. Coburn."
She rose and went to one of her glass-fronted bookcases. It took her only a moment to decide which of the thin leatherette-bound volumes she wanted; when she had it, she opened it, flipped a little, and brought it to Reyes. Brady stood and sidled up to look over his shoulder.
He remembered senior-year portraits. This one was the old-fashioned sort, taken by the same photographer as all the others on the page, against the same neutral background. Addy Villette had thick, dark, heavy-looking hair, turned back from her face on both sides in Farrah-Fawcett wings. Her face was thin, and her smiling mouth was long, like Chaz's. Her eyes were like his, too, wide and dark, but in black and white, Brady couldn't tell if they were the same color. She wore a boat-neck sweater that showed the little cross on a chain settled in the hollow between her collarbones.
Long dark hair, dark eyes, thin. The room hadn't been cold until then.
Besides whatever Hafidha needed--the laptop more or less set itself up, as far as Falkner could tell--all they had to do to turn the fire crew's trailer into headquarters was to unfold a few extra chairs and drop the box of files on the table. Hafidha, Todd, Lau, and Worth slid out of the Yukon before she had the engine off and jogged toward the trailer.
Falkner opened the driver's door and found Mike Pelletier waiting for her.
"Agent Falkner. One of the crews--" The muscles in his jaw said he'd set his teeth. Air whistled in through his nose. "We've got two more bodies."
After a certain amount of horror, one stopped reacting. And she'd half expected this news, after all; there'd been more than one anomalous turn in the fire's progress, and Villette seemed to have no trouble separating his victims from their sense of self-preservation.
"Any sign they were starting a new fire?"
"Hard to tell," Pelletier said. "There was pieces of glass, might have been a jar. We're sending 'em off to the lab to see if there's residue. Maybe gas, maybe paint thinner--every kid in a county like this knows what's flammable and what isn't."
"Kid," Falkner repeated. The fire camp seemed to recede around her.
Pelletier nodded. "Maybe thirteen years old. From the size."
Hafidha plunked down at the end of the table and got her link up while the others were still sorting case files. Just in time for her phone to ask "Ehh, what's up, Doc?"
"WTF, Smokey Bear division," she answered.
"Hafidha." Reyes's voice in Hafidha's earpiece was metallic and flat. It wasn't just the connection; she'd heard it that way in person. Her stomach turned skittery. "Put me on speaker."
She made the phone talk to the laptop, and cranked the built-in sound. There ought to be a way to get better audio, for times like this... Focus, princess. When he sounds like that, there's hamburger on the highway. "You're on the air, caller. Todd, Lau, and Worth in the house. Es is outside with the fire chief."
Across the table, the other three raised their heads like dogs at a whistle.
"Go back to the local hospital records," Reyes ordered. "Emergency room admissions for second half of January, beginning of February, 1982."
He still wasn't used to how fast she could do this; he was slow-pitching the search parameters. She had the admissions lists for those four weeks, divided by hospital, on the screen by the time he inhaled. "Who am I looking for, Jefe?
And there she was. "Got it. What do you--"
Then she read the record, the attending physician's statement. He hadn't asked, but she combed local police calls for that night, found the responding officer's report.
"She was raped," Reyes said.
"Yes, boss." It came out as a croak. Her eyes flicked to the others; Lau and Todd looked fierce. But Worth's expression was weird, unsettled and a little scared.
"Give me the details."
"January 31st, 10:46 p.m., brought in by...her mom, looks like. She was... there are photos." God, she looked like Chaz. Pretty determined genes, those. Chaz if he'd been hurt, and hurt, and--no, bad. "Bruises, one eye swollen up, cuts inside her mouth from..."
"From her teeth. She was injured, beyond the penetration itself?"
Hafidha's hands shook. "Have... have you seen Fight Club? She must have kept getting back up."
"Did the police take a statement?"
"She wouldn't say who it was. The responding officer and the doctor both thought the mother didn't want her to, but she was a minor, so there wasn't much they could do. But it couldn't have been William--her brother, because she wouldn't have fought back. The others didn't."
"Unless he wasn't a host yet."
"She wasn't raped by the anomaly," Todd said, hoarse. "She was raped by her brother."
"January 31st?" Worth repeated.
Hafidha was about to verify it when Reyes said, "And he's been on time ever since."
Worth turned a nasty color and closed her eyes.
"What?" Hafidha asked, just as she figured it out.
Nine months later. Chaz's birthday.
As he huddled in the darkness, waiting, it occurred to Chaz that if he could reach the glass-topped table, he could tip it over and try to shatter the glass. And if he could do that, and get his hands on a sharp enough shard, he might be able to cut off one of his thumbs.
It was the damned thumbs keeping his hands in the shackles, like a monkey's fist in a jar trap. If he got one hand out, then he could get the loop of chain off the free end, and the shackle would just be hanging off one wrist. If he made it back to civilization, he could probably even get the thumb sewn back on.
It was cowardice, but he was sort of glad the table was all the way across the room.
He licked the drying blood from the back of his right wrist. The flesh was puffy over the bones, a fluid kind of tautness when he probed it with the tip of his tongue. The swelling was inside the joint capsule, then. His fingers wiggled, though moving them made him gasp. That didn't mean it wasn't broken; plenty of people fractured a wrist and never knew it until ten years later, when the arthritis set in.
And it wasn't as if being able to use his fingers was doing him any good at all.
Finally, car tires crunched on the drive. He supposed he should have felt something--apprehension, relief. He wasn't sure. And whatever it should have been, he didn't feel it. He didn't feel anything but empty, very cold and very still. Maybe his prayers had been answered.
Maybe he was dying.
Well, if God could only listen to him once, he guessed this would have to be the time.
Footsteps, and the door, and the light. And more footsteps. The dining room light swelled to dim brilliance and he heard someone curse. Softly, disbelievingly, a man confronted with unexpected disaster. Then a hasty rustle, a thump. The grocery bag set down by the arch. More footsteps, both hasty and hesitant, and the emotional pressure of a body beside him, and the bite of smoke in his nose as strong as if the fire's backtrail was fresh in the room.
The Relative wasn't projecting; was trying to withhold, if anything, but the leakage lashed at him anyway. Grief. Guilt. Horror, worry, sorrow.
Funny how all those words for bad things had that oh-ar-sound, wasn't it?
"Oh, baby boy," the Relative said, and lightly stroked his face. "Oh, sweetheart, what did you do to yourself?"
Not meaning to, he whimpered in relief. The Relative bent over him, touching him gently, exploring his skull and patting the length of each arm. "Shhh," the Relative said at his soft pathetic sound of distress. "Papa's here. Papa's here. It was my fault, angel. I was gone too long. You thought I left you. I won't ever leave you. Forever and ever. I'll always be here. Papa's here, angel. Papa's never going away again."
This time, the horror was his own, as far as he could tell anymore what emotion belonged to whom, and it came because his heart swelled with reassurance at the words. Then the Relative was moving, stepping to the kitchen, running water. When he came back it was with the bucket and cool cloths, to wash the blood from Chaz's hands, clean his face, cool his bitten lip. The Relative rose again and dimmed the light, fetched something, came back. He felt the tears leaking, sniffled, bit his thumb savagely until the physical pain slashed through his sniveling, let him get a single choking breath.
The Relative was beside him, tending him in the dim light reflecting from the great room, sliding the folded blanket beneath him and lifting his head to rest upon the Relative's thigh. He sobbed on a breath, and the Relative's hands gentled him. He cupped water to Chaz's mouth; when he wouldn't drink, the Relative bathed Chaz's face with it. The second mouthful, he took, and the third, and then he sobbed again, hard enough that he tasted more blood.
"Hush, angel," the Relative said. He choked, sniffling hard himself, and wet splashed Chaz's cheek. "It's all right, baby boy. Jesus wept on the cross. It's no shame. God's will is hard, it's hard, but angels are strong enough to bear it. And you'll never be alone again."
The Relative was crying.
Crying for him. For his pain and his suffering.
And then--softly--singing. Stroking his hair, his shoulders, drawing a second blanket up to cover him. Hush little angel don't you cry. Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don't sing, papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring. And if that diamond ring turns to brass, papa's gonna buy you a looking glass.
And if that looking glass gets broke, papa's gonna buy you a billy goat--
Softly, gently, singing, the Relative bathed his face, stroked his hair, gave him water to drink in tiny palmfuls. Wiped the tears from his face when Chaz broke, and wept.
Held him, and bathed him in love and adoration, and told him he would never be alone again, and everything would be all right.
It had been eighteen years since anyone had touched him that way. Soothing, sweetly, promising to be there in the morning.
He knew the price was his soul.
He sighed, and closed his eyes.
There came a time when even Nikki Lau had to get out of the confines of the trailer and go for a walk. Not for fresh air; even wearing one of Worth's paper masks the smoke burned her lungs, and she was pretty sure there was no fresh air to be had anywhere in Tyler County. But just to get away from the others, who were huddled over heaps of paper and computer screens and telephones, oozing stress hormones and fatigue toxins, pretending that terrible things hadn't come home to roost and might be bringing their friends.
She stood, arms crossed, back to the bustle of the parking lot as another rig came in for refueling. The sky was red in three directions; it wasn't sunset she was seeing.
Chaz, be alive, she thought. It was an article of faith: there were no fates worse than death. "Where there's life," she murmured, squeezing her arms to hold the ghost of her heat against her skin, "there's hope."
Several yards off, a light flared as Pelletier lit a cigarette with a dramatic flourish intended to announce his presence. Lau turned to him, head tilted in inquiry.
"Filthy habit," he said, releasing a stream of smoke through his nostrils.
"A lot of firefighters smoke."
"Tame the dragon," he answered, with a shrug. He flicked his lighter and studied the flame, let it die again just as Lau's pulse began to accelerate. He slipped it into his pocket and patted the pocket to make sure it had settled. "Hey, I've been meaning to ask you something. If you Feds have identified your guy, and you have him pinned down, how come you're still profiling him? What are you hoping to get?"
It was a fair question. She went to bite her nail, and found the mask in the way. "When we get to the house, if our agent is still alive, every bit of information we have about the kidnapper will help us keep him alive. We think we know where he is. Profiling him lets us know what to expect."
Pelletier smoked, silently. Lau knew what he wasn't asking.
"And if there's nothing in the house when we get there--" nothing except the body of somebody we knew, "--and William Villette is in the wind, the profile and the victimology will help us find him."
"This guy. He's a little more than a cult leader, isn't he? I mean, I know people will do crazy things for charismatic leaders--"
"He's a little more than that," she confirmed.
Pelletier nodded, and took another drag. "It's the idea he might be--controlling some of my crew. I keep wondering how I would know if somebody like that was getting to me."
Pelletier had guts, of course. But it took a particular sort to be willing to understand and accept what Shadow Unit hadn't quite told him about his secondary fires.
Lau shook her head. "Are you trying to warn me of something, Mike?"
He laughed, and his shoulders relaxed. "I'll watch you for crazy if you watch me--oh, damn."
"Is your boss inside?"
"Falkner is." Lau jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Reyes is on an interview. Do you need me to fetch her?"
"Yeah," Pelletier said. He pinched the butt out and slipped it into his pocket. Lau hoped he washed his own clothes, or his wife was a chainsmoker. "The south side is going to burn itself out sometime early tomorrow. If he wants to keep us out, he's going to have to do something to maintain a barrier there, isn't he?"
"Your crew," Lau said, cold filtering out from her belly.
"There aren't any civilians in the area," Pelletier said. "They're his only option."
Brady had the overheated, brittle-at-the-edges feeling he got at the end of twenty-four sleepless hours. The rising sun edged the eastern horizon with red like an open wound.
Reyes, of course, showed no weakness. Brady had been with the unit long enough to know it was show, however smooth and shiny.
"Think there'll be a flat surface at the fire camp nobody's using? I don't know about you, but damn, I need some Zs."
Reyes didn't look away from the road. "Drop your seat back. I want to make one more stop."
"William Villette's hospital records."
"It's ancient history. We know enough."
Reyes glanced over, just long enough for Brady to see the bleak expression. "We never know enough."
Brady sighed, and didn't lay his seat back. You didn't let a guy solo when he looked like that, even if it was Reyes, and nothing worse than a hospital records department.
Sometime in the night, the Relative had tucked Chaz's blankets around him, slipped away, and gone to bed. On the morning of the fifth day, he woke with his tongue swollen in his mouth, his hurt wrist swollen in the manacles, and thought, quite lucidly, They are not coming for me.
He'd been waiting a long time, and if Reyes and the team were coming, they would have come by now.
Of course they weren't. They never could have been. He'd lost them. It was only justice. Retribution.
He hadn't gotten help in time for his mother, and now the help would not come in time for him. This was as it was meant to be. This was how he was always supposed to die.
It was die, or become William Villette's son. William Villette's shadow.
And he would be damned if he'd let that happen.
Correction. If he let that happen, he would be damned.
The Relative could break him. Everybody breaks. Winston Smith. Evey Hammond. Jesus, as the Relative had so helpfully pointed out, on the cross.
The Relative could kill him. He could break him. But he couldn't transform him, not without his help.
It would be better to die himself than to live a monster. It would be better to be dead than be like William.
Well, then, he'd do it right. William might be able to make him do almost anything else, but barring a nasojejunal tube, he couldn't make him eat.
He'd been hungry before. Hell, he'd been hungry for days. And as weak as he was, it couldn't take long.
There were worse things than starving to death. After all, he had a list in his head.
She would--the team would be proud of him if they knew.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.