2.02 "Sugar" - by Leah Bobet
Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of. – Nursery Rhyme
And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance. – Kol NidreAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Ashton, VA, October 8, 2008
The best time to visit Idlewood Psychiatric Institute is middle fall.
Ashton in early October is the best of fall colour; rust and redbreast leaves trickling down onto still-green lawns and the autumn flowerbeds installed every September by groundskeepers who still believe in Moral Treatment. Idlewood grows its own squash. The pale orange rises against the redbrick walls and fluttering trees and the smell is like Thanksgiving coming in, between the kitchen ovens and the leaves and the Cushaws and Hubbards ripening in the gardens.
They aren't tended by the patients, the way hospital gardens were when Idlewood was first collected out of stone and sweat and a certain nineteenth-century optimism. But the squash gardens still say industry, ripening in the cool of October. Thanksgiving. Full bellies. Easy nights.
Doctor Casey Ramachandran knows this. The families of new patients always first visit Idlewood in early October.
When there's family left.
Virginia and Robert Greenwood came to Idlewood on a Wednesday in early October to sign their daughter away.
It was a formality. Susannah had been ceded to the gardens and the walls eight weeks past, but the forms and formalities had to be observed. However Ginny Greenwood talked of short-term treatment and colleges to her own mother, committed to a looser care in a patch of Florida condos, everyone knew this was for good.
Esther Falkner and Stephen Reyes were there to meet them.
Daphne Worth was inside. Worth did not like Idlewood, but a hitch in her shoulders eased when she could talk shop with medical professionals. Falkner had gauged the angle of those shoulders and sent her indoors fifteen minutes past. "Get the lay of the land from her doctors," she said, even though they already had it. Worth had nearly managed to not look grateful as she fled the crisp-lined parking lot for the shelter of the lunatic asylum.
Reyes had the courtesy not to frown. She ignored him. Compassion was also a mitzvah.
The Greenwoods were on time. Esther Falkner heard the tires of their Volvo ninety full seconds before they rounded the corner of Idlewood's private drive; long enough to straighten her jacket and smooth the light frizz out of her hair. It was good to be casual for this sort of job, but not too casual; there were comforts, too, in Bureau professionalism. Your child is in good hands Falkner thought through her eyes, her distanced smile, the angle of her back, and breathed it in and out until she believed it.
The Greenwoods' egg-blue four-door turned off the faded blacktop road and parked with a commuter's delicacy. Ginny driving, Falkner thought, still breathing her self-possession in and out. Not Robert.
She imagined her own child, and the steadiness of her hands on a steering wheel.
Reyes started walking as soon as the second car door shut, leaving her to trail along behind him like a subordinate. Not a glance back. Falkner gritted her teeth, moderated her stride so she didn't look like she was working to catch up. Easy, Captain. That is your superior officer there.
Yeah, one who – oh, forget it.
Her heel caught on a fallen leaf. She shook it off. There were anxious parents waiting for her, the FBI agent, to make things right. No misbehavior before the enemy, Captain, she told herself, and smiled with just the right amount of reserve as she shook Robert Greenwood's hand.
"Thank you for coming," she said. I'm sorry. They didn't smile back.
"When do we see her?" Virginia asked.
Reyes shifted his weight. "Right away. You'll speak with the doctors, pay a visit, and decide if you want to sign the papers."
If. Stephen Reyes and the illusion of choice. Susannah Greenwood might need her parents to sign the admission to Idlewood, but if they didn't there was always the FBI.
Your child is in good hands, she assured them, herself, again. Gave a half-turn towards the russet-roofed, grey stone and gardened building, rife with squirrel trails and the autumn's last birdsong.
"Are you ready?" Falkner asked, and kept the part of her that was a mother tucked away like a hospital corner.
"No," Robert Greenwood said, and started for the door.
Cape Cod, MA, August 24, 2008
They were waiting on the FBI people to put Cecily in the ground.
Nobody'd announced it. But Marissa had told Kevin who'd told Juliana who'd told Susie, and even though Marissa was Summer People she was Cecily's first cousin, so Susie believed it was true.
"We'll bring them something. A casserole," Mom had said upon hearing it from Kevin's mother, and so now Susie was fidgeting in her clean church skirt and sandals in Cecily Marshall's living room and watching Mrs. Marshall cry.
At Gabriela's wake there had been pictures; on the walls, on the mantel, shoved into frames that they didn't fit right just to get them out there. Gaby on a whale-watching boat off Provincetown. Gaby at last year's Homecoming. Gaby looking strangely more foreign as a chubby-faced kid in Brazil. Her great-aunts had draped them in black crepe and flowers and wailed, not just cried but wailed like little kids who couldn't stop for breathing. They played Gabriela's baby videos and cried over them, all dressed in black.
Mrs. Marshall had turned her pictures to face the sky-blue walls. And at Mrs. Marshall's house they could not bury Cecily, and the men from the police station watched everyone.
They weren't trying to be in the way. And everyone in town knew Detective Sergeant Bradford. He'd come to their school when they were in fourth grade to tell them about street safety and Dustin Bradford had been just stupid for weeks, going on about how his dad knew this and that and which side of the street you were supposed to walk on going home. But him being there made things quiet and bad; every single tear some kind of performance of not guilty, and she tiptoed around the parents and the whispering neighbours and the eyes that stayed too long on her and skipped too fast past the policemen, and headed downstairs for the basement.
Juliana and Marissa were already down there, sitting side by side on the Marshalls' fuzzy old pool table and sharing a half-melted blue freezie in a dim bit of afternoon sunlight. The balls were unracked. They huddled, clinking against each other, as Marissa shifted her butt back across the pilling felt. Susie waved a little, finger-wiggly, and padded to them over the chilly beige-and-brown lino floor.
There were no cops downstairs. But there was still nothing right to say.
"What happened to her?" Susie blurted after a minute, and Marissa looked down at her hands.
"We went to American Eagle for school stuff," she mumbled. Her hands locked, twisted, twitched. One of them was stained blue from the melting freezie. She wiped it on her shorts; Marissa's mother had been too upset to make her wear a good Sunday skirt. "And she just fell down. Just one second, bam."
Susie sat down on the beige lino and pictured mall security and Marissa's mother and the ambulance men coming through the racks and racks of too-small tee-shirts. The music going loud. Hard fluorescent lights and pink tile and mirrors and screaming. She held onto it. Picturing made it more real.
"And Mom went to emergency with her and told me to go home right away, stay at home, and...when I got home, that was--" She stopped. Susie could fill the word in: it.
Susie picked a thread out of her skirt. There would be a special assembly on the first day of school, just like there had been back in grade school when Mikey Cole got cancer. They would make you meet with grief counselors one by one, pull you out of class. How do you feel about your friend, Susannah?
Tired, she thought. And hungry. And numb.
There was no sense in talking about it now, the stuff they'd ask and ask and ask. Susie cast around for something better. Something normal. Sane.
So: "How many calories in that freezie?" she asked, and Marissa put it down, a little flushed.
"Just a hundred," she said, prickly. Not too prickly, considering. She lifted her right leg, tucked it under her left thigh. The pool balls rattled. "That's why we're sharing."
"Oh." Susie said.
"Here," Juliana said, and glanced up to make sure nobody was coming down the rough-carpeted basement stairs. "Look."
Nobody was coming. All the cops and parents and neighbours had forgotten about them completely. Juliana turned a little away anyway and hitched up the edge of her shirt.
Her waist was smaller. Susie could tell that much, even with the way Juli was hunched over in case anyone came down. Susie and Marissa took turns examining from the sides. Marissa took a tentative poke. "Situps?"
Juliana nodded. "Fifty every night before bed. Got down to 120," she whispered. Proud. Susie could see the way the muscles shifted and settled under her belly when she straightened. They were fascinating; like newborn puppies dreaming under skin. She tucked away the urge to press her palm against them and feel their dreams.
They'd worked all summer for this, together. Keeping each other good. And now Cecily was gone and all the talk next week at school wasn't going to be about how good the four of them looked, how much it was different from last year, but how Cecily Marshall had fallen down in the middle of a back-to-school sale and died and the cops came to her house whispering about her being abused.
Just like they'd said Gaby killed herself. Not that they shouldn't have called her all the things they did, not that before she died she'd been so beautiful, stupidly crazy beautiful for a whole month long. That she was fat and crazy so she starved herself 'til she died.
Susannah pulled her knees up tight to her chest to stop the hurting in her belly.
Marissa saw her; crumpled the damp freezie wrapper in her hand. "You're not...y'know. Scared or anything."
The silence was absolute.
"You're feeling okay," Juliana whispered, and leaned down to take her hand. "Right?"
Susie's closed around it before she took a stupid second to think. Her palm itched. Light, and then nagging hot like a mosquito biting down. Oh no. No no no.
"Yeah," she muttered faintly, and let go, yanked her hand back. It shook a little. Cecily's mother ran the air conditioning all the time. Her legs were getting goosebumps.
Juliana looked at her funny, a sideways glance she wasn't supposed to notice, but didn't say anything. Susie rubbed her palms against her thighs; neither the cold nor the stupid rashy heat went away. "Just cold. S'all."
Her stomach turned, rumbled, and finally quieted. The edge of Juliana's ribcage defined sharper, stronger, bright.
She looked away. How do you feel about your friend?
"Maybe," she said, shaking a little. "Maybe we should stop."
Juliana's hand was on her belly. She blinked once, twice, shook her head a little like a confused dog. "I don't know," she whispered. "I mean, was it...was it that?"
"Cecily got sick," Marissa said. "My aunt said it was diabetes. It wasn't--"
Susie swallowed. Her mouth felt too thick, like she'd just downed a whole carton of ice cream without a drink of water. The cramped-up muscles in her belly were easing.
We didn't do it. It wasn't our fault.
"It was an accident," Marissa whispered. "That's all."
"We stick to the diet," Juliana said, and took Susie's hand in one, Marissa's in the other. Squeezed. The tingling spread to Susie's fingers, became pain.
"We stick to it," Susie agreed, and let her hand go limp.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., August 25, 2008
Esther Falkner was late to the briefing room that morning.
She abhorred lateness. Lateness was undisciplined and unprofessional, and she had too many years of training in her corner to ever consider it anything but implicit disrespect for one's team and one's job. But Ben had called at noon speaking perfectly calm, perfectly reasonable, to tell her Rebekah was curled up in the shower in tears.
For only the third time since joining the Anomalous Crimes Task Force, Esther Falkner shut her office door.
"Go on," she said, seated back at her desk. Phone crooked between her ear and her shoulder and hands spread out over the crisp military corners of files full of pictures of dead children. Breathed in. Breathed out.
"From what I could get out of her, she was out with Tonya Preston and Patty Chung at City Place. They put itching powder down the back of her shirt," Ben said evenly. "Deborah called me at work. Beckie'd already locked herself in the bathroom when I got home."
Falkner couldn't decide whether to be proud or hurt that her littlest called her father first.
"Itching powder." A kid prank. Nothing of any lasting harm, except the part with the random cruelty. The files slipped and gave under the pressure, ran across the desk. She looked down at her hand and eased it, lifted the knuckles. Breathed in. Which meant Rebekah would have taken the bus home alone, albeit in the middle of the afternoon, without letting anybody know first. Resourceful, said the part of her mind which commanded FBI teams; a good extraction operation using the local resources. "Resourceful," she told the files under her palm, soaking murder into her hands; all the perfectly ordinary cases of bright, well-loved young children who just disappeared.
"Es?" Ben said, softly.
"I'm here," automatic, before she realized it was a technical falsehood. Falkner gathered herself, shut her eyes, stretched her threatening, throbbing back. Breathed in, breathed out. "I'm here, Ben."
Which was when Nicolette Lau tapped on her door, two quick raps that somehow managed to be unobtrusive. Falkner started, reflexes firing, that bland, smooth professional mask fingersnapped back into place. Not fast enough; there should have been no jerk, no jump, no need. Caught out.
Lau didn't say a word, just waited patiently on the other side of the narrow strip of double-plate bulletproof glass that Falkner had made a point of never blocking, like most supervisory agents, with blinds.
Falkner raised her eyebrows, one quick inquiry, and Lau pointed to the briefing room. Her face was drawn, mouth tucked tight. Case. Falkner gave a nod, replying, and went back to Ben, the phone.
She was going to be late to the briefing.
"I don't think she had a reaction to it. But," Ben said. But. "Mrs. Preston."
There was something faint and static on the other end of the line. Water running, the shower? Ben would be sitting outside the bathroom door. Head leaned back against the lock. Waiting for his daughter to come out.
The last of her agents trooped into the briefing room ahead of her.
"You or me?" she asked.
"We should do it together. In person," he said. And he was right, and the briefing room door was open and the clock said five past eleven, and something told Esther Falkner that she would not be in Silver Spring tonight.
She twisted her class ring. It was ugly; Falkner's own taste in jewelry ran to the understated and slim. But she wore it anyway, every day of her working life. It stared back at her, tiger-eye, silent.
"I'm sorry, Ben," she finally said, hearing all-too-clear the water in the background, the silence. "I'm sorry," again and again. "I have to go."
They waited for her, of course.
Chaz Villette and Hafidha Gates were two thirds of the way through a box of old-fashioned doughnuts. That's how long she had kept them waiting, although Chaz ate more birdlike since the summer and the fires and couldn't be counted on to keep time anymore. Worth was on her feet, pacing, paused in motion behind Sol Todd's chair; Daniel Brady folded into a fourth chair beside Todd, looking squeezed as he always did in the uncomfortably tight briefing room. Reyes lifted an eyebrow at her from the ostensible head of the table. Later, she told him with a tilt of the chin. They were waiting. But they had held a chair open for her despite her habit of standing, and nobody said a word.
"Thank you," she said anyway as she sat, tucked in, because it was better to acknowledge the things you did wrong than let them sit to fester. "Let's not have me holding things up any longer."
At the front of the room, Lau straightened in a way that for any other woman would be a curt, ready nod, and flicked the screensaver off her screen. Two pictures resolved under the projector: bright, happy, distracted. Someone rushed to dim the lights and they sharpened: a summertime beach bikini photo, dustily blonde; a ruffled-prom dress—no, too young. Quinceañera, with that black hair, that dazed girl-bride smile in the summer sunshine.
"That's Cecily Taylor Marshall on the left and Gabriela Carvalho de Santos on the right; both high school juniors in Cape Cod. De Santos died in early July; no official autopsy was permitted by the family, but the physician who pronounced her cited abrupt kidney failure."
"In a sixteen-year-old?" Worth's forehead was scrunched with worry, in lines that mapped where they would turn to tidy grooves in five years, or ten.
Falkner flipped open her file to Cecily Marshall's final medical papers. "Sudden onset of Type 1 diabetes," Lau said before her own eyes got there. "Combined with malnutrition. The working theory was that the diabetes was undiagnosed and it interacted with severe anorexia." She paused, almost desultory. "Apparently they go together."
Worth shifted in her chair. Her hands were knotted on her lap, almost out of sight under the table. "Yeah. There's an initial weight loss when they get diagnosed. Then everyone starts complimenting them for it, so they start monkeying with their food and insulin."
"How common?" Falkner asked. The air-conditioning hummed, straining.
"Cecily Marshall died two days ago," Lau continued. "Massive coronary, brought on by severe malnutrition. She collapsed in the middle of a mall while back-to-school shopping with her cousin and aunt. Rushed to the hospital and died on the way. Our victims were friends; they went to the same high school."
Brady lifted one heavy eyebrow. "Who contacted the FBI over two?"
It sounded callous. It was, perhaps; calluses were the things you built up to protect your skin against repeated damage. But he was right: this wasn't a federal matter, never mind one that would make it all the way through Down the Hall and to the Anomalous Crimes Task Force.
"Wait for it. Here's the after," Lau said, and clicked her button again.
These were familiar; morgue photographs. Bodies laid out, false-looking and still, on careful metal tables. Skin drained of something; clinically it was probably the blush of blood moving from cell to cell, but Esther Falkner always thought of it as the soul. There were no marks; no contusions. In the headshot, the blonde was thin and pale as Sleeping Beauty.
And then click, the full-body shot.
Under the pale green sheet Cecily Marshall's ribs were enumerated, sharp as starfish. Her hipbones splayed from discoloured skin like growths. The legs tapered down like stick-figure limbs, ridiculously long and gangly without their flesh. The curve of her jawbone, the skull was clearly visible under what had once been grinning red cheeks.
She looked like a famine victim. She looked like—
--naked protruding ribs, his spidery arms, his hair, the jeans that sagged on his jutting hipbones, his bare feet--
There was a little scrape as the wheel of Chaz's chair locked, snagged on its own awkward joints, and tugged at the carpet. Don't, Falkner thought, even as her head already turned to glance over. Everyone else in the room was looking at him too. They all looked away just as quickly. Clockwork.
He didn't react. He stared at the picture of the dead girl so hard he might well be memorizing it. He sat so still he trembled.
Chaz Villette knew all the ways to die of starvation.
Silence spread, puddled in the corners of her briefing room. Shower water over the phone. Worth reached out for Gates's hand, squeezed. Brady's face was closed for business; impassive, hard.
"Go on, please," Falkner said, and leaned deliberately forward to regard the picture on the wall. Ribs and hipbones. Sunken skin. Two dead girls in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
"Ah," Lau said, genuinely discomfited. Blinking to get back her cool and poise. She'd known; she'd have to have known what that would do. But there was knowing, and then there was knowing. And if Chaz Villette was going to stay here, stay with them, he was going to have to learn to take the sight of that ribcage in, one case, one swallow at a time.
Which didn't make it better, of course.
"Local PD is investigating the family for Munchausen-by-proxy or abuse," Lau said. "They're holding the second body for autopsy. There's a detective there who kicked this up for assistance. He's read about suicide clusters and seems to feel out of his league. Good thing he did. It tripped the flags and came down to us."
"And the first body?" Falkner pressed. Get through this, through the next minute and they could be back on topic again. They could be a team around a table doing their jobs.
"Would have to be exhumed," Lau said.
She risked a glance over at Reyes, leaned back in his chair with his arms folded. He got it; the tight press and twist of his mouth, the lines graven on either side said he got it indeed. But everything was at least half a test when you were the senior agent in the room, and he wasn't saying anything.
Someone had to ask the question. Esther Falkner counted a slow five beats down, silent. She hadn't hit two before Brady leaned back and said "So why's this on our desk?"
She let out a breath. It was good, the supervisory part of her noted, to have people around who weren't so terribly invested in looking like they already knew.
Lau slid the file shut so gently it didn't even rustle. "Cecily Marshall was sixteen years old and died of a massive heart attack. They weighed the body in at eighty-nine pounds." A pause; maybe presentational, maybe genuine disgust and grief. "At her last physical in May she weighed one hundred and forty five."
"Oh," Hafidha said, muffled and involuntary, and hunched over herself like a wound.
Villette's face was like stone. He hadn't stopped looking at the photo.
"Either we have someone sucking the weight off teenage girls," Worth began.
It hung in the air for a moment. Esther Falkner took aim and shot it down.
"Or we have a plague of gammas," she said.
Both Villette and Gates kept silent as Lau clicked the projector off.
Stephen Reyes shifted in his chair at the head of the table; leaned forward and ready for business. "Gates, dig up everything you can on both girls. We'll start the victimology on the plane. Falkner, Lau, Worth, Brady: wheels up in half an hour. And Villette?" A pause. No reaction. "Villette?"
A blink. Turned head, just a mite too quick to be as cool as Chaz Villette wanted it to be. "Sir?"
"See me before we go."
Chaz's hands grew yet more, impossibly more immobile. "Sir. I'll start getting things together for victimology." He was out ahead of the rest of them, three quick strides to the door and then a near-silent tread along the hallway.
Falkner waited until the rest of the team filed out of the room, Lau fussing with her laptop and the projector cables, before turning calm and quiet, oh so calm and quiet to face her immediate superior.
"What're you doing?" she asked Reyes mildly.
"He's not ready," he said, face shuttered. Guilt? Irritation? The annoying thing about Stephen Reyes was that, even after her long acquaintance with the expressionlessness of military men, he was so hard to read for sure.
"We knew that," she replied. Try again.
Reyes raised one eyebrow. "All right. We're not ready."
Falkner peered out the window to the bullpen. Villette was gathering files together, clearing off a space on his desk. Pointedly not looking to the briefing room door.
Doing his job.
"He came back," she said.
"We should too," she finished, and went to collect the go bag from her office.
When she emerged, go bag in hand, Todd was spinning in his desk chair with a thoughtful cast to his face, tapping his lower lip with an old-school yellow pencil.
"You're the responsible adult," she said, and Solomon Todd, old enough to have been brought up on charges for escorting the likes of her to Senior Prom, did nothing but reply, "I'll have them tucked in by ten."
Villette was out of Reyes's office five minutes later, utterly impassive--as if he'd have been anything less had the news been bad--but not shuffling-taut, tension in the legs now that he could no longer hold it well in the shoulders. Not upset. He corralled his own desk chair with a brief smile in their direction and grabbed a protein bar or three out of his top drawer.
Reyes emerged after him, go bag in hand, carefully locking his office door. Falkner went ahead and called the elevator for them. She waited until the doors were firmly shut and the car halfway to ground level before she raised an eyebrow at Stephen Reyes.
"He'll continue on active duty," Reyes said.
She did not have to say good.
Hyannis, MA, August 25, 2008
It was two hours to Barnstable Municipal, and Reyes, Lau, and Brady had spent the whole trip puzzling over their files, over Cecily Marshall and Gabriela Carvalho de Santos, sniffing for signs of gammas. Worth flicked through the hospital reports again and again, not moving her eyes half enough to actually be rereading. Falkner watched.
Cecily Taylor Marshall was left-handed; Gabriela Carvalho de Santos wasn't. Neither had a medical history worth noting: a trip to the ER with a broken leg for one as a child, with no call to Child Services noted. It was hard to read trauma between the lines. The defining characteristic of a nascent, newborn gamma was that they were difficult to find. They looked just like people.
"Thoughts?" Falkner murmured to Worth as the landing gear shuddered out and they made their final approach. Worth jerked her chin up in the seat across.
"Nothing," she said, and flicked the edge of the paper. "Nothing yet."
Barnstable PD had dispatched a rangy, fortysomething officer to meet them on the tarmac; it was a small enough airport that one just hopped out onto the landing strip, free to hypothetically wander instead of forced through tubes into a terminal. Their contact was in sober black uniform despite the heat, hat tucked against his hip, precise and tidy. Military, at a glance. Esther Falkner filed that away.
"Detective Sergeant Will Bradford," the cop on the landing strip said and, unable to read which one of these big-city federal agents was in charge, stuck out his hand for all takers. "I've got the lead on looking into Cecily."
Cecily, she noted. Small town. Everyone watching each other's kids tear through the streets, lawn chairs on a summer evening. All friends here.
Lau intercepted the hand, shook it. "Nicolette Lau. We spoke on the phone?"
Usually local PD brightened a little when faced with Nicolette Lau, or at least had the courtesy to look surprised. Bradford's thin face just solidified into something grim and tired. "We did," he said. "Thank you for coming."
It did not at all sound like he meant it. At Lau's elbow, Daniel Brady's lip twitched in a miniature scowl.
"No thanks necessary," Lau said – a polite fiction and any working law enforcement officer knew it. Everyone liked to be thanked, recognized. "We're here to help."
Falkner wasn't sure how Lau could say that again and again and keep a straight face, but by the time the introductions came around to her, she was composed and professional and the very picture of a federal agent. She shook the detective's hand on cue and then folded both arms into an at ease behind her back. Lau had engineered it so the detective reached Reyes last, and Reyes took the lead.
"I take it your people have performed the autopsy already?" he asked.
Bradford sagged a little more. It was warm enough out on the tarmac to call it wilting. "This morning. They should have results by now. If you'd like them forwarded to you?"
"We'll go see personally," Reyes said, purportedly ignoring the heat bouncing off the pavement. Sweat was making a break for it on his upper lip, and Worth didn't look too comfortable either. "We'd like to interview your ME."
"We can do that," the detective replied, and dug in his pocket for a set of car keys.
"What about Miss de Santos?" asked Brady. He and Lau, Falkner noted ruefully, were fresh as the figurative daisies.
Detective Bradford shook his head, flipping keys until his fingers found plastic and fat. "Cremated. Family's Brazilian, they do that 'round there. Round here," he corrected, a little abashed. "Sorry."
Reyes dropped him a curt, much more distant nod. How to lose Stephen Reyes's sympathy in one easy step. "We'll go straight to the morgue, then," he said, and didn't wait for reply before striding across the tarmac to the waiting cars.
"No morgue," Bradford said, voice dipping as he realized the FBI man wasn't quite listening. "It's at the hospital."
"To the hospital then," Falkner said, and struck a pace halfway between Reyes's hustling stride and an invitation to the rest to get moving. Brady took the cue and swung his bag over his shoulder, eased into a long-legged amble after her. She didn't look back for Worth or Lau. Inertia would carry them along to the cars where Reyes had already chosen the one with another driver, tucked himself carefully into the front seat, and was yanking on the lever that would move it up closer to the dash. Falkner veered off and planted herself in the front seat of the second car, belting herself in carefully while Brady and Worth piled into the back and Detective Bradford flopped into the driver's side with the loose motions of habit.
The radio station was preset when he gunned the engine. There was a half-finished coffee cooling in the drink holder and a picture of something or other dangling in one of those frame-catchers from the rearview mirror. Not a department car, then, but a personal one. Falkner glanced back and Worth was thumbing through that file yet again in the back seat. Worth caught her eye, shut the folder slightly.
Falkner looked away.
Bradford's car started up with a grumble and a hum, finding its gear as the detective fastened his seatbelt. "We're just making sure," he said. Looking at nobody in particular but out the windshield, hands carefully wringing the neck of his own steering wheel. "That no other kids hurt themselves. That's all."
The back seat was silent. Falkner was silent.
The dangling picture turned, stabilized as the car turned and got onto the highway. It was of two kids, both dark-haired like Bradford with the same long faces and little chins. They were knee-deep in the Atlantic surf with the sun streaming in from somewhere. One had a plastic shovel in his hand, and he was smiling.
Small town; potlucks and babysitting and everyone knowing each other's business. Or thinking they knew, and hoping to God that they really did know all there was.
"Don't worry," Falkner told him. "We'll make sure."
The picture swung, shimmered.
"We're here to help," she said.
Cecily Marshall had died in Cape Cod Hospital surrounded by some of the finest equipment medical science had to offer, and her body lay in limbo in the hospital's main building basement.
Barnstable and the village of Hyannis did not have a busy coroner's office. The Cape was quiet even before the rich summer people vanished into the airports and down the choked-up highway for another year, and the rare autopsy was handled in Boston by the State Medical Examiner. But Cecily Marshall had not died from violence, so her death certificate was signed by a local doctor and her body tended by a county examiner, an elderly man whose shoulders hunched as if they were not used to hunching, whose lab coat was tidy, pressed, but worn at the elbows – affection, not need, Falkner guessed.
"Simon Meadowvale," he said, in an accent that was pure old-school Connecticut Gold Coast, the kind of holistic overpronunciation that nobody but the ghost of Katharine Hepburn had anymore. His small, precise frame blocked the doorway, one hand in tight-curled hair far gone to silver and the other latex-gloved at his side. "You'd be the FBI."
People always wanted a dramatic reply to that. They very rarely had one. "We would," Brady said instead, asking admission with a short step forward, a click on tile floors that didn't disguise the chill of foundation concrete. Meadowvale acquiesced and backed inside, holding the door open.
The team trooped into the tiny hospital mortuary.
This was not a young building; it had stood still while fund drives put up others around it, and lights, wiring, the slight cramp of the corners all bore the touches of intermittent refurbishing. A far cry from Madeline Frost's warren back in Baltimore, although there were the same scuffs and scattered items, the same signs of tools arranged to a system only known internally and force-grown from habit and long comfort. The counters were white beyond white, and if the mosaic-chip tiles of the floor were cracked here or there, they gleamed.
"Everyone's been waiting," Meadowvale said, offhand.
"Oh?" Reyes said. His voice was dampened. Soundproofing in the walls perhaps, Falkner thought. To cut down on echoes on one's recorded autopsy notes.
"To bury her," Meadowvale finished. One hand twitched an abandoned set of forceps into place on the tool tray. "They agreed to the autopsy, but they didn't like it."
"You don't either," Reyes said, easing smoothly into the point position. Brady leaned back, carefully, on a vacant counter and crossed his arms loose.
"No," Meadowvale said frankly, and balled up his stray glove, shot it a good ten feet into a wastebasket. "I don't like it when kids die. And no offence to your person, but I don't think you ought to be here."
Worth was studying the tools, the one scuffed metal table, the steady and institutional fluorescent lights the way she'd thumbed through the file, frowning slightly, half-attention. Lau had fetched up beside Brady, a half-step ahead. Falkner stayed by the door, and shut it gently behind them. "What d'you see?" she murmured to Worth.
Worth didn't jump; too well-trained for that. But she tilted her head a little too fast. "It's all freshly scrubbed. He organized everything again." She sniffed a little, demonstrating. "Bleach."
Falkner surfaced quick enough to miss Reyes's next few words and catch the medical examiner's scowl. "I know what Will Bradford and his Captain seem to think, and I don't care. That girl died of functional starvation," he was saying, tense and cool. "And there's no reason for this to have got that far. It's a damn regrettable case, but it's a simple one; you charge the parents with neglect and let the jury decide."
"That's how they did it at home?" Brady cut in.
Meadowvale frowned. "That's how they do it by law, sir," he said.
Falkner exhaled quietly. Time to step in. "Detective Sergeant Bradford called us in to make sure this doesn't happen again." Over Dr. Meadowvale's protests, apparently. "If we see that his concern was misplaced, we'll head home gladly." A pause. Count to five, feel the tension pause and drain down a little through the gutters cut narrow in the floor. Competing jurisdictions; the first thing they should teach at Quantico. Forget all that stuff about firing a gun. "In the meantime, why don't we get to the autopsy proper?"
Meadowvale studied her. Suspicious, but he wasn't fidgeting his tools anymore. She offered a distant, professional smile and he gave up the ghost. "All right," he said, and opened the freezer for Cecily Marshall's body.
It would be worse in person. They always were. Lau's face was extra-blank, Brady's casual lean a little too casual as Meadowvale rolled the covered tray from freezer to table, latched it in, donned a new pair of latex gloves and snugged them down.
"You performed the autopsy yourself?" Reyes asked, pulling two gloves like tissues out of the box and sliding his hands into them. They were a touch too big. He pulled them tight at the wrists.
"Just me here," Meadowvale snipped before remembering they were all playing together now. "Yes," he amended, and lifted the sheet.
It was worse in person.
It was not even a body, Esther Falkner reflected, tucked away in the quiet place she kept for overseas combat missions, visits to victims' families, and the viewing of the dead the anomaly left behind. It was near a skeleton already; it had deteriorated, somehow, in the few hours between the snapping of Lau's slideshow photo and their arrival in the hospital where it died. It had no breasts, no hips, no elbows. Meadowvale had tried to pin the chest cavity shut, but there wasn't half enough flesh to make the illusion convincing. It was not a body; it was a wound.
This is what it looks like when a gamma starves to death.
"Her heart gave out," he said. "Blood vessel damage all over the body, and the organ itself was damaged. Consistent elevated blood glucose will cause that, left long enough, especially if combined with malnutrition. I'm agreeing with the emergency doctor's assessment: undiagnosed and untreated juvenile diabetes leading to diabetic cardiomyopathy."
Worth, from the corner, was frowning. Didn't add up. Vote of no confidence. She turned away and rejoined Lau and Brady at the table, who were busily conferring on something that wasn't the thing on the table. Both their faces were like stone.
"That much weight loss," said Reyes. The corner of his mouth twitched down. It wasn't a question. "Sixty-five pounds."
"You have a better explanation?" Meadowvale said mildly.
Falkner pressed her lips together and rewrote the official autopsy results to I don't know.
"We should correlate this with our other data," she put into the silence. Get it to Frost. Reyes glanced over at her, raised an eyebrow. She kept her face bland. He'd know what she meant.
"We're going to send your results to our expert," he said. The medical examiner squinted a little – worry? Fear? Outright indifference? -- and eventually nodded.
"You know what you're looking for," he replied, and laid his hand on the sheet that covered the thing that was once Cecily Marshall, well away from the skin. "Anything else? Funeral home's waiting on us."
Reyes glanced around to his team. Infinitesimally, they one by one shook their heads.
"All right," Stephen Reyes said, and peeled away the last fingertip of his glove. "Let her go."
Ashton, VA, October 8, 2008
Daphne Worth had given herself up for trapped behind the nurse's station when Falkner and Reyes followed the Greenwoods into Idlewood.
The Idlewood nurses liked to talk shop. That was the worst, maybe, of any visit to Arkham; the staff took their security clearances seriously. And they knew that Worth, trained in emergency medicine, had a security clearance higher than theirs and an inexcusable ignorance of all their work stories. All in all, despite the tension throwing off practically visible sparks between Mom and Reyes and the inevitable shittiness of a day spent justifying the unjust to the family of a gamma -- unsub and victim all in one and so no textbook way to handle it --Worth wasn't sure she'd got the best of the bad deal.
Between the gossip and the horrors and the well-concealed fear, the most she'd got was that Susannah Greenwood was quiet. Beyond that metric, that of good behaviour or bad, the nurses left the assessment of the tics of their charges to the doctors.
"We keep her away from Jessi," the round-faced, stocky one with a nametag that read Sharon put in; she was the clear mother of the crew, tiny and half-stern and everywhere at once. "That wouldn't be a good influence," she said confidingly.
"No," Worth agreed – it sure as hell wouldn't -- and then the door opened and the funeral procession came through.
"New kid's parents," one nurse muttered to an orderly, and they all melted away, finding files or rotation chores or other things to do and be as Falkner and Reyes led the red-eyed, nervous Greenwoods to Dr. Ramachandran's office.
Nobody had to gesture for Worth to follow. She'd been with this unit long enough to know when it was showtime.
Worth fell into step behind the Greenwoods, walking two imaginary chevrons back. It was no good to box people in. It made them feel afraid, and there was enough to make one afraid within the walls of Idlewood. On the other end of the hall Dr. Ramachandran's office door was propped open, revealing a room amber-painted and warm, stuffed with potted young avocado plants, fat succulent aloes and light cherry bookshelves that caught the sun. Dr. Casey himself was tending to something at the front of his desk, making sure nothing was between him and his patient's legal guardians. Warm, and tidy, and welcoming.
"Mr. Greenwood," he said, and beckoned them in. "Professor Greenwood. I'm Casey Ramachandran. Just call me Dr. Casey," and he put out a hand. When there was no good thing to say, Worth noted, you said nothing at all.
Both Greenwoods took it, shook. Both managed not to flinch at the implications.
"I'd like to brief you on Susannah's progress before we talk about papers," Dr. Casey said, cool and, if not smiling, exuding the concerned competence that a doctor who didn't have to work 24-hour emergency shifts could put off like a lightbulb. Paramedics didn't get that luxury. But again, paramedics weren't expected to do the talking that way; you spoke with your hands, with chest compressions or pressure bandages, and half the time you never found out if the message had come through.
Sometimes Daphne Worth missed her old job. Sometimes it was a terrible thing, to find out how the message was heard at the end.
"We'd like to see her first," Robert Greenwood said, with a set to his mouth that was both anger and grief. Mrs. Greenwood – Professor, technically – squeezed his hand.
"Of course," Dr. Ramachandran said smoothly, and held the office door wide for the whole troop to march into the suddenly silent hallway.
They kept Susannah in the outer rings of the building: Limbo, compared to the tucked-away, maximum-secured hallway where types like Bloody Larry were bricked in with not even a cask of Amontillado -- God knew what he'd do with booze and wood splinters. For Idlewood, Susannah Greenwood was pretty mild; so the hallways that Dr. Ramachandran led them through were light-painted, still had a window or two not fashioned of non-shatter glass and close-welded bars. They were brick windowsills and sunshine, and still held some of the ancient, wistful optimism of the original Idlewood Asylum, where the then-humanitarian philosophy of Moral Treatment had laid out the building's bones in light, fresh air, and exercise for another century of the dangerous insane, piled them gently inside, and hoped.
It was calming, even if you knew what it was for. It made one think of times that were more innocent, more naïve.
There was a key, of course. Falkner made a good effort to distract them from it, but both Robert and Virginia Greenwood's were fixed upon that door and no force on earth could take their eyes off it. So there was a key and it was turned, and before the door opened Dr. Casey rapped on the door once, twice, and said "Susannah? You have visitors."
There was no window in the door. He waited a moment until she replied, but all illusion. There were CCTV cameras in every room in Idlewood. There was a monitoring station where an orderly was perched night and day, and there was a discreet earpiece with a wire tucked behind Dr. Casey's pinna.
Susannah Greenwood was flopped on her flowered bedspread, reading. No telling if it was studied or not; the book looked like AP English, with the glossy bent cover and overcheerful graphics of a new textbook. The nurses had commented approvingly on how she was still working on her high school diploma. "Poor kid," big Sam had said, walking his security patrol past the nurse's station as they had chattered and Worth had waited. "Working so hard to be normal."
Her room was all over posters; bright blue walls and posed bands stuck up with sticky-tac, not thumbtacks, and three flowery soft throw pillows and an mp3 player, because CDs could be broken into something sharp. Susannah looked up as the two senior agents and her parents shuffled into the room after her doctor, and she dropped the book into her pillow.
"Mom," Susannah Greenwood said, wide-eyed and small, and then Reyes and Falkner shut the door gently behind them all.
Hyannis, MA, August 26, 2008
Cecily Marshall was committed to earth first thing Wednesday morning. Esther Falkner attended, and she brought her team.
FBI field wear was inherently suited for funerals. One was to be formal and sober; professional. Stay one step above the detectives and men and women in uniform, but not stand out. Without a uniform to rely upon, radiate that discrete brand of authority.
Falkner's uniform was, after all these years, worn on the inside. But she still pressed the best shirt in her go bag to see yet another dead teenager buried.
The service was Episcopalian. She was passing familiar with it after years of military funerals; long over the nagging feeling that any contact with the religious rites of others would stick to her skin after she'd left, need to be washed off later the way you washed death off your fingers on the porch between a graveyard and a shivah house, lest it root and do some irreparable damage. They stood in the back and watched the kids sniffling, crowding the weathered, whitewashed wooden church, stuffed into the aisles and between pews with tarnished brass nameplates and in the back room that was separated off with a divider hastily removed by the church custodial staff. They listened to the liturgy and the little moans from teenagers clutching each other's hands, all brought up too lovingly to realize that one of their own might die.
Falkner studied them, studied their tears.
Any one of them might be their next gamma.
"It'll come to the service," Reyes had said over dinner the night before, the whole team packed into a wood-and-brine-smell seafood restaurant that was the last place in thirty miles left with a free table for five. It was around the corner from their nondescript chain hotel, also the last place left on the Cape with rooms available in the week winding down to September. Height of tourist season, Falkner had realized, and deliberately left thinking about investigations in highly transient populations for the next day.
Falkner picked at her pasta; just about the only thing on the menu she could eat, and thank God she only kept the laws about kosher kitchens and cross-contamination inside the house. Lau had opted for salad. A lot of salad.
A child two tables down shrieked: "Mom, it's looking at me!" Brady winced. Reyes ducked his head and cracked a joint from his own lobster expertly, hiding half a smirk. Worth's expression was all concentration; she had a pound and a half lobster in pieces like it was a surgery, and was probably hearing nothing but scalpel?
"So we're thinking an it at this point," Brady said, blinking the noise out of his ears.
Reyes frowned. They all knew what theories they had about the anomaly were elaborate, carefully-constructed skyscrapers of cards. "We have a few options," he said, wiping one hand careful against his napkin to tick off guesses against fingers. "Either we have one gamma and these are victims; or we have many, who are for some reason flaming out; or," and he paused. "Or it's figured out how to become communicable."
Falkner speared a roasted pepper. She despised bell peppers. But when you were hungry you ate what was put in front of you, so she bit into it anyway and swallowed fast to keep it off her tongue.
"It'd be easy," Worth murmured, and set down her lobster claw. "Chain reaction. One dies and it's enough trauma to set off another. Keep going until you spark two at once."
"Like a virus," Lau kicked in, mouth twisted, cold and reluctant.
There was a silence around the table. Downwind, the little kid's mother finally turned her staring dinner somewhere else. The wails died down into a grudging sob.
"Bear in mind there's no other evidence for that," Reyes said.
Falkner picked through sauce for a mushroom. "There's a first time for everything."
"So what're we profiling?" Brady asked. "Patient Zero or a full-out unsub?"
Reyes pursed his lips."Whatever comes our way," he said, and lifted one hand for a waiter to make them up doggy bags. Falkner surrendered her pasta. She hadn't cared for it, still didn't later, when she crept out of bed at midnight to eat the rest cold, but nobody raised by survivors ever dared waste food. It sat heavy in her stomach when she woke up, and then heavier still as the teenagers gulped and sniffed and clung to each other in their little small-town church as their friend was laid to rest.
The service was ending; the minister had wound down, and the family was full-out sobbing, and I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, the black-gowned choir sang. Whence shall come my help.
Whence indeed, thought Falkner, and watched for the unseeable as the congregation began to pray.
She watched, moving careful, as the coffin was lifted and borne on the backs of uncles, cousins, friends. The people stuffed into the pews streamed after it, bleeding through the aisles and out into the light, around back where the families who had lived here generations kept a tidy graveyard tufted with thick grass and crabapple trees.
The words were spoken over the hole. The box was lowered, and the dirt sprinkled in. The crowd drew breath, all at once.
In a corner near the grave, a dark-haired slender girl in a lacy black Sunday skirt reached for the hand of her even thinner, shuffling friend, and squeezed. The second girl shuddered like she'd been hit.
The dirt went into the grave.
The traffic was already high when the crowd dispersed again, thick and crawling, tourists and summer visitors trawling along the shimmering roadways past the church where a caravan formed. It pointed back to the Marshall residence, where a catered lunch was no doubt laid out for the people come to mourn their daughter's starving away.
Esther Falkner's team climbed into the black SUV that the regional office had finally given over; shut the doors, belted quietly, surreptitiously. You could hear the sound of cicadas through the window seals; cicadas and the ocean.
"All right," Reyes said, and turned the key in the ignition. "Suspects."Hyannis, MA, August 26, 2008
After the funeral, packed in black dresses and their best tight shoes, Susie and her mother drove ten miles above the speed limit to make it on time to the doctor.
"How long again since your last period?" Doctor de Guzman asked. It was right there on the file. Susie swayed from left hip to right just to hear the exam table paper crinkle and ignored the aching in her stomach. No breakfast this morning. Hands in her lap; they were still tingling from the funeral, from Juliana's grab and squeeze that she couldn't, just couldn't turn away from. Yeah, couldn't, said the bit of herself that pointed out the things she didn't really want to hear. She shoved it aside. Mrs. Marshall's crying had made her empty belly feel like air and stone.
Mom was watching her, calm as ever. Susie could make her wait outside now – she was sixteen and had the right to be private with her doctor – but then she'd just have to tell Mom afterwards 'bout everything Doctor de Guzman said, and it was less painful this way. Less like lying.
"Four months," she said, and tried not to meet anyone's eye.
"Hrm," said Doctor de Guzman, in the same way she had right before she'd whipped out the tongue depressor back when Susie was thirteen and pronounced her sick with bronchitis. "I think we'll need to do an exam."She was almost apologetic about it. Well, I would be too, Susie figured, remembering the cold metal, the feeling of being so horrifically... exposed. Mom had changed her from Doctor Steve, who she'd seen since she was a little kid, to Doctor de Guzman when she'd turned twelve. She hadn't figured out until that first exam why, and then it was a little too embarrassing to thank her mother for it outright, something she couldn't quite get up the nerve to talk about between them even with the years of sex ed and this is the difference between girls and boys. It was different when it was your body, something inside you. That was different than a coloured diagram on a screen. Now Mom got up, awkward too, and murmured something about being just outside while Doctor de Guzman guided Susie's feet into the metal stirrups on the examining table, got her to inch forward and backward and just so until whatever angle she needed for this was right. The trick was to think of something else. She worked hard to think of something else. She thought about Cecily in the ground, the same way Gaby wasn't anything but dirt in a fat brass urn. She thought about the itch on her hands; the inches of Juliana's waist. What if the doctor found something in the blood or tabs or bottles, something that showed all the things Susie'd been doing? What if she didn't?
Susie squeezed her eyes tight and concentrated on the cold metal instead. Once it withdrew Doctor de Guzman was quiet. She heard pen scratching on paper and tentatively sat up, legs curled across each other, the awful blue paper gown draped over them like a shield.
"All right there?" the doctor asked, and lying with the ease of habit, Susie nodded. The doctor smiled, encouraging, and let herself out.
Susie sat for a moment, aching inside and out, and then scrambled for the black dress, the tights and panties, the shoes.
They were talking outside, she noted, as she plucked at her tights, trying to ease them up snug over her thighs without poking her fingers right through. Secret stuff, her brain noted; about calories. About food and measuring tapes and how she couldn't do it honest, how her helping turned dirty and her hands got hungry and stole.
She dressed quicker.
There was no trace of secrets when she opened the exam room door. Doctor de Guzman smiled at her distractedly, and Mom looked worried, those lines in her forehead creasing up and blending, making her look so much older than she ever did. Old enough to have a teenager. Nobody ever thought she was.
"Iron," Doctor de Guzman said, finishing with Mom, starting with her. "Lots of protein. We'll have the glucose tests back by Thursday, and until then, good nutritious meals."
She couldn't keep the look off her face. Or she was sure she didn't, because Doctor de Guzman patted her shoulder, halfway like you did for a kid, and said: "Don't worry. We'll sort this all out."
Her shoulder tingled where the doctor touched it, sharp and then hot, and then settled into an itch. A burn. Her hand echoed sympathy. Her stomach turned and sighed.
It was spreading.
"Yeah," she stammered. The doctor blinked, her face going sallow and awful, her hand dropping to her side. She swayed on her feet.
Mom caught up to her at the car. She couldn't run fast, not so hungry as she was, even with the tingling on her shoulder that she wanted to dig out with her fingernails and throw into the sea. She couldn't run fast and really there was nowhere to go, nowhere but the car which she didn't have the keys to. And home. And school. And home again.
"Susie," Mom called, out of breath a little, and then "Susannah!"
Don't touch me. Oh please, she thought, and hugged herself in a little tighter. Faced straight into the car window so her mother's hands would keep away.
It worked. Mom gave a little sigh and went around to her side of the car, unlocking the door with the remote as she went. Susie scrambled into the car and belted herself in tight, sticking to the door once she closed it after her. Mom was silent for a few moments; key in ignition, one sharp turn, pull out of the parking space and join the short line to turn out of the parking lot onto the road, head for home.
They didn't have the light. The car idled.Her stomach muttered satisfaction.
Mom must have looked over; taken her eyes off the road in the way that she told Susie never to do when they were out practicing on the backroads after school or at odd hours, and seen her reflection crying in the windowpane. Because "Oh, honey," her mother said, a little breathless, and then her arms were around her back, made awkward by the gear shift between them, the stuffed fabric ridges of the passenger seat. Someone honked behind them. Mom ignored it and ran her hand up and down Susie's back, petting like when she was a little kid and could cry herself into hyperventilating from a bad dream.
The burning caught along her spine. It followed the sweep of her mother's hands and trickled down through her muscles, along the pathways of her arms. Her wrists felt thicker. Her stomach ached. She looked down and her hands were fat again, wide and fleshy and soft.
The other car pulled around them with a screech and a snarl. Susie leaned into her mother's shoulder and cried until she couldn't breathe, big fat baby sobs, cried herself scraped and empty.
"Tell me," her mother said, and stroked her hair in a way that brought up new pain.
There was no telling. Not the truth. But she could tell something, and something bubbled up, and "M'gonna be—" Gaby and Cecily. Burned up. In the ground. She couldn't even say their names. It all came out twisted, knotted up in her throat and didn't let her talk about the scratch she got in her hands, the diet, the nightmares, the way she was just...so hungry.
She didn’t need to.
"You won't," her mother said, and held her at arm's length, hands on her shoulders, chin tilted down and face so serious she'd have thought herself in trouble if not for the way those hands were holding onto her, tight like a hand run up and down the back. "The doctor's going to fix this, and whatever we need to do, we'll do it." Quiet, and fierce: "You won't."
Susie gulped back tears. Her throat hurt. Everything hurt. Oh Mom, she thought, desperate. You don't understand.
God she wished she could understand.
"Come on," Mom said. Put the car back into gear, reached out to squeeze her hand.
Shook it a little, as if it had gone numb."I know what'll cheer you up," she said. "Let's get ourselves a burger." J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., August 26, 2008
Hafidha Gates had sent Chaz out for Ethiopian when the call came in. "Gates," she answered, not even glancing at her old wired-together caller ID. It was Reyes, and from the way Chaz and Duke had been assiduously avoiding each other since the rest of the team went wheels up, Hafidha deemed it a time to be überprofessional.
"Gates, it's Reyes," filtered in through her headset, taut and cranky-sounding. Uh-huh, baby. Mama knows. "We need a little digging on our suspects."
"Order it up," she said, bright and sharp, and settled fingers into a loose hover over her keyboard. Not like she needed it anymore, if there was enough to eat around and nobody who might spook over the whole thing was looking. But a body had its habits too. One fingertip brushed the home row. Bright and sharp.
He sent her names. Names from the condolence book, one after another, in impersonal text copied by some local PD dogsbody they weren't trusting with a car or gun yet. They filled two screens like black-and-white fireworks, spilling one onto the next and wrapping around.
"Filter them out; we want people in close and common contact with both girls. Neighbours, classmates, teachers. Community fixtures. And cross-check all those people for anomalous tendencies."
Trauma; that was an easy fit. Hospital admissions, or police calls, or sudden changes in behaviour. High caloric intake could be approximated; bank records with sharply increased spending at supermarkets. Her left hand resettled on the mouse. "Medical records?"
Reyes let out a breath. "Try the school records first."
Go easy on the kids, honey, she translated, but not too easy. "Yes indeed, boss man," she said, and started an idle tapping. The medical records could come later. You couldn’t catch a gamma without breaking a few eggs. Or privacy laws.
"I won't tell," she solemnly informed the naked list of mourners, and got to work.
They were scattered all over the Cape. Not only that, there was a good sprinkle of home addresses that crept throughout the Tri-State Area and Massachusetts; summer people, Hafidha noted, remembering the inevitable plague of winter people back at home, tracking the sun like fatter, tackier birds on the wing. Never the same flock twice. She diverted into another screen to yank up rental records, hotel receipts, credit card trails, and flicked it all delicately into a green-and-blue map. It covered seven towns across the county and spilled over into the sea.
"Popular little thing, weren't you?" she muttered, paring it down into households, sweeping pinpricks of overlap away with one brushed hand. Well, Cecily Marshall wasn't going to have a date for prom either, so there was no sense in being jealous about it.
"Food," Chaz announced, pivoting from the narrow hall through her open door. She heard the soft crumple of paper bags hitting particle board, and the strong smell of doro wat and fresh, soft injera rose in the room like carbon monoxide.
"Mmph," she said, and tagged her map again. Adieu to the right-handed. Rest quiet under your momentary filter. The textbook ninety percent vanished. Still too many dots.She dumped in the police and hospital admissions data for the past three years, and started sorting.
There was a crinkle as Chaz's hands opened the bag – she could picture them, thin and deft, and refocused herself away from hands and food and back onto the faltering stream of numbers – and the smell redoubled, hot and sweet. The crinkle paused.
"'Scuse me," Chaz said, choked-off, and his feet slapped a retreat out into the hall.
"Hey—" Duke said just outside, and his own step, lighter and quieter and somehow more deceptively so, sounded in the doorway. "Someone's in a hurry."
"Probably being sick," she murmured. The dots denoting Cecily Marshall's family had gone dark. Excellent health, wonderful home lives, and high heels and pearls at dinner, it seemed.
There was nothing she could do. He'd get angry if she followed him to the bathroom and held his hair out of the way and mopped up the toilet seat after him. He didn't want them seeing it and had made that crystal clear.
It made her angry.
Nothing to do.
A map full of dots.
"Seven dishes?" Duke intoned. "So this is why children are starving in Ethiopia."
"Send them yours," Hafidha replied, and hovered over the keyboard. There were other ways than medical records to pluck out trauma; she'd learned them all working with this unit. But none of them were as reliable, or as complete.
She cracked open the federal databases and warmed them the hell up. Felt in her fingers that crazy intuition that'd been hers even before everything fell apart and came back together. That flash of colour.
Down the hall, a toilet flushed.
"I don't care," she muttered. "For this much suffering, it had better have each baby finger and all ten toes."
"I was born with eleven," Duke said, tucking injera gently onto a bright blue ceramic plate. He knew where her stash of plates were. The boy was in her office too much.
"I've seen your toes," she said, tapping in a request that wasn't a request, that wouldn't appear on any logsheet or record.
"I lost one in Vietnam," he informed her, and settled onto the couch with a sigh of springs better put out to pasture. "Going through a rice field. Stepped on a rat trap."
"A rat trap cut off your toe?" Almost there.
"No, the rat," he said. "They were giving me shots for days."
Chaz poked his head around the doorframe before the rest of him. She glanced up, quickly; only that, before the streams of an idea before her lost cohesion, dissolved into nothing but pixels and numbers and lines. He still looked green as a boiled frog. "What? What?"
"Nothing," she said, and the terminal beeped mildly, and she copied those files down to her desktop and eased out of the database like a lady. Blinked. Stretched her hands.
Her stomach rumbled.
She turned around with a sigh, spinning halfway on her desk chair to face the dim tiki lights, the posters, the ratty yellow couch, and the seven dishes worth of Ethiopian food being attacked enthusiastically by Solomon Todd, concerned citizen and activist against African famine.
"Save anything for me?" she asked.
"Of course—" Chaz started.
"I meant him," she replied, and cracked her back, one vertebra after another. A good research burn was like slamming. Totally absorbing, clean and sharp and focused, and then afterwards you felt like canned shit. "Gimme some of that injera."
They loaded up their plates in silence, breaking all the rules and then some with their individual servings and their forks. Eh. Nobody was watching. Hafidha winced as she sat back down in her chair; she might have taken the other side of the couch, but it was her chair. Wouldn't do to set precedents around here.
"What'd Dad want, then?" Chaz asked around a mouthful when they were all tucked in, when the sound of chewing and CPU fans got a little too stifling.
"Good old-fashioned thinning out the herd," she said, and remembered her files.
She turned around, aimed a few clicks, her plate shifted to the top tier of her desk. Cecily Marshall and Gabriela Carvalho de Santos: no recent hospital visits, no whisper of police involvement, no trace with any counselling office within county lines. There had been school board-provided counselling for Miss Cecily after Gabriela died, but she hadn't continued. But there had been school board-provided counselling for everyone after Gabriela died.
"Hmph," she said, and her chest loosened. Maybe a normal case after all. Nothing strange. Nothing new. Not evolving.
"Hmph is how the camel got his hump," Duke observed, and she circled back to face them.
"They're both clean. Both girls; well, the first is cleaner than the second, but there's nothing to make the second any more of a special snowflake than anyone else in that high school. Either we have victims here, not gammas," she said, and watched Chaz's eyes deliberately not close, his chin not turn away.
"Or they honestly just starved themselves to death," she said, and took a vengeful little bite of kitfo.
Chaz's face was cool and still. Yeah, little bro, she thought, sent it out to him. People doing it on purpose. People refusing food. It was enough to make you want to smack a person.
Not our suspects, she tapped out on her keyboard, addressed to Reyes, Falkner. Attached the files. Our victims.
The map glowed on her second monitor. She tapped it to keep it off the screen saver. Food first; calories first, each one careful and hoarded and precious and needed. The red dots stared at her. She stared back.
Somewhere in that haystack was a regular ol' garden-variety gamma, and she knew how to hunt gammas.Hyannis, MA, August 26, 2008
The Marshall house was not a shivah.
The food had been eaten, the respects paid, and then, unlike a shivah house, everyone had gone home with prayers unspoken. But it had that sense of aftermath. The house was all hasty assembly: tables pushed to the walls to accommodate food and drink, chairs and chairs brought from every room and the neighbours and down the street, littering tufts of napkins. Tears. Voices to drive out the silence.
Falkner and Worth let themselves in quietly, Lau peeling off to have a few quiet words with Detective Bradford, stationed stiff and unwilling by the door. Keeping local PD in the loop, Falkner noted. Good policy.
Brady joined her, a step back and to the right, attentive, present. Getting in for a chance to talk shop with local PD: I was a cop before I joined the Bureau, Dallas PD. What's it like in your town?
She was blessed in her team. It was good to remember that.
She made her way through the rose-tiled hallway, past stairs leading up into darkness and privacy so explicit no sign or gate was needed, and took a sharp turn to the right into the plush moss-green carpeting of the living room. The folding chairs were wedged between stylish black leather couches. There were both family photos and heavy-framed, numbered Japanese drawings on the walls. A well-dressed woman was holding the mother's hand, and another was collapsing down the folding chairs softly, with a creak and a snick, tears peeking at the corners of her eyes.
Falkner looked back. Worth was at her shoulder. They'd lost Reyes: he was disappearing down the hallway towards the sound of a television blaring. She watched after him a moment; on the television, a little blonde girl in a bright pink tutu bounced on a stage that was recognizably the same hallway landing, draped in what was probably supposed to have been her curtain. "Ooh, honey honey, you are my candy giiiirl—" she sang, rising up into that toddler shriek, and Falkner could hear the sound of sniffling underscoring it like static amongst the laughter and clapping of thirteen years before.
Worth threw her a question with her eyes. No, Falkner shook her head. Reyes was about to initiate a Man-To-Man Conversation. Stick to the mother. Focus.
They navigated between the glass-topped coffee table and the scattered, abandoned seats to the large couch at the other end, where the mother and her comforter sat beneath a policeman's watchful eye. Her hair was clean, Falkner noted. Someone had made her wash her hair for her daughter's funeral.
"Mrs. Marshall," she said, gently. The woman didn't look up and she didn't repeat herself. "Esther Falkner and Daphne Worth. We're with the FBI."
The one holding the mother's hand studied them; they were close enough in the shape of the chin, in the way they huddled against each other, for Falkner to peg them as sisters. With that sharp eye, Falkner guessed this was the one who'd made Allison Marshall wash her hair. "What do you want here?" she snapped, and the officer standing by them put a hand on her shoulder; "Come on, Alex—"
The sister – Alex; yes, they had to be sisters with that chin and the names matching in that cutesy way parents just loved, even forty years ago – shook it off with one quick jerk. Allison Marshall didn't even look up.
Lie to them, she told herself. Any means necessary to prevent a panic. Also: spare her the pain.
"Young people sometimes form clusters this way," she said, speaking soft and comforting. "They imitate each other, dieting or depression. Hurting themselves." A sharp intake of breath. The aunt, not the mother. "We were called in by your local PD to make sure that's not what's happening here."
"I know what a suicide cluster is," Allison Marshall said from beneath her hanging hair, sharp and wounded. She was blonde too, but darker. Falkner wondered if Cecily's hair would have darkened as well, had she grown older. "Cecily didn't—"
"I know," Falkner said, quick, not too quick to show just how defensive, breathless she felt. She had never done this part of the job before Rebekah was born. She had never learned how to not see her own child. "We went to the hospital and saw the records—" you never said autopsy, not this fresh "—and that's not what the doctors agreed happened."
"You're here to snoop around and see if her own mother was starving her," Alex the sister snapped. Falkner gauged that sharp eye once again; protectiveness and grief. Grieving, and spoiling for a fight. She flipped back reddish-blond hair with a huff. "That's what this is all about, goddamned Will Bradford going around saying Allison did that—"
Worth drew in a breath, and opened up her posture in case goddamned Will Bradford came charging around the door.
Esther Falkner was blessed in her team. He didn't.
"Alex," Mrs. Marshall said, indistinct. Tired. "It doesn't matter now."
It didn't. Her child was dead.This woman was not a gamma.
Falkner sat down – and the folding chair took her weight badly, twinged three separate things in her lower back -- rested her elbows on her knees, reached out and took Mrs. Marshall's hands in her own. "Tell us," she said.
Allison Marshall's hands were damp and warm. They pulled back, and then convulsive, tightened.She told them.
Cecily was a good girl. She didn't get into trouble (said in a way that made Falkner suspect there was a sister or brother or cousin, one who did, one who wasn't). She got good grades and so what if she was a little quiet? You couldn't force a kid into a mold; you had to let them be who they were.
You did, Falkner agreed, and held the woman's hands and listened.
Cecily Marshall was quiet. Her teachers dubbed her smart but could participate more in class discussions. There had been a bullying problem in middle school, but it seemed to have died down. She had her small group of friends and they stuck together, and when she'd started losing weight her mother had thought it was just the baby fat coming off and the summer and the way they were all running about to the beach all the time instead of sitting eight hours a day in a classroom. Maybe paying more attention to her figure. Something innocuous.
"When did she start losing weight?" Worth asked from the side, still standing -- and a little awkwardly, shut out as she was from that circle of created intimacy: older women with teenage girls who were dedicatedly turning the rest of their hair white.
Allison Marshall shook her head, distracted, upset. Upset that she couldn't remember right. "Earlier this summer? End of May, beginning of June?"
"Before her friend Gabriela died?" Falkner asked.
"Before," Allison Marshall said. Her hands fluttered, pulled away from Falkner's. I should have known it to the hour, said her face.
Worth crouched down too, a stable athlete's squat, notebook in hand. "Can you tell us who she was spending time with around then? Her regular friends? Anyone new?"
"Her regular friends," Mrs. Marshall said even fainter. Glanced up at her sister, mouth tight. "Her cousin."
Worth smiled gravely, reassuringly, and began to take down names.
Falkner withdrew; the moss-green carpet was springing back slowly into shape from its ceaseless trampling that afternoon and the kitchen, when she entered, was compact and modern and silent, littered with catering trays and dirty glasses. A neighbour washed up slowly by the sink, looking up and then quickly down again as Falkner wandered in, apologized, kept moving through.
Reyes was finishing up in the family room. The television wasn't off, but muted; the video shook a little as three-year-old Cecily waved scavenged ribbons about and grinned and bowed. She was a cute kid. A little chubby. Baby fat.
"Mr. Marshall," Reyes paused as she came in. "This is SSA Falkner."
She shook his hand, professional and strong. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Marshall," she said, and let go. His grip was strong too, almost spitefully so. He was a thin man, lanky bones and thick brown hair and his dress shirt half-unbuttoned. His eyes were red.
"Aren't you supposed to be chasing serial killers or something?" he asked. Unlike his sister-in-law, there was no power left in it.
Reyes' face set in a flat, strange line that nobody but Falkner would recognize as terrible, suppressed laughter. "Sometimes we help little girls too," he said, and continued taking down the list of names.
At fourteen, Rebekah Falkner had decided that she wanted to be called Bekk, the two k's specified and sometimes audible in her pronunciation. Her mother honourably tried to remember this, and thus was--temporarily--ahead in the Good Parent/Bad Parent game. Ben couldn't seem to train himself out of Beckie, which got him at best a fourteen year old eyeroll and exasperated "Daa-ad."
So Falkner was careful, when Rebekah took the phone that evening, to remember to start with her best foot forward. "Bekk, tell me what happened at the mall yesterday?"
Silence. Rebekah was not a silent kid.Victim silence, she thought, for one terrible moment, before she took a deep breath and laid down a river in her head between her case and her child.
"Penguin?" she said, tentatively. Silly old baby-nickname. The kid had looked like one in the ultrasound, squished and floppy in black and white. She'd grown out of wanting to be called that by ten.
"Fucking Tonya Preston dropped this shit down the back of my shirt," she muttered. Barely audible. "I came home. Deborah called Dad."
Falkner didn't say word one about the swearing.
"Are you okay?" she asked instead, gentle and probing. Her free hand bunched in her once-creased pants. It was the end of the day in a slightly run-down paisley-carpeted replicable chain hotel, a hotel that could be anywhere in America, except anywhere in America it wasn't the last week of summer in Cape Cod and they would have found rooms in a better hotel. Worth had excused herself to Lau's room th second Falkner had picked up the phone. The only other sound was the air conditioning.
She relaxed the fist automatically, started to smooth out her pants, then stopped. End of the day. It didn't matter if her pants wrinkled up now.
"Yeah," Rebekah muttered. Falkner held silent. And then her daughter made a little hiccupping cough, an odd animal noise. "No."
"Oh, sweetheart," she said without thinking, and choked it back. No crying. No kicking herself over not being there, because now she was here, and that was just how it was. And no being or saying anything but strength, because teenaged and prickly or not, her little girl needed something to hold on to.
"Listen," she said, firm and careful, closing her eyes to better be there, not be here. "I'm proud of how you handled yourself. You got yourself out of a situation you weren't happy with." A pause. "I'd prefer if next time you'd give us a call instead of taking matters into your own hands with the transit."
"I'm fourteen years old, Mom," she said. Snippy. No telling if she was snippy about the implied insult or the things she didn't want to talk about with her mother, but God knew her fourteen years old sounded so different, worlds away, from what that meant to her mother.
"You are," she said, neutrally. "And we care about you, and like to know that you're safe and happy."
"Okay," Rebekah muttered. She didn't exactly sound chastised. But she got the message, Falkner thought.
"I love you," she said. Let out a breath.
"When are you coming home?" Rebekah said suddenly, and her eyes came open again, with all that new calm crumbled.
"I don't know yet, sweetheart," she said carefully. "Soon."
Once the downstairs extension was safely hung up she let the hand uncurl from her pant leg for real. "How's she doing?" she asked Ben. He would be in their bedroom now. She visualized it; called out the smell of his shampoo from a scent-memory that would be faded in just a few days.
He whuffed out a breath. His eyes were probably tired. They had lines at the corners that she liked to trace with one finger when he was half-asleep. "Stewing. Stayed in her room all afternoon with the music up loud. I'd be worried if she wasn't making a show of it, you know. Teenagers are resilient."
To a point, she thought.
"She's angry," he continued. "And she's gonna be for a while. But I can't fault that."
"No," Falkner replied softly. She was angry too. And unfortunately – or fortunately – grown adults against capricious fourteen-year-old girls being wicked in the ways only teenagers could wasn't considered fair play in any of the fifty states. "You have a chance to talk to the parents?"
"Yeah," he said. And now, he was angry too. "I don't know how far we'll get with them. Kids will be kids and harmless joke and all that bullshit."
Her back was starting to throb. She counted to three and let out a slow breath, bent over at the waist to stretch the muscles out. It wasn't working. Nothing to do about it.
Too much in life like that. Nothing to do.
"Maybe we can do one better when I get back," she said quietly. "Hey, I'm sure they've been late with their taxes once."
Ben snorted. "Yes, J. Eddie."
He wasn't angry at her. Maybe it would have been easier if he got angry about it: Ben stayed home with the girls while she was out getting shot at, and that was the deal, and that had been the deal long enough that neither of them questioned it anymore. But neither of them were especial believers in easy solutions, and so even if he was angry sometimes, he didn't get angry.
"Goodnight," she said. I love you. Thank you. Thank you thank you.
"Goodnight, Es," he replied, and she held on to the phone as the line clicked and died.
She'd turned down her bed before going to call Ben – old habit, army habit – and it was ready to slide into when she tucked her cellphone onto the scratched mass-produced nightstand, took out her earrings, braided back her hair and finished up in the washroom. Worth was back when she emerged with clean teeth and in pajamas; profilers tended to know when they were wanted, when they could come back in."Wakeup call's set for seven," Worth said, and she nodded. Her usual was six, but there wasn't a whole lot they could do before the records offices opened, places of work and home addresses were traced, and people were available and ready to let officers of the law inside.
Worth was flopped on the other bed – double occupancy on the government dime, and especially in Cape Cod in the last week of summer – and shut her book as Falkner eased herself under a washed-out pastel floral bedspread. Deliberately washed out, she guessed. Kind of like distressed jeans. Worth tucked the book back into her go bag. None of the team ever really made themselves comfortable in a hotel room. She reached for the lamp switch and clicked it; hesitated.
"This one won't take long," Worth said, her back to Falkner's cramped double bed, averting her eyes by the neat expedient of getting herself tucked under the hotel blankets. "Right?"
Falkner took a breath, let it out. Soon. For all their hectic organization, they'd almost overlooked it. Worth was getting married in ten days.
She and Ben had done it quietly; there had been no caterers, final fittings, decorators, or theme-coloured invitations, just a backyard and a tent and a whole lot of potluck. Not everyone did it that way, though.
"I don't know," Falkner said. If it ran long, she'd send Worth home, she decided. They could work this case with four, or fly in Todd if they really needed to. Chaz was enough on the mend to handle the paperwork end of things. They'd manage. "I'm hoping not." A pause. "We'll get you home in plenty of time."
"Thank you," Worth said, muffled, and yes, they should have left her at home.
She reached over and turned off her own lamp. The dark swam and resolved into ceiling, drapes, a stain of light spread from the place those drapes didn't meet. It looked like the profiles of two dead girls and one living. Falkner shut her eyes with a sigh. She needed to get some sleep.
"Ah," Worth's voice came tentative from the other bed. Falkner rolled over, opened her eyes. "I...well. How do you handle it?"
Falkner's back went stiff with the surprise. She propped herself on an elbow, thought about relaxing it, muscle by muscle. "Handle which?"
"Being away," Worth said, after a pause. "And the family."
Falkner let herself back down onto her back, tugged up the blanket. She was very aware that hers was the only marriage in recorded history that had managed to survive Shadow Unit. A couple of Reyes's seemed to have seen the whole idea coming and run the other way up to a decade earlier.
"It's different when you're married," she said, staring at the freckles of plaster on the ceiling. It was hard to quantify how. The days when she and Ben had lived on takeout and block-and-board furniture in a badly-kept DC apartment were muzzy, worn unreal by too many breakfasts and Sundays and birthday parties between. "Easier. You...draw agreements up between yourselves, and you pay it back when you're there." Do the dishes. Arrange the day trips to museums, lunch in the park with the girls, actively spend time. Let it equal out in the mix of things, like it always did if you trusted each other enough. "Easier and harder in some ways. Especially if you're having children."
Worth's startle of surprise was utterly silent.
"We haven't thought about that," she said, after a moment. Cautious. Still guarded.
"Well," Falkner replied, half-apology, to the dark. "You have time."
"Time would be the problem," Daphne Worth said, not quite as hesitant as a fourteen-year-old girl, but near enough. "I haven't known if I'll be on time for a date for over a year."
"You have to change what on time means," Falkner said, and rolled over to face the window, turned away. "You make on time be when you're there."
Worth was silent.
The beds, at least, were good. They didn't squeak when Worth finally rolled over, and through the window, like a buzz of white noise, Falkner could hear the ocean. Smell it, too. Different from the Mississippi, she noted, but sort of the same. Wet and fresh.
Eventually each figured the other was sleeping. Eventually, they were.
Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Baltimore, MD, August 26, 2008
Madeline Frost rarely used a fax machine. They were messy and imprecise, smudgy. They eradicated the subtleties of a photograph, or better yet, real flesh. But a fax machine was all that the Cape Cod Hospital was willing to use, and they would not send the body.
She supposed she understood. The longer the girl stayed unburied, the longer facts must be faced. Forgetting happened better with a good six feet of dirt.
People didn't, not sincerely, want to know.
While she fancied herself not like that – and that was why she took the work with the Anomalous Crimes Task Force, and that was why she quietly fleshed out her private, locked-away files with every gamma corpse Stephen Reyes was able to ship home and suffered what small intrusion a specially-issued security clearance inserted into her daily life – that too was a danger. Complacency, she noted. Complacency was the number one cause of death.
So she made do with the faxes of this Meadowvale's inferior autopsy and did not press the issue.
And it was decidedly inferior.
Bloodwork, yes. And they had cut her open, and examined the heart and kidneys and liver, in a charming, cursory way. Beyond the weight and shallow condition, the presiding doctor had averted his eye; there were few tests ordered. He had not opened the skull.
Complacency, and the desire truly, deep down, not to know.
Madeline Frost picked up the receiver of her heavy white rotary telephone and dialled Stephen Reyes's number.
(She knew they disliked contacting her. Disliked coming into her dissection room yet more. She was not in the habit of cultivating illusions.)
Agent Reyes was not picking up his phone. A bad habit in a federal agent, but all the better. It was much preferable to deal with the answering service.
"This is Madeline Frost." She spoke precisely into the machine. Precision right off was preferable to correction later. "I received your materials this afternoon. In the absence of the body—" they had earned a small rebuke "—I can only judge the autopsy as reported, and as reported, it is incomplete and inadequate. I cannot ascertain from these findings whether the subject displayed the usual markers." She paused. "You may wish to inquire with the presiding doctor as to why he did not perform a toxicology exam, order genetic tests, or inspect the brain."
Hopefully they would find another body for her soon.
Madeline Frost replaced the receiver and washed her hands mechanically; towelled them off and tugged two nitrile gloves from a half-full box with her disinfected thumb and finger. It was only midnight, and there was work to do yet.
Ashton, VA, October 8, 2008
They had warned Virginia Greenwood not to touch her daughter.
Falkner had not had to do that. Reyes had handled the phone call and the paperwork, working heads-together with Doctor Ramachandran in that silent way of theirs that suggested a long and not always agreeable association. Susannah's manifestation was catalogued and confined, its byways mapped and its mythologies – like simple, human touch – committed to paper, but they did not know how volatile it was. It might lash out. It was possible it could never be sated.
Reyes had explained this thing to the Greenwoods in language they could handle once, twice, and with a reminder right before the visit.
Virginia Greenwood ignored him.
"Susie," she gasped as the door shut behind them, breath kicked out of her, and rushed to fold her daughter in her arms.
Reyes started forward and Falkner moved to lay a hand on his sleeve; changed her mind and just held up the hand. Three marriages, but Reyes didn't have any children. He wouldn't understand that the thing inside Susannah, the danger of touching it skin to skin, was nothing but an inconvenient detail.
Susannah stiffened when her mother touched her, pulled back; was met by her father on the other side, more awkward but still aching to hold his only child after two months without.
Virginia Greenwood noticed. There was no not noticing. "Susie," she said, stern and hoarse.
Behind Falkner's arm, Reyes subsided.
Susannah Greenwood leaned her head on her mother's shoulder and let out a long breath.
They should not have been witnessing this; there was no call for anyone to witness this, not in person, not on the camera that was embedded discreetly in the corner of Susannah Greenwood's tiny world. But in this facility, Susannah Greenwood was a patient and they were consultants to her doctor; they were federal officers and her parents were civilians.
Her parents were civilians and she was an incarcerated felon and they were her arresting officers.
"It's okay," Susannah Greenwood told her doctor with a bit of that teenage asperity. "I ate lunch. Seconds."
Dr. Ramachandran's eyebrow lifted, but to his credit his voice stayed patient and kind. "We don't know if that makes a difference, Susannah."
"Of course it does," she said, and her father blinked at her, hurt and confused. Unable to apprehend his daughter's familiarity, that sighing, impatient, horrifically normal teenage irritation directed at her jailer.
"You know what we're here for, right?" her father said, and she nodded. Dr. Ramachandran had briefed her, just as he'd briefed her parents before they scheduled the long drive up highways that got narrower and narrower to Idlewood. Whatever form Susannah Greenwood's manifestation of the anomaly had taken, it had left her relatively lucid; she wasn't plotting like Clemson McCain or turned sadistic like Saito or schizophrenic like Jessica Kelly. Dr. Ramachandran hadn't theorized why. Brady had taken it as a firm conviction that the eventual nasty streak just hadn't yet cooked through. But Falkner, in her quieter moments, assumed that if the anomaly fed upon suffering, Susannah Greenwood's own was sufficient meat for it.
The girl leaned in her mother's arms, and her father held her hand, and for once Stephen Reyes looked uncomfortable and awkward and lost in this little room, his feet washed with the edges of someone else's desperate familial affection. Ramachandran glanced over at them, questioning. He had the clipboard in hand with the papers. How do you want this to go?
"Don't worry," Falkner said quietly. "We have no further appointments today."
Hyannis, MA, August 27, 2008
Stephen Reyes rose unhappy into the bright Atlantic sun and the sound of waves chattering off the beaches of Cape Cod with two voicemail messages on his cellphone. He listened to them both twice through, meticulous as always, as he looked out the window and took in the peninsular view. Then he took his shower and dressed, and joined his team for breakfast yet unhappier.
"There has been an issue," he said as he took his seat at the small breakfast table in the hotel dining room, and a silence radiated out to the four other chairs before the napkin landed upon his lap. They all looked well-rested; not a hair out of place on either Lau or Brady's heads, and Worth was only slightly rumpled by the overharsh air conditioning, not full-on askew. Good. Sleep was important in handling a setback. So was poise.
"Dr. Frost went through the autopsy report last night for us," he said, pausing to pick up a menu and skim down it shallowly. All hotel menus were fundamentally the same after a while; continental breakfast and a variety of carbs, all overpriced according to an exact formula balancing naturally occurring outrage with the traveler's inborn reluctance to go driving around hunting for something better. "There were several tests and procedural items that Dr. Meadowvale neglected to perform." He didn't bother listening for the reactions; they could have a minute to let that sink in. Stephen Reyes was unhappy, and being hungry would only make him unhappier.
He let a harried-looking waitress in a black uniform designed for someone with both more chest and less waist take his order: bacon, two eggs over easy, toast whole-wheat-not-white, what assorted fruit they had, and, since he'd forgotten his battered Celestial Seasonings travel tin with its five bags of Upton lapsang souchong back in D.C., whatever tea they had that wasn't orange pekoe. Which, he was informed, was nothing; it was Lipton, chamomile, or mint. So: "Coffee," he said, and tried not to grit his teeth.
When he gave his attention back to his team Lau was tidying her plate meticulously. Brady's fork and knife were splayed out to either side where he had suddenly put them down, the knife clean and reflecting sunlight, and both Falkner and Worth had tight, bothered looks on their faces.
"So we're going back to the hospital," Falkner said, as if it were a detour to the supermarket.
"We are going back to the hospital," Reyes confirmed. His head ached. Some hotels put a pitcher of coffee on the table for large groups. Some stocked Bigelow or, God help, even Tazo. "And we are going to choose an approach for that before we leave."
"So he screwed up the autopsy and panicked?" Lau said simply.
"Maybe not." Brady sat back in his chair. They were short-backed. His shoulders cleared the faux-wrought iron top by two inches. "Meadowvale's well-off. Not a young guy. Probably semi-retired here. This isn't a big place for bodies, so he gets to live in a nice house, hang around with rich people, go into work once a week to sign a death certificate and spend the rest of the time on the beach."
Overstating the case, Reyes thought grimly, toying with a packet of sugar from the centre of the table, and nodded. "Go on."
"So he starts seeing something he doesn't like, something he doesn't understand. And then the FBI's called in."
"And that nice life flashes before his eyes," Lau finished.
"And he throws the parents under the bus for that?" Worth argued. "Like that wouldn't disturb his quiet life when the rest of the town found out."
Lau pressed her lips together for an instant, hands steepled and elbows at rest on the pastel tablecloth, and Reyes could see it click. "Who says they find out?" she said. "It's Bradford's fault for calling those out-of-town federal types in. It's those federal types who barge into town and call—" her voice roughened "—our good honest hardworking folk child-killers. And he doesn't have the evidence for it, right?"
"It gets thrown out of court," Brady murmured. "Or Bradford, either because he's smart enough to know better or his boss is, doesn't press the charges. Meadowvale was just doing his duty."
"And everyone's life goes on," Falkner concluded quietly from her corner, arms crossed.
The coffee came, hot and acerbic. Reyes emptied two sugars into it with crisp, desperate efficiency and took a long pull from the mug. Counted backwards from ten, and by three his head felt clearer. The food was not long behind it. He dug into his breakfast, unselfconscious; he'd learned how to eat despite everyone else watching from a multiplicity of police stations, interview rooms, and the last six months of his second marriage.
"So we will be revisiting Dr. Meadowvale," Reyes said after three mouthfuls of egg and two of bacon. The bacon was overcrisp. "Falkner and I."
She inclined her head in a nod. Senior agents meant authority meant firepower meant trouble. The other three were too young to call an older man on the carpet that way. You needed a bit of grey in your hair, sometimes.
"The second thing," he said, mopping a nothing bit of grease from his mouth with the polyester napkin, "is that Hafidha has given us a shortlist of people to look at. Lau, Brady, Worth; you'll be paying some visits today."
"People?" Brady asked.
"A dozen who fit the possible profile," he said and tilted his coffee mug. Almost empty. "It's imperfect. We have no psychological histories for most of them. Cold calls and use your judgment."
"Most people don't have psychological histories until they flip out," Brady said, offhand.
Lau glanced at Brady. There was a sour twist to his smile that Reyes distrusted. "The term is 'convert'," he corrected, and located a proper marmalade for his toast. His mother had always managed to get things like mebos or chutney or spicy preserves from the Mexican or rare South African groceries, and he had never got the habit of chemically sweet commercial jams.
Falkner twitched an eyebrow at him and flagged down a waiter for more coffee.
Lau stepped in, automatic peacemaker. "If the autopsy's no good we should consider the medical records."
"We should," Reyes agreed. "Call Hafidha for them before we go. There's no reason to assume cooperation from the hospital after we accuse their staff of negligence."
Worth shifted in her chair. Her plate was spotted with toast crusts. "What about HIPAA? Is that ethical?"
Question with a fixed answer, no prevarication; not we can't do that but is that ethical. He was raising them right after all.
"No," replied Falkner after a moment, "but they're both past suffering for it."
Worth watched her for a long moment and then nodded. Two buttons on her cellphone and she was saying: "Hafs?", and Reyes raised one hand, casual and authoritative, for the cheque.J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., August 27, 2008
Hafidha was about to lay down the equivalent of an Amber Alert by the time Chaz showed up at work that afternoon. It was one in the afternoon and she'd gone from sleeping in to dropping out to images of that little duct-tape-and-cardboard car of his turned over in a ditch all before eleven.
"Where the hell have you been?" she asked, hands shaking, out of her chair. "I ask this with all goddamned love."
He just stood in her doorway—no, leaned. He was shaking a little himself.
"Chaz," she said, stopped short. Afraid again, for just a little second.
"Three-month test came back clean," he said, with a tight, contained smile, and by the time Duke came to see what the ruckus was about, she was at her keyboard and he was face-deep in the files, both pretending not to hope.Hyannis, MA, August 27, 2008
Nicolette Lau was used to rooms full of cameras, flashing lights, angry police officers. She still hadn't picked up the habit of just ringing someone's doorbell.
"Girl," Daniel Brady muttered at her when she hesitated, out the corner of one perfectly composed, laid-back, good-old-boy smile. Worth raised an eyebrow. Lau took a memo to put something fragrant under his pillow tonight and pressed the glowing round button.
They had fancy doorbells in Hyannis. It tinkled three bars of Pachlebel's Canon in D in a tinny, electronic voice, and they repeated twice before the door was opened by a slight, skinny teenager in cut-off jean shorts and a bulky tee-shirt, blonde hair back in a ponytail, squinting up past sharp cheeks at them and the morning sun.
Thin, Lau thought. But not enough to tell if that was natural or by misadventure.
So: "Hi there," she said, turning on a smile. "Are your parents home?"
The kid frowned; Lau could almost see her deciding on a tactic. "They're busy at the moment," she said, automatic and polite. Good, Lau thought. Not home after all, but they've taught her not to say that to strangers. "Can I help you?"
Lau slipped a card into her hand and launched into her canned interview request speech. We're from the government and we're here to help you. Call back for an appointment, please?
The girl listened gravely, suspicious, one hand still on the doorknob and ready to push. When Lau held out the card, she took it between the tips of two fingers, careful not to brush Lau's hand.
For a second Lau weighed whether it was worth being offended. Looked again; the kid was generally self-contained, holding herself narrowly behind the cracked-open door. She had the other arm wrapped around her torso, hand tucked behind the opposite side of her waist; holding herself in. Or somehow, even in this kind of sharp beachside heat, chilly.
The air coming out through the door wasn't cold. The hallway – what she could see of it – was tidy and in good repair, with its doormat worn but not worn out, well-used beach shoes lined tidily in a faux-cast iron rack to its right, a potted palm drooping lazily somewhere behind. No reason for this kid to be cold or afraid.
Something wrong here.
"We'll try back," she finished; her mouth was moving automatically. She didn't need her head focused to deliver a set script anymore. "In the meantime, let your parents know we came by? They can call us anytime."
"Yeah," the kid said, faint.
She paused. "You call us if you need anything too," she said, and noted the way the girl's eyes went bigger before she shut the door.
They got back in the car and were belted up again before Lau opened her mouth. "She look thin to you?"
"Yeah," Worth said, clipped. "And suspicious of The Fuzz."
"Looked well off enough to be eating three meals a day, in any case," Brady said. Lau turned to him and nodded; he'd caught the same things, probably more. Danny Brady had an exquisite sense of annual income.
He also knew enough to know that, sometimes, that didn't matter.
"Let's write it down," Lau replied, and turned the key in the ignition. The next house was just a few blocks away. They could have walked the whole route, honestly, but it was brassy August hot even for a California girl, and they had an image to maintain.
The doorbell at their next stop was just a plain chime, and this time she made Brady push the button and stand point at the door. "Girl," she dubbed him when he gave her a questioning glance, and a corner of his mouth quirked as he pushed the glowing white button.
The woman who opened the door was small and round and Hispanic, middle-aged, comfortable-looking in cotton capri pants and an old cartoon lobster tee-shirt. "Can I help you?" she asked in that drawn-out local accent that Lau still couldn't quite get her head around no matter how many times they worked out East.
Lau and Brady already had their badges out, though it looked like this time he'd beaten her out for Fastest Draw From the West. "I'm Special Agent Nicolette Lau. We're with the FBI, Ma'am," Lau said; a lot of people felt safer talking to a Nonthreatening Asian Woman than six-feet-something of Danny Brady. Still, the nice lady's face closed off. "We're just speaking to people who knew Cecily Marshall."
We are not here to arrest you, she tried to beam into the woman's head, and after a moment, that deathgrip on the front door did relax. "Because of the police investigation," she said.
"Yes," Worth told her from behind, and repeated the short explanation about suicide clusters and prevention and a conscientious local police department that was going to be the only way to conduct this case without being run out of town on a rail.
The woman – Consuela Ferreira, but-call-me-Connie – let them in, sat them down in a living room decorated in plush and florals and dark wood, and offered them fresh iced tea.
The iced tea was good; mint and not too much sugar. It also gave Connie Ferreira time to discreetly flag her husband down and throw him at her guests. He came in through the screen door a little sweatier than his wife, hair back in a tidy bandana: they'd been weeding what Lau would call more of a full-scale backyard farm rather than a garden. The tops of beanpoles poked up behind a thicket of tomato plants, and there was more where that came from. She gave a little whistle despite herself, and David Albrecht smiled as he snicked his screen door shut. "Organic and all-natural. Haven't paid for vegetables in two years." And just like that, his shoulders were down, his manner easy. Some kinds of pride trumped having the cops in your kitchen.
She smiled back. Rapport, as instant and easy as breathing. "You'll have to show me around when we're done," she said, for once meaning it.
"Sure thing," he said, and followed his wife to the living room, where she gestured for them to sit down. "What can we help you with?"
Worth was studiously examining her iced tea glass in two-gulp increments and not available for comment. Brady -- his doorbell, after all -- lifted an eyebrow, tiny. Your rapport, cowpoke. Lau sighed inside and tried to pump extra reassurance into her smile. "Your daughter was friends with Cecily Marshall and Gabriela Carvalho de Santos," she said.
Connie Ferreira took a long draw from her glass. "They had classes together, went to the same primary school. The girls played at the Marshalls' a lot." Her hands were tight. She was holding that glass like this was Death Valley and it was her very last Evian.
Jackpot, Nicolette Lau's investigatory senses told her.
"Who else stuck to that group? Any other kids?" Worth asked, apparently having surfaced for air. The glass was empty, and there was a trickle of sweat sneaking down the back of her jaw.
"Marissa Tobin, during the summers. That's Cecily's cousin," Connie said, eyes cast upwards in that way that meant remembering. "Susie Greenwood down the road. Kevin Cheung and Avi Liederman.""He's not been over for a while now," her husband put in. He'd leaned forward some, elbows settled on his knees; the stunning blow of garden-flattery was clearly wearing off. "Can I ask why you're asking?" "We're investigating the circumstances of Cecily Marshall's death," Brady said. "Investigating teenaged girls?"
Get offa my rapport, Lau thought, and kicked in: "We do a lot of interviews in an investigation. It's very important to have context."
"Who Cecily and Gabriela's friends were; what was going on in their lives," Worth added in over the rim of her glass.
Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht's parents shared a look away from them, the kind of silent consultation that only worked if you'd lived near twenty years together or worked at least three messy murder cases. "Well," Connie said, "that's something you'd have to ask her."
Not a lot surprised Nicolette Lau. She cared to pretend a lot less surprised her than actually did, but nonetheless. "You're sure you're comfortable with her giving us an interview?"
There was a twitch of hesitation. Only a twitch. "She's old enough," Connie said, and Brady shifted in his chair somewhere behind.
Albrecht tilted his head back, pitched his voice up the stairs. "Juli?"
The answering "Yeah?" was faint, muffled by at least one closed door. Connie Ferreira's eyes lifted skyward for a moment, when she thought Lau wasn't looking. Lau caught it, and then to her credit, Connie Ferreira caught her, and they shared a brief smile.
Worth and Brady shared a glance too, but they didn't smile.
"Come down a sec?" David Albrecht said.
Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht stumped down the steps in the classic teenaged elephant-walk way, the over-heavy clatter of someone who woke up one day to find their usual body gone and didn't quite know how to make the new one work yet. She arrived bare feet first, thin and long-toed and brown, the kind that hadn't been too encumbered by shoes too young.
Lau could see the bones in her legs before she made it down the stairs.
She didn't have to catch Worth's eye. Worth was already watching, the glass set aside and out of the way, and her hands were pressed to the armrests of the Ferreira-Albrechts' nice stuffed chair, ready to move.
Juliana was wearing a sweater, wrapped almost twice around her chest; the bulk obscured the rest of her, the ribs and arms and all the way down to the knees. Her collarbones stuck out. They stuck out too much.
Her mother frowned a bit. "Anjinho, you're cold?"
"Air conditioning's high in my room," she said, a nice voice. Thin, but nice.
Lau tucked away a frown of her own. Heat rose, not cold, and the glass in her hand was sweating.
Connie Ferreira briefly laid a hand on her daughter's forehead, shook her head. "Juli, there's some people here from the FBI to ask about Cecily."
The sweater went around her tighter. She did everything but flinch.
Lau stood up, offered a hand, curving her arm gentle and not sharp. "Hi, Juliana. I'm Nikki, and this is Daniel and Daphne. We just want to ask you a few questions about how your friend was doing, if she was upset about anything."
"She didn't kill herself," Juliana said, muffled, and declined to take the hand.
"We know," Lau replied, unruffled and solid. The trick with suspects, victims, and teenagers most of all was to never let them undermine the mountain of your calm. "But we need to ask people about what was going on with her in the days before she died, so we know properly what happened."
"Because you think her parents hurt her," she said. Arms crossed over the sweater.
"Because we want to know," Lau replied, and waited a few seconds. Juliana's mother patted her back encouragingly. It matched well with that warning glare. "Your parents said you were friends with both Cecily and Gabriela."
"Yeah," she said, looking up finally, finally getting irked at how Lau's measured voice kept picking words more for a child of ten than sixteen. Good. If kindness didn't draw a person out, irritation could do the trick.
"Did anything change with them this summer?" she asked. "Think back for me; were they eating differently, talking more about certain things, not talking about others anymore?"
The mention of not talking would have put an adult on guard; minding their own reactions, rearranging their hands into what, you learned, their mother taught them was best polite behaviour. But most kids – kids brought up safe, kids brought up in loving and stable homes -- didn't have that skill yet. Juliana's face closed up for the season two exact seconds after the word eating.
"They changed how they ate?" she asked, keeping her voice soft. "Did they do it on purpose?"
At the edges of her vision, she could see Connie's hand still rubbing her daughter's back, distracted. "Juli," she said, quietly. The kid trembled.
"It's all right," Lau said, scrunching herself down, assuming the posture of a non-threatening animal. "Go as fast or as slow as you need to."
Brady had moved to stand by the father. Worth was leaned forward, ready on the balls of her feet, arms fake-loose on her knees. All the nice, polite drinks were gone now. Outside, a bird Lau didn't know called four, five times over the sound of the sea.
The kid was breathing fast; her breath whistled between each word, in a voice that was croakier and tighter than it had been a minute before. "We were dieting," she said.
Connie's eyebrows shot up. "We? I've told you this, there's nothing wrong--"
"Con," David said, peculiarly still. And then: "C'mon. You can tell us anything, you know that."
Juliana rubbed her arms. Distracted. Far away. "We were dieting," she repeated. "So we could help each other out, but I swear that had nothing to do with it—"
"Juliana," Worth broke in carefully, standing up slow against five other startle reflexes. "Do me a favour and take a slow, deep breath?"
Connie's arm dropped from her back. Juliana breathed in, hitched, let it out.Lau felt the saliva evaporate out of her mouth. She's not breathing right.
Worth was there in two strides. She had one of Juliana's hands in hers by the third, high up. Pulse, Lau realized. "Juliana, tell me what hurts."
"Here," she said, kind of small. Rubbed her chest in a little circle with her free hand; the hand drifted back to her arm. "It's nothing, really. Something I ate."
Oh shit, Lau thought, and dove into her pocket for her phone.
Worth looked up at the mother, the father. "Brady, open the window, and we need a bottle of aspirin here," she said, clipped and commanding. David Albrecht got up, stumbled, reached out a hand for balance.
He missed it when his daughter went down.
Lau's hands found the phone, flipped it open.
Worth caught her halfway down. Worth waved them all off, her mother and Brady who was up and moving now, and her father with one professional hand and a "Ma'am-Sir-I'm-a-trained-paramedic," and had her ear to Juliana's mouth and her hand to Juliana's chest the second her other hand rested the girl's head on the fuzzy, carpeted floor.
"Call 911," she said tersely, almost offhand, and then pulled the girl's sweater wide, packed her hands together, and began to pump.
Lau's hands were slick, wet from the iced tea glass. One more thing in the way right now, when she didn't need things in the way. She wiped them on her pants in two clean swipes and hit the necessary four buttons.
"Tell them cardiac arrest. We need a defibrillator, we need a ventilator, and we need an IV with fluids on-scene," Worth said, distant and strained and still weirdly casual, hands flat and jabbing at that tiny, ridged chest.
Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht's mother gaped at her daughter's body on the floor, whispering "God, my God."
"911," said a thick voice on the other end of the phone. "What is your emergency?"
"We have a sixteen year-old girl in cardiac arrest at—" Lau dipped back into her pocket for her notebook, the address.And then: "Seven-fifteen Martin Street," Danny Brady supplied, at her elbow. His face was like stone.
Falkner and Reyes had been waiting for Dr. Simon Meadowvale -- with all the coffee and delays and anxious administrators they could desire, of course -- for an hour and three minutes when the ambulance came screaming in. It was the first ambulance that had staggered up to emergency in the whole hour, and it blew into the quiet hospital offices like an autumn hurricane.
Falkner glanced at Reyes for one, two, three seconds, and then both rose and hustled down the hallways after the running teams of nurses and orderlies.
The halls of Cape Cod Hospital were not intuitive – Falkner had deliberately mapped them in her head after the first five turns and second unlabelled door – but the flow of people was hard to lose. It ended in the tributary of the emergency room, where a deathly thin teenaged girl was being wheeled on a stretcher through the flapping folding doors, Daphne Worth running to keep up at her side.
Lau and Brady followed in her wake, Brady's sleeves rolled up and his jacket missing. They both looked closed, blank. Exhausted.
"What happened?" Falkner got out, and as their heads turned almost in unison over to her, a couple more gazes followed.
The nurses at the admissions desk were staring. Lau blinked, and then gathered herself up in a few dozen invisible ways and walked over to handle them with all the poise, confidence, and unflappability of a professional on working time. Brady shook his head and followed Falkner and Reyes back down the hallway, through the two unlabelled doors and around the turns, into the office where they had been left to cool their heels for one hour and five minutes, now.
Their coffee was cold. Falkner offered Brady hers anyway, and he turned it to point the slight lipstick mark away and gulped it down in three long draws. "She collapsed right in front of us," he said when he had his breath back. "Worth did CPR and compressions until the ambulance got there. We rode behind."
"How's it looking?" she asked.
Brady stole a tissue from the institutional blue box on the desk, wiped his brow with it once, twice. "Not good." It didn't so much crumple as wilt into nothing in his palm before he took another. "Worth was working on her until they got the respirator on. I think she cracked a few ribs."
Falkner couldn't help the wince. Worth would remember that; the sound of those ribs cracking. It would keep her up nights.
"Teenage girl again," Reyes said, perching on someone else's desk, and his eyebrows drew down.
"Consistent choice of victim," Falkner said.
"And it's speeding up," he replied.
He was on the phone with Gates before she could reply, muttering instructions about sample sizes and population movements and so forth into his phone with little or no regard for whatever outdated machinery might need cellphones to be off. Cape Cod General was a fairly rich hospital. There was a chance he wasn't disrupting anyone's life support.
"Our gamma's a teenage girl," Falkner said, forcing thought and thought and interconnection into something linear, something coherent. A profile. "There's no violence. This isn't about hate, or revenge; it's projection. Social conformity; they're losing weight until they die. And the girls at this age care about each other's weight a hell of a lot more than the boys ever do."
"Or anger at herself," Brady put in, subdued, turning the tissue once in his hand before he shot it smoothly into someone's wastebasket. "Projection onto people like her. Punishing them for perceived faults instead of herself."
"And women do that more than men," Falkner replied. "Turn their anger on each other."
"And turn their anger on themselves," Brady said, and then the door opened. All three of them turned; Dr. Simon Meadowvale had finally arrived for his top-of-the-morning meeting.
"Agents—" he managed before Reyes took two strides forward and planted himself inside his personal space.
"There's another teenage girl displaying the same symptoms in your ER," Reyes said, flat and even, mouth working every last inch of each syllable. "You are going to tell us why you fudged Cecily Marshall's autopsy."
He didn't even have to say now.
"Symptoms?" Meadowvale got out, trying his damndest not to step back. Brave at least that way, Falkner noted. You had to give him that.
"Dying of starvation," Brady put in, and Falkner saw the girders of Simon Meadowvale's newborn outrage and resolve snap.
"I don't know who you think you are, coming in here on some trumped-up charge and interrupting life-saving business to question me—"
"That is why we are questioning you," Reyes said flat and even, and pointed with one finger in the general direction of the emergency room.
"It couldn't be a disease—" Meadowvale started.
"I don't care if you know what it is," snapped Reyes. "I care about the truth and I care about no more dead kids in this town by Monday."
This meant Falkner was to be Good Cop. She closed her eyes and remembered the catch and stitch of Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht's breathing, two breaths total before they'd hustled her through the doors. She did not want to be the Good Cop right now. "Dr. Meadowvale," she said. "Simon."
Why did she always have to be Good Cop?
"We are not going to bring a malpractice claim against you," she said, which was true. "We're not going to bring charges." Also true. "We just need to find out what happened here."
It stabilized him. Or frightened him more; she honestly couldn't tell at this point, with his face frozen into immobility and his eyes big as they could probably get. Slap to the face with a fish, as Rebekah would say.
"I did the autopsy," he started. They always started with bald facts: I got into the car. I left the stove on. I didn't look. I wasn't thinking. "I started the autopsy thinking undiagnosed diabetes and a bad reaction, and they were late getting me the files. Doesn't matter; it's only supposed to prejudice what you look for. Some examiners don't read the files beforehand."
Reyes leaned back, giving him room. The doctor swallowed hard. "Go on," Falkner said.
"And then I read the files," he said. His left hand was toying with one finger of his right. Falkner shifted for a better angle. Wedding ring. "And it didn't make sense. There was no reason she should look like that, the heart be in that condition unless she'd been starved for months--"
"And she wasn't," Falkner prompted.
"I looked at her medical records. There's an obligation," he said, shooting them what was left of his squashed-out scorn, "to file a report if there's suspicion of abuse. Especially with a minor. Her last physical wasn't that long before, and it was clean. She should have been clean."
She should have been alive.
"And that was fine until Detective Bradford made his call," Reyes finished, posture back some now, giving the man his space, but still snap and chill.
Meadowvale looked back up, and his eyes were focused and angry. "No, it was not. It was not fine, because it should not have happened, and I -- my profession is supposed to have something to say to that girl's mother."
Projection, Falkner thought, brushing stray dust off her tailored skirt and clasping her hands behind her back. You hurt the ones you feel sympathy for, because you're angry at yourself. Because somehow, inexplicably, you've failed.
"We're going to need the details," Reyes said. "The real ones. I can't say what your Board of Governors will want to do with this."
Meadowvale sagged a bit, again, remembering where he was, and with who. "I can do that," he said. "We'll need to go to my files."
His hand was nearly to the doorknob when it turned of its own accord, and Daphne Worth pulled it open with her hair plastered to her skull, breathing hard, sweat and shock and exhaustion.
"She's gone," Worth said, and the corners of her mouth were clamped down tight to keep something, everything in.
The breath went out of the room.
Falkner was used to this. She knew how this went. She sucked air in and held it for one, two, three. Watched Dr. Simon Meadowvale's face twist from anger, to slack shock, to the first inchings of despair.
Reyes stared at him for a long, cool moment. And then: "I'm calling in Frost," he said, and Dr. Simon Meadowvale's hands went behind his back to hide their tightening, but he didn't argue.
Susannah did not have time to mention the visit.
Normally she would have. Susie had a dim awareness that in a lot of ways, she was a Good Kid. She didn't get bad grades. She didn't steal sips of chocolate liqueur out of her parents' liquor cabinet except for that one time when she was thirteen; she didn't smoke or make out with guys in the gym equipment locker with the door propped open just so, although that last one wasn't for lack of trying—
She was Good. And it was pretty Bad to lie about the FBI, but a lot of things had changed that summer. She was still debating it when her mother came home.Mom was early from work that afternoon, bustling and upset, and took two phone calls in a low, worried voice that just got lower if Susannah put herself anywhere inside three rooms of the conversation.
The phone hung up. She heard the clank half a house away, with the sun streaming in the front windows, over a dog barking down the street and the sound of the wind ruffling the two trees on the front lawn. Susie stayed put, and eventually her mother came in from the kitchen with her arms crossed across her belly, mouth set tight and terrible.
"Juliana's in the hospital," Mom said, careful. Susie's stomach, still hungry -- always hungry now and she'd sort of lost the point of why they'd started but there was no backing out now -- turned to acid.
"What happened?" she asked, and her voice stumbled, and God it was probably okay because Mom would think that it was surprise. That she didn't already know what happened.
"She fainted at home. Gordon Chu said he saw them take her to the hospital. He wanted to know if we knew anything." She paused. She was blinking too much. Mom was...really, really upset. "Susie, you'd tell me if something was wrong, right?"
Susie thought of blue freezies, and legs dangling off the basement pool table in the summer afternoon. She thought about their promise to each other, and keeping it going, and her hand on Juliana's waist to measure the inches. Her hot, dirty hand.
She thought about the FBI people who had come to the door that morning and knew she'd never been terrified before, not really, in her whole life.
The FBI card was still in her pocket.
She wasn't a Good Kid anymore and she knew it.
"I'm going upstairs," she said faintly, and Mom of course nodded her head, and reached out to pat her arm, and Susie held in her breath and let her, held herself in begging that the stiff heat wouldn't come and take everything good out of that one touch.
It did, of course.
She went upstairs, excused.
Susie wasn't supposed to have candles in her room; Dad was convinced that she'd burn the house down, and he didn't like the smell besides, but she snuck them away in a drawer and lit them nights when her parents were out or already sleeping. Firelight was different somehow than electric. It was peaceful.
Marissa, who was a year older than the rest of them and lived most of the year in Boston and smoked besides, had gone into the Hyannis Convenience and bought Susie's lighter for her so Seddon from her Geography class, who worked the counter two days after school and on Saturdays, wouldn't rat her out to her parents. It was pink, but she wasn't complaining. It was fire.
She struck the light – still convinced that her parents could hear that little rasp across the house – and touched the flame quickly to the nearest wick. Nobody came in. Nobody knocked on her door, so she drew out the card and turned it once, twice, in her hand, and set it into the flame.
The card didn't burn like in the movies. It singed at one corner, and then the singe got bigger and bigger and started to eat a brown stain through the stiff paper. It looked like dirt. Like sin, she thought, even though sin and religion weren't a thing her family was big on, not like Gabriela's was. Had been.
She shook it into a little dish as the browning got closer to her fingers; the burning stopped, then started up again as she set the candle close to it.
Slowly, sullenly, the pretty, skinny FBI woman's name and phone number vanished into dust.
Susannah Greenwood dumped the ashes carefully out the window onto the tiled gable and began to pack her knapsack.
Ashton, VA, October 8, 2008
There were medical things to explain.
Falkner had no formal medical training. She'd picked up the usual field courses in the Army, and there were emergency medicine requirements for working as a field agent, but psychiatry, nutrition, neurology, medication schedules; none of those were on the curriculum. It was apparent that Susannah Greenwood's parents didn't completely understand either, and Dr. Ramachandran explained and explained, answered all the questions. Didn't look at Susannah's stirring where she sat, cross-legged, on her bunk.
It took over an hour. And then, as was inevitable, they signed the papers.
They signed the papers, one after another. Robert B. Greenwood. Virginia L. Greenwood. Dr. Ramachandran took them back, and Falkner caught the edges of the signatures, the first large and looping, the second cramped. The doctor initialled in two places, and then countersigned at the bottom in that stereotypical medical scrawl, the one Falkner's father had always joked was illegible because they never wanted to be held responsible, those doctor types.
"All right," Casey said, and even his naturally forced cheer was hushed down. "We'll all be talking. We'll be talking about nutrition and therapies, and your input is important, and so is your approval." Different from Jessica Kelly, Falkner noted, but her manifestation was different, actively malevolent, and the parents she'd left behind weren't worth consulting. Falkner wondered how many papers on juvenile patients and ethics Casey Ramachandran had checked out of the library in the weeks just past.
She wondered how many new ones, submitted only to be classified, he'd be writing shortly on the nature of the anomaly.
"We will set up regular visits," Dr. Ramachandran continued, "and regular phone calls. And we will work this thing out."
Robert Greenwood took his wife's hand. She squeezed back, and lay her other hand close, close enough to touch, on the coverlet of her daughter's new bed.
Falkner and Reyes withdrew from the room and shut the door, and left Susannah Greenwood to the loving arms of her grieving parents and the doctor who was now her keeper.Hyannis, MA, August 28, 2008
They were waiting on the autopsy to put Juliana in the ground.
Frost had landed on a 9:30 flight, waiting squinting on the runway in full pantsuit and a dusty, decorous hat right at the breakfast hour. As Falkner pulled the black car up against the grassy strip that separated the small private runway from its service road, she could see Frost's right foot tap mechanically against the pavement.
"Thank you for coming," she said as Frost inserted herself in the passenger seat and clipped the seatbelt shut briskly. She was sweating slightly. It was already hot outside.
"You're welcome. You have the file?" Madeline Frost asked, all business, looking straight ahead through the windshield at their destination.
Falkner wasn't offended. It was a bit too much like pissing upwind to be offended at Madeline Frost. "In the pocket behind the seat," she said, and swung them back onto the road to Cape Cod Hospital.
Frost read Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht's brief medical history twice before they pulled into the visitors' parking lot and Falkner shut off the engine. She snapped the file shut and tucked it under her arm, picking up her overnight bag with the other hand, and followed Falkner silent into someone else's hospital like the ambassador of a conquering nation sent for the terms of surrender.
By now Falkner knew the route to the room where Simon Meadowvale did the region's autopsies. She walked it automatically, Madeline Frost's court herald, keeping hospital staff back with a striding disapproval and a deliberate assumption of the exact middle of the hallway. Reyes and Worth were waiting for them when they arrived, coffee cups in hand and a green-scrubs, nervous hospital aide in tow. She had dropped them off at the hospital first; neither had volunteered to ride along with Dr. Frost.
"Agents," Frost said crisply. Reyes reached out a hand and gave hers a brief shake. Worth ducked a nod and looked away. "Well, shall we?"
The dark-haired aide stood up a little too fast and opened the door.
Frost gave the room a cursory inspection – ran a gloved finger over the counter surface and inspected the tip – and then unrolled the nylon package that held her tools. "I presume there is an autoclave available," she said to the aide, who nodded.
"Very well," she said. "Bring her in."
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., August 28, 2008
Hafidha came back from lunch to another dead girl in her inbox.
She knew better. She knew better than to open any e-mail with photo attachments without thinking, good and hard, about what might be inside and who was peeking over her shoulder. But she was tired from three days of late nights and early mornings; tired from a full meal driving the blood down from her brain to her intestinal tract and the tense, nerve-wearing boredom that was running support for a team in the field. So: naked shoulders, the top of a Y-incision, a pale dead mouth and tilted chin flickered onto her left-hand screen, and behind her Chaz sucked in air like a deep-sea diver at those cartoon xylophone ribs.
The screen blanked so fast she didn't realize for a few adrenaline-mouthed seconds that she hadn't touched the button.
He let out that breath.
Her stomach rumbled.
Duke poked his head in, forehead wrinkled in concern like a Mirrorverse Father Knows Best, inside a five-second count. "Everything all right here, cowfolks?"
Chaz was across the office – the boy teleported like a cat sometimes – with his hand in a file box like the veritable cookie jar. She got the feeling that for all the quality of the acting, he didn't care which file box it was.
She nodded. At both of them. Stand down. "Autopsy photos. Pretty little girl I wasn't expecting."
"Ah," he said, eyes sharp, and kept moseying into whatever sunset he'd been chasing.
"S'okay," she told Chaz – is it okay? she asked -- and turned her monitor on again. This time with her finger.
The pictures came up just as glassy as before, just as aesthetically stark. Carefully smoothed hair. Carefully covered torso. Incision.
This should bother you too, you know.
She scrolled down.
There was medical information attached; the last rites and statistics of one Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht, sixteen, who could now be taken off their list of possible gammas roaming the Cape Cod area. Dead of a collapse spurred by heart failure – coronary artery spasm -- due to catastrophic weight loss, due to an apparently undiagnosed case of juvenile diabetes.
Or that was their best guess.
"Our new victim," she announced to the room at large, and hid the photos behind her sparking, darkening population map. Chaz was back on the couch now. He didn't answer.
He'd been picking at that map like a half-healed scab over the last day, two days; tracking the habits and movements of their funeral attendees back and back, to the July fourth weekend, and shutting down the ones who couldn't possibly have had contact with Gabriela Carvalho de Santos. It was slog work; old-fashioned roll-up-your-sleeves, chomp-your-fat-cigar-and-dig investigative work.
It was working.
They had half their suspects down. And with Reyes's phone call, she'd cautiously created Version 2.0, kept it to the teenagers and kids. Which still stripped it down to a monstrous, overflowing, thoroughly excessive eleven. There were a wholly inappropriate amount of people in Cape Cod in the summer.
With the new datapoint, they might actually get it done before the gamma flipped out and ate all eleven.
"So there's something to chew on," she said, and zapped the whole thing to Chaz and Duke's inboxes. Which brought Duke back in a second later, trailing paper here and there so he might find his way home after.
"We all set?" he asked.
"Yeah," Hafidha replied and cracked her working map open. "Please hold."
Todd creaked down onto something she couldn't see and hoped wasn't breakable. Shifted. She glanced back; old kitchen chair, the one they'd found by the side of the road somewhere and stuffed into Chaz's trunk at the height of last spring, ditched here until they actually got around to refinishing the damn thing. They'd bought the sandpaper sometime last month. It was between some boxes, somewhere. "So what did Dad say to you before they left?" he asked.
"Nothing," Chaz muttered.
"Mmhmm," Sol Todd said, stretching out long with the chair tipped back on two legs and his feet stretched out languorous atop Hafidha's fifth filing cabinet, filched from an unwitting supply closet three months ago last Monday, when they'd finally given up on the Poster System. The target number had actually been six. Unofficial motto of the WTF: Go big or go home. "They told me to keep an eye on you crazy kids."
"They?" Chaz said.
"That is my show of diplomatic goodwill," Todd replied, waving his hand in a half-assed, horizontal genuflection. "Send out your ambassadors."
"Oh, come on," Hafidha said.
"Solomon Todd, Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation—"
Chaz stopped him before he could get to the serial number. "He asked if I was comfortable remaining on active duty," he said tightly. "Happy?"
Hafidha sat stiller in her chair at the snip in his voice. In the wholly unique and dying language that was the idiolect of Stephen Reyes, that meant I am this close to taking you off active duty, and I am making that decision by how you react to this question. Which I have put mostly to watch which way you squirm. And in the wholly unique language, mostly impermeable to anthropologists, that was the idiolect of Charles Villette, that meant That, sir, embarrassed me, and was none of your goddamned business.
Youch. Poor Platypus.
Solomon Todd, at least, wasn't most anthropologists. He sat up properly, his face sober and straight. "I didn't mean anything by it," he said. "Honest Injun."
"You're not Injun," Hafidha said, to keep that tightening silence away from her as much as anything else. "Not even an eighth on your mother's side."
"That too is fair and true," he replied. The silence stretched out a second longer. "Villette, I'm sorry."
They were all quiet for a minute.
"It's like they think we won't talk," Hafidha said plaintively, and banged her Enter key.
"Wouldn't bet on that," Duke said. The chair had all feet on the floor again, and in the old bicycle mirror that she'd mounted over her left-hand screen for both paranoia and convenience's sakes, he was leaned forward now, face serious as all hell. "In fact, I'm about ninety-nine point six percent sure that he was counting on us talking."
Hafidha Gates was a profiler, Jim, not an anthropologist, especially when it came to the wholly unique and acclaimed as completely fucking indecipherable language that was the idiolect of Solomon Todd, but that sounded like a warning. And a request.
Don't make me take a bad report card back. Help me keep the hell out of that position.
"He, not they, huh?" Chaz said, thin and cool. Hafidha closed her eyes against the glow of her screens and let out a quiet breath. Let it go, man. Take your PSA.
There was a moment of considering."They's a construct anyway," Duke said, lighter, desultory, and quietly left the room.
Her servers hummed. No footsteps following or extant. Hafidha took a deep breath and counted backwards from ten. Team in the field. Work to do.
"Chaz," she said. No answer. "Platypus. Charles Xavier."
"It's Travis, Jean," he finally replied.
"Give Cerebro your top three suspects, Professor."
He shoved a piece of paper at her. Kevin Cheung, sixteen. Avi Liederman, seventeen. And Susannah Greenwood, also sixteen. "Apparently they all hang out together," Chaz muttered. Still not a happy boy. "Or did, minus the dead ones."
"It's a direction," she said, and based on all those little things they'd appended to the e-mail about projection, she checked out the girl first.
There was easy database juice on the whole family: Mom Virginia, 41, research scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute specializing in pollutant effects on plankton and algae populations. Papa Robert, 43, accountant at a Hyannis firm. A household income, when you put the two together, that beat any special agent position until it crawled into a ditch bleeding. And Susannah Kate, their only child, going into her senior year of high school. No police calls to her name, no criminal records. They volunteered at local bake sales. According to their church bulletin, Mère Greenwood made a mean apple tart.
Decent to middling grades at school. No calls home for suspensions, although there was a weird and slightly bloody playground fight noted on her record dated May, with a since this is the first instance of such behaviour, Susannah has been issued a warning rather than a one-day suspension. And a few days back, Susannah Greenwood had been to the doctor.
Hafidha checked the date. Just about half an hour after Cecily Marshall was buried.
She leaned into the keyboard and went straight for those medical files.
Blood tests, glucose. Diabetes. That was one of the first things they had tested Hafidha for, back when they'd ascertained it wasn't the Hodgkin's coming back for round two. Back when they figured out that yes, she was irrevocably, totally, completely cancer-free...and then the mystery symptoms started. She could still go down the list: mononucleosis, sickle cell, protein metabolization issues, and diabetes. They'd drawn probably half her blood. None of it came back positive. She'd sat in the corner of her bathroom with the door locked and cried and cried. Big bad Secret Service lady.
Significant weight loss. Cessation of menstruation. The kid was so thin her period had stopped.
(Hafidha remembered that too. Pap smears. Hormone tests. A referral to a reproductive endocrinologist. A flirtation with a diagnosis of thyroid disease before it all came out and she had to hack four medical databases and destroy her own records to shut the specialists down.)
She cracked open another window and tapped a few keys, tracing the samples to the hospital lab, waving away their security system like a cobweb. There were front door ways to do this, white-hat ways, but they took time, and time and the Lost City of El Goddamn Dorado were just as easy to come by when there was a team on the ground.
A few more taps and a careful dodge around the one countermeasure program they'd bothered to put in, and there it was. Nothing.
No reduced levels of insulin. No high blood sugar. No signs of sudden, flowering, destroying Diabetes Type 1.
The tests had come back with nothing.
"Go get Duke," she said to Chaz, underlining it again with her mouse pointer. Clean. Nada. Zero.
"Hafidha—" strained. Almost a bit whiny, in that way grown Chazzes could be whiny without ever altering the tone of their voice. He didn't want to do it.
No problems with iron. No problems with the thyroid. Just a weight loss that the doctors couldn't explain.
"Platypus, go get him."
She heard the shuffle of his oversized feet not three seconds later, hustling out into the hall. Nobody'd done test referrals for her yet. Mystery weight loss, caught up in the medical system. There but for the grace of God go I.
There was a package of dried mango in the drawer. She yanked it out and started chewing mechanically. This is your brain on low blood sugar, emo puppy, she told herself. Took another handful.
She was halfway through the bag when they came back, Chaz still shirty as the day was long. Hafidha dusted her hand on her pants and turned her monitor to face them. "So," she said. "What do you fine gentlemen see here?"
They both leaned in. They both scanned. Chaz had just about as much medical training as she did – with Duke, who knew what he knew or didn't – but everyone in Shadow Unit knew the half-handful of signs and symptoms that meant gamma.
"We sure it's not the next victim?" Duke said.
"I dunno," Chaz said, thoughtful. They both did him the credit of ignoring the flatness and strain he couldn't one hundred percent hide. Normal person back to work doing his job. Normal person totally, completely capable of doing his job. Yeah. "She's hanging on a long time."
"We want to send them in?" Duke asked.
"Not without intel," Chaz put in hastily, and that silence was back in the room again.
"Okay then," Hafidha said. She stretched her fingers, not the usual backwards flex but one by one, massaging them from the lowest joint up. "We find out everything we can about Miss Susannah Greenwood."
They were no farther at dinnertime, or past. Todd ordered Italian, doubling what he thought was more than enough and picking out just a salad for himself. Working with a team in the field was a little too much like a stakeout, or those unfortunate two months spent following June Fairchild to her corner supermarket and selling the shots to the Enquirer; one ate greasy, one felt sluggish, and consequently, one screwed up. And unlike June, gammas had more firepower than one miniature pleather handbag.
The front desk was good enough to send the food on up, even though their disapproval of delivery to federal buildings ran deep and measureless to man. They didn't even steal the garlic bread. Todd collected it at the door with both arms and, like a good provider, trucked the two bags' worth of carbs and grease and stakeout food back to his cluttered, untidy desk.
Villette was leaning back in his rolling chair down the way, head back, eyes shut, chest rising and falling faintly. The rip of the first paper bag and the immediate, murderous smell of garlic and parmesan failed to even make him breathe faster.
"I say, sir," Todd said in his best Foghorn Leghorn. Which was pretty damned good. "You livin', sir?"
"Mmph," Chaz said, and tilted his head up. His nose twitched. There were shadows under the boy's eyes.
"Chaz." Chaz didn't move. "Go home."
One foot flopped feebly off the other end of his desk, expertly dodging pens, files, a squat ugly little mantelpiece clock, and five scattered protein bars. "Can't. They're fumigating my building."
Todd ripped the second bag open and extracted his salad, left the cheap packet dressing. Any proper gentleman had his own in the office fridge. "Do you have any idea how much I don't believe that?"
His eyes opened, just a titch. "Nope," he said, and closed them again.
Todd gave up.
Hafidha accepted her share with only minor fanfare. "This is the life," she said. "All the T3 connections I can handle and fit, dangerous men to bring me my dinner." She held out her free hand. "Fork me, sir."
"Your life in the public service," Todd replied, and placed the plastic fork in her upraised palm.
Chaz trailed in, hollow-eyed, and flopped down on the yellow couch. It was going to have a dent in the shape of his rear end in another day or two. "Sir would like dinner after all?" Todd asked.
He could still kind of taste shoe leather in the back of his throat, but Villette appeared to be moving past it. "Yeah, hit me," he said, and Todd dug out a crinkled aluminum container of linguine with meatballs and ceded it to him. It smelled pretty good. Salad, he told himself, and took a minute to firm up his resolve.
Hafidha had moved her pasta down the desk a ways, trying to keep the sauce from slopping on her keyboard. "Anything?" he asked her, and she shook her head.
"No," she said. Stuck the fork back in. "It's a hell of a time trying to get a sense of what she's up to—" and she stopped, so abruptly that he could have sworn he heard one or two words back up and scramble back down her throat. "And I've been stupid," she said.
"What's that?" Todd asked carefully.
"I'm so busy looking at what the schools, the doctor, the Pope has to say about this girl, so busy running victimology that I didn't get to what she says about herself." She wheeled back to the keyboard and there was clicking, clacking, tapping, swearing. She looked like his old buddy Mickey had when they'd gone to shoot those Africa pieces for National Geographic, the first time he'd bit into one of those tasty little chocolate-covered raisins and found out they weren't raisins."Anything now?" he asked, getting over to his file cabinet and staying well away. You didn't hover around behind a person when they had their hands upon their tools. Or when they had a look on their face like that.
"Of course," Gates huffed. "Goddamn Facebook," and pointed an accusing finger at her left-hand screen. "She has a goddamned Facebook like everyone else under thirty who can even smell an internet in the desert at high noon in this whole benighted country, and I did not think to look for it until now."
He wouldn't have thought of it either. But that wasn't a useful contribution; he was, notably and importantly, an old fogey. "So you're cracking it," Duke asked mildly.
"I am cracking it wide open like your girlfriend on prom night," she drawled, and swung her head sharply back to the monitors.
"Actually, my prom date was chaste," he noted, absent, watching the play of source code and backdoor programs on the screen. It never did look like it did in the movies, which was a pity. "Answers to Sister Therese Immaculata these days; she sends me home-baked gingersnaps every year around Easter."
"You went to your prom?" Chaz muttered from his couch.
"Heartland rite of passage," he replied. It was best not to ask you didn't? A man could be touchy about that sort of thing. He passed the garlic bread instead.
"Huh," Hafidha said, leaning back. Scrubbed her eyes. "She completely shut this down and took it private this spring."
"That unusual?" Todd asked.
"Yeah," Chaz replied. "They're sort of meant to be seen."
"So," Todd said, turning the unopened salad around and around in his hands, "what we want may well be deleted."
"This is the internet," Hafidha said, tapping one plum-coloured fingernail against her mouse button in a way that reminded him of coyotes biding their time. "Nothing is ever gone for good."
She clicked something, hit a little twist of keys, and the interface peeled back into code and file groups and directories, something he was sure you would get in legal trouble for doing unless you were the FBI and weren't supposed to be able to do, period, unless you were Hafidha Gates. "Lessee," she said, and started clicking through.
Mostly it was status messages, games they played, comments on conversations half-snatched and ghosty without their proper context. It got long. Todd sat down and opened his salad and ate it without his gentleman's own salad dressing, not wanting to be out of the room if something important came on by – as he inevitably would; the moment he got up for a leak the case would thoughtfully crack itself wide open. The garlic bread went around. He took one and bit in without thinking; hot, greasy, buttery and sharp. Stakeout food. Mm.
He was turned around tidying the takeout debris when they found it.
"Oh," Chaz said, and the smallness and terribleness of it turned Todd around gently by the shoulder and brought him to the screen.
It was a photo; he presumed it could only be of Susannah Greenwood's red-cheeked, smiling face. There was a jagged slice at the neck – bad Photoshopping and they didn't care – where it joined to a body that was decidedly not hers and which weighed at least four hundred pounds.
The string of comments went on for miles.
Thing was, it struck him wrong. Kids did this all the time, and the nasty things kids did had beginnings and middles and ends. Todd was a noted old fogey on the matter of social networking, but he knew about beginnings, and middles, and ends. And the way they were talking, the speed, the hatchet photoshop job...this wasn't a beginning.
"Go back," he said.
There was more.
They had gone through the animals phase; cows, pigs, whales. A manatee in there, which Todd had to admit impressed him a little in his swamp of unimpressedness, that they even knew what a manatee was. Maybe they taught that in coastal schools. Who knew.
They went back.
And there it was. A baby picture; a kid maybe ten years old, still the same recognizable manic-grinning face. A little heavy and round; nothing big. Nothing no other kid didn't go through and grow out of once puberty came a'knocking on their door. Baby Whale Susie, it was titled, in the very best headline style.
LOLOL this is the greatest, where'd you find this? said the first comment beneath it.
I had it from when we were kids, was the reply. Big, toothy emoticon grin. The name was familiar from their files and lists. Avi Liederman: same school, same neighbourhood, same group of childhood friends.
"That was her friend right there," Todd said. The image sat calmly on the screen.
"There," Charles Villette said, face too thin, cheeks sallow like dirty rice gone off. "Trigger."
Hyannis, MA, August 28, 2008
Falkner spent the afternoon at the hospital among Simon Meadowvale's files.
Reyes had run the interference this time. She'd sent him off with a packed lunch and a schoolbag into a horde of angry hospital administrators around noontime, and with dinner approaching, she'd not seen hide or hair of him. Or poor Detective Bradford, for that matter, last seen holding the hands of both parents and crying with them as he passed the tissue box around and Daphne Worth patiently, carefully put them to the question.
Her team straggled home by seven, raggedy and wilted and hungry. "News?" she asked them, and Nikki Lau shook her head.
"Nobody else died," Brady said, and she lifted herself from the piles of paperwork with a sigh.
"Then dinnertime for all good children," she announced, and sent Worth to the nearest nurse's station to ask after a restaurant that cooked vegetarian somewhere inside county lines. Which reminded her that she hadn't called home yet that day. After dinner, she told herself. When there was somewhere quiet, unclogged with the ghosts of dubious autopsies and musty paper and a thin absence of dead teenagers, where there was time.
They could rescue Reyes on their way out.
The vegetarian was Indian, and it was not cheap. But it was quick and plentiful, and neither Falkner or Lau had to pick anything out of the food just to get a square meal. Not spicy, either, but this was the land of seafood and potatoes, hold the funny powders, thanks. Falkner ate her chickpeas and was thankful to have them.
"She said they were on a diet," Worth pressed. She'd been picking at this for ten minutes now, all the time they'd had between ordering and the inevitable hush that fell over a table for five minutes after the food showed up. "A support group. Keeping each other honest. And then they start dying."
"That's not anomalous," Brady added. "Every teenager in North America is trying to lose weight that doesn't need losing." He looked down at the food on his plate for a second as if it were the proverbial can of worms, made a face, and deliberately tucked in anyway.
"Every girl, at least," Worth said.
"Every teenager," he corrected around a mouthful, and poked a piece of chicken with his fork. "And that's still not anomalous."
"No, it's not. But it's got to be tied in," Worth said. "Losing weight. Dying of lost weight, wanting to lose weight. And your friends helping you do it."
"And you helping your friends do it?" Lau put in, and Worth stopped and turned to her to stare.
Falkner felt the first flutter of something between her heart and her throat. "Go on," she commanded, and Lau sat up a bit straighter in her chair.
"Maybe—" she said, on the spot suddenly, and putting on her poise, putting on her face. "Maybe our unsub doesn't mean them to die."
Reyes turned his fork over, put it down, picked up a piece of naan and turned that too. "We have yet to really discuss that. Mythology."
"Yeah," Lau said. Encouraged, just a bit, Falkner noted. "You have a support group. You want to lose weight, because every sixteen-year-old kid wants to lose weight, and you're trying to help them. You like your friends and you want them to be happy. So you take the weight off them."
"How?" Reyes asked, sharp as a lecture-hall professor.
"Diabetic reaction," Worth says. "Sudden-onset type 1 diabetes."
"Would she have to know how diabetes worked?" Brady asked. Falkner did not inquire why he'd abandoned his every teenager theory; it wasn't important now, and this was. This was.
"I doubt it," Reyes said. "Method's not a concern of the anomaly. It's results."
"So you're trying to help, you're taking the weight off your friends, you're dieting with them—hey," Worth said, "how's a gamma dieting?"Esther Falkner had only tried dieting once. She had been thirteen and a little more easily swayed, spooked although she didn't know it at the changing of her body, the way it was hungry all the time, how her younger sister called her pig when she went for a second afternoon snack. She had forgiven that later, years later; Chava was only repeating the things she'd heard at school, the things directed to her own self. You weren't supposed to be a big eater as a girl back then; no more than you were now.
It had lasted a week, and all in all, what she remembered about it was being vaguely, unsatisfiedly, crankily hungry. All the time.
Quietly, Falkner asked: "What do gammas do when they're hungry?"
There was a pool of silence around the table that the bits of chatter from other tables, from the faraway groups of sunburned tourists and local families with dressed-up, kicking children, could not fill or clean.
"They feed," Reyes said, and leaned back in his chair. "This isn't selfless help. It's sustenance dressed up as help."
A wicked thing clothed as a good thing. Harm covered in good intentions. A justification.
Worth frowned. "What if that's why it's accelerating? Not that the gamma's decompensating, just...if the pool shrinks, so the gamma has to draw more and more from less and less--"
"And so they die faster," Brady said low. "And they're all hungrier and hungrier."
Reyes's phone shrilled loud enough to raise heads at the next table.
"Dammit," he mumbled, his mouth full of naan, and fumbled for a napkin to wipe his phone hand with. The phone rang again, and Falkner reached over, plucked it from his pocket, and thumbed it on. "Agent Reyes's phone," she said.
"Falkner?" Hafidha Gates said through invisible static.
"Speaking," she said.
It only threw Gates for a moment. "We spent the day with the files you sent and some other--I found something," she said, breathless. Her voice was unexpectedly fuzzy on the other end of the connection.
"Our suspect," Hafidha said, and Falkner put down her fork.
The night had rolled in while they were eating, and with it, the ocean fog. Summer was ending on Cape Cod; the air was thick with the first hint of autumn, even though the actual fall of the leaves was a long way off. Falkner turned off the air conditioning in the car as they pulled out onto Main and sat with her hands in her lap all the way down half-rural, picturesque streets to the Greenwoods' driveway.
It was pretty out here. The kind of place Falkner's parents might have retired to if they weren't such city creatures. You expected rolling golf courses and smiling white-hatted seniors in the prime of hale life around every corner, people who watched out for their neighbours. Bake sales. Young men fishing off docks with their dogs dozing beside them, Norman Rockwell-style.
That never existed, she told herself, and gathered herself together as Reyes neatly parked their borrowed black car at the end of the Greenwoods' drive. The house itself was beautifully pillared, balconied all around the second story like a ship. Potted plants creaked on hooks hanging down, and on the balcony, she thought she saw roses.
"We gave the girl my card," Lau said. The girl, not her or Susannah. Process of depersonalization begun. "They might be expecting us."
Brady swung himself into the front seat of the car. "Or not," he said. "They didn't call back." He picked up the police radio Barnstable PD had provided them and hefted it, taking its measure. Worth was in the second car, doing the same kind of checks. Backup. In case things went badly.
"We'll just be ready for whatever comes," Falkner said firmly, and went up the white-painted stairs to the door, trailing Reyes and Lau in her wake. Knocked.
A woman opened the door, and it took Falkner a second to realize that she was too tall, too old, too stocky to be their unknown subject. They were silent that second too long; Virginia Greenwood – it had to be the mother, of course – tilted her head and tightened her hand on the doorknob, and asked: "Hi, can I help you?"
"Ms. Greenwood?" Falkner said; she had a good sense of when to call another woman Mrs., and Virginia Greenwood, with that crisp tone of voice and those careful hands, was not that. "SSA Esther Falkner, FBI; this is SSA Stephen Reyes and Special Agent Nicolette Lau. We came by this morning and left a card; do you have a few moments?"
The woman's forehead creased with a brief frown. No, she had not received the card; another point against this being an easy collar. There was no response over her tiny, discreet earpiece, but Falkner figured Brady was nodding to himself in the dark of the unmarked car. "This is about the little girls," Virginia Greenwood said.
And yes, they would be little girls to her, just the way Deborah still was that tiny, perfect, compact little toddler forever in the back of Falkner's own head. "It is," she said. "Might we come in?"
There was a fruit bowl in the living room, and hand-knotted rugs. Childhood art, smeary paint scrabbled all over, was flattened out carefully and hung, framed, above the rough red-brick fireplace, complete with a jagged crayon signature. Perfect, normal American family. The kind that didn't show up on any psychological tests.
The television flickered off in the other room with a sudden absence of noise, and the father – Robert, she reminded herself – appeared barefoot around a corner. "Gin?" he asked, as she closed the door and locked it, perched herself on the arm of a stuffed and modern chair. He was slim and balding in a way some women would probably find endearing; there were little red marks on the sides of his nose where glasses likely habitually sat, and he was wearing a tee-shirt for a baseball team she didn't know.
"Agents," Virginia Greenwood said instead of an answer, "this is my husband Robert. Rob, these are those FBI agents."
Those. She saw Reyes's expression flicker with that suppressed humour. Word travelled fast 'round these parts.
"Your daughter knew Cecily Marshall?" Reyes asked, smothering it efficiently.
"Yes," Robert said cautiously.
"And Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht," he added. It was a whole day later, a day and an autopsy and a report signed and sealed and delivered onto a county's records desk. They would know already.
"Something is going on," Robert Greenwood said in the tone of a man who'd just won an argument, and stepped into the room, planted his hands on the back of his wife's chair.
Something. Yeah. "Yes. Robert, Virginia—may I?" Reyes asked, supposedly an afterthought, a courtesy. Rapport.
"Call me Ginny," she said. Automatic.
"Did something," Reyes asked, "happen with Susannah and her friends this spring? Something upsetting—" you never used traumatic with someone's parents, oh no "—or out of the ordinary, or difficult?"
And this was unfair. They knew. They knew all the dates, places, names. But they still needed to drag these people through it, to know how much they knew. To know if there was anything they were missing.
"There was an...incident," Robert Greenwood said. His hands tightened on the back of that chair. "It didn't involve the other girls. And it's over now."
"What sort of incident?" Reyes asked.
"Kids behaving badly," he said coolly, and his wife stiffened in a way that told anyone, not just a profiler, that it had been more than simply that.
"Kids eat each other alive at this age," Reyes said, tucking one more piece of tinder into her discomfort, and Ginny Greenwood let out a breath, a rueful, pissed-off, tiny breath. Yes, that was true. And knowing that didn't make it one bit easier, or anything like acceptable, when it was your kid on the plate.
Time to be Good Cop again.
"I have a daughter," Falkner said, knowing it would come out anything but offhand. "She's fourteen. Two other girls stuffed itching powder down the back of her shirt at the mall this week."
Lau gave her a glance that was near-unprofessionally startled; one raised eyebrow and a shift from left foot to right. One did not talk about one's own family with interviewees. Esther Falkner did not talk about her own family with her coworkers.
Ginny Greenwood turned to her husband; he looked down. Angry. And then she placed her hands deliberately on the knees of her floppy loose jeans and there was nothing welcoming on her face at all.
"Susie had a friend," she said. "All those kids, they grew up together, you know. Birthday parties, kindergarten. We would park them all at one person's house when we needed a day off."
They'd moved around enough before she settled into the Bureau that Rebekah's childhood friends were in three different cities, two of them actually army bases. With one of them, she e-mailed back and forth regularly. With the others, they had lost all touch. "I know," Falkner said.
"And Susie was..." There, the pause. The telling thing. The shame. "A bigger kid when she was younger. So was I. Our family, we grow into and out of it."
"You were both fine," Robert said, a little tiredly, in the way that said this wasn't a new discussion and the lines were all the same.
"That's not the important thing," she snapped. Apologized immediately; a touch to his arm. "The important thing is that she's sensitive about it. And the boy down the street, Avi, he dug out some of the old pictures they had from when the kids were nine or ten or so and put them on the internet. On Facebook. And a whole pack of kids started making fun of her."
"What happened?" Falkner said, calm and detached and professional.
The frown lines that had snuck onto Ginny Greenwood's face were suddenly etched in acid. "We spoke to Avi's parents. And I contacted the Facebook Abuse Team and had them taken down."
She did not want to say yes. She did not want to say we found them. We picked a hole into your daughter's life and looked through, and you cannot get those things scrubbed away so easily after all, and for the right people, those shameful things will exist, somewhere, forever. So: "Most parents aren't that comfortable with technology," she said, quiet and careful.
Ginny Greenwood stuck her chin out. "I did not study advanced biology for ten years to be put off by a pack of teenagers and some website. I learned."
Falkner nodded. She would have learned too. If it came down to it, she would learn and stuff those pictures down the throat of anyone who tried to hurt her little girl. Or as near enough to that as the law of the land permitted.
(And it was still waiting at home. But not now. Later.)
"But it upset her," Falkner said.
"Yeah," Ginny Greenwood replied, and glanced at her husband – a hint of reproach, perhaps – and he looked away. "It upset her. There has been...fallout."
A pause. And then the thing out there, at last. "May we speak with Susannah?" Lau asked, careful and professional. "You can be present if she's more comfortable that way, either or both of you."
They waited. This was inevitable.
Stephen Reyes had made them afraid for their child.
"All right," Ginny finally said, and went to the foot of the stairs. "Susie?"
There was no answer.
Falkner did not know the acoustics of this house, where you stood to hear the pipes or where the sound echoed off in the middle of the night, but she didn't hear a stereo, and she didn't hear water running. "Suze?" Ginny Greenwood called again, and then frowned, and started up the stairs.
Victim on the floor breathing hard breathing her last, Falkner thought. Or hiding out from the cops, heard the cops, afraid of the cops.
Or frightened desperate gamma.
She patted her hip to make sure the sidearm was there and followed upstairs.
There was no answer to the knock on the door. Ginny Greenwood looked back at her apologetically, in consternation, worried and annoyed and wanting to do this all without this stranger in her house. "Susie, open this door."
Falkner's hand was on the grip, familiar and metallic. The safety under her thumb. She wasn't as fast a draw as she'd been at twenty-five, but she was still fast enough.
"Susie?" Virginia Greenwood knocked again, a frown tucking her chin in, and then Falkner saw the horrible thought – dead child – slam into her like a storm front. "Suze, I'm coming in," she said."May I?" Falkner asked, and before Ginny Greenwood could reply no, she pushed the door open.
It was a very teenage room; the kind Rebekah might want in a year or two, all the pink painted over and posters tacked on the walls and laundry lying in drifts all over the floor. A half-melted votive candle, the scented kind you could get from dollar stores which all smelled like high fructose corn syrup and chemicals, was half-hidden behind a stack of books.
"Oh god," Ginny Greenwood said.
The window was open. The bedsheets were mussed – no, missing, roped in the most stereotypical knots from the windowsill to the balcony railing and down, and the white lace curtains fluttered through the propped-up pane, into the empty night sky.
Hyannis, MA, August 29, 2008
They did not know the terrain. Not like a child who'd grown up exploring it, building bonfires on the beaches, navigating the roads home summer and winter after dark fell with a memory-map to work with. But there were only so many places to go in Barnstable County without a car, a boat, a plane.
They assembled the searchers inside an hour.
"Work in pairs," Brady instructed them in a voice that was hoarse but carrying. Detective Bradford lingered next to him, face pale and puffy, lending whatever local backing they might need. "Do not leave your partner under any circumstances. Make sure everyone has the following things: flashlight, cellphone, your map and your picture." He held up the photo of Susannah Greenwood, hastily photocopied twenty-five times on the Barnstable County Sherriff's Office four-in-one, like a flight attendant demonstrating exits. "Step carefully; the visibility's just peachy out here—" a few nervous laughs "—and the last thing we need is anyone down. Make sure you stick to your quadrant; cover your quadrant throroughly, and if you find Susannah or anything else important, do not touch. Phone it in to the central number."
Lau sat on the tailgate of a PD pickup truck and gave a little wave with her cellphone. The central number. She looked drawn, pinched; only visible to someone who knew her, friends and family and Esther Falkner, but the townspeople saw nothing but a professional smile.
"All right, let's go," Bradford said, and the murmuring, foot-shifting, arm-clutching bundle of nerves that was the adult year-round population of Hyannis Port spread out along the road.
Falkner clutched her flashlight, patted the pocket that housed her cellphone, and turned to Susannah Greenwood's mother. "Ginny? Time for us to go."
Virginia Greenwood looked up at her, eyes fever-bright and empty. Susannah had been there that morning. She'd kissed her mother goodbye. She was a responsible kid, okay to leave on her own or to send out for the day going to the mall or the beach or a friend's house; she always kept her cellphone on in case they needed to reach her.
She wouldn't have just run away like this.
Falkner flicked on her flashlight and they set off down the road. Three, four, five steps. At the fifth, Ginny Greenwood followed.
Do not shoot, Reyes had said, under any circumstances but life-threatening ones. This manifestation is subtle and this town will not understand.
They had blocked the county roads. No boat was going out tonight, and Susannah's parents had assured them, numb and trembling, that she wouldn't try to take one out herself. There was only so far she could go.
Falkner walked her quadrant, and Ginny Greenwood followed.
The fog made sound carry. "Susie!" it called, between trees and houses and roadsides, the carefully-tended lawns of the rich. "Susannah Greenwood!" in a multiplicity of voices, everyone the girl would have known or loved or hated in a whole compact lifetime, except for the ones she had killed.
"You should call," Falkner said. Stopped for a second to let Ginny's mind and mouth and blank eyes catch up. "She'll answer you."
Ginny blinked once, twice. And then turned towards the swath of lawn the flashlight illuminated and called: "Susannah? Susie, baby? It's Mom. Answer me." They reached the roadside. "Please."
Falkner watched for movement. For bodies. For anything small and wasted and frightened. When she got home she would take both girls to the zoo, to the movies; hell, she'd even drive them into D.C. and spend a day at the Smithsonian. Whatever they wanted. Whatever would make sure they'd answer if she called.
They walked. All the quadrants sliced through Hyannis and down to the beach, to the water. They walked.
The ocean was like a jet engine this close up: a constant roar, pushing and falling back, blurring the edges of her normally good hearing. The footing was bad too, shifting and squishing under her feet. It was like walking through packing snow, the same half-solid slip, but worse. She braced her knees, swept the flashlight back and forth. Covered the sand.
Susannah Greenwood was sitting at the tideline, backpack straps tightened so it rode high on her back. A slight stir of wind ruffled her tee-shirt, four sizes too big at least, and yanked it up around her waist. She pulled it down reflexively. The bones were sharp in her hands. The waves broke around her hips, her feet, her huddled-up knees.
She looked so much younger than sixteen.
"Susie?" Virginia Greenwood said, and her voice cracked. "Susie, baby, where were you going?"
"Nowhere," the girl whispered, and behind the flinch away from the flashlight beam there was a horrible, numb guilt.
There was nowhere to put the flashlight. Nowhere if she moved sharp and violent. Falkner muttered into her radio, under the ocean, under the fog: "We've got her."
Lau's voice came on quick through her earpiece, clear as daylights. "All right, everyone call off; what's your position?"
"We're down at the end of our quadrant. On the beach. Right by the water. She's mobile, but bring the ambulance."
She only imagined the rustle of maps, the careful pinpoint. "Okay, everyone. Coordinates are south—"
"Susie, you know we love you, you know there's nothing you couldn't tell us about—" Ginny Greenwood said, her voice spiralling over the ocean, thin and heartbroken.
Falkner turned down the volume on her earpiece until her team's voices stopped drowning out here, now. They were coming.
She just had to keep everyone here for them.
Susannah was shaking her head, automatic, desperate. No. No no no. "Susie," her mother said, nearly a whimper. "Tell me, God, tell me what we did wrong."
"Mama," Susie whispered; the flashlight caught her face, made her pupils big and the hollows of her cheeks even thinner. The frustration. The tears. "Mama, I'm hungry."
Virginia Greenwood choked on something. "Suze—"
"Virginia!" Falkner called sharply as Ginny Greenwood stumbled down the beach, arms outstretched, trying to pull her daughter away from the sea.
She reached out and missed; stumbled, swore, started to run after her. Ginny lunged--
"Don't touch me!" Susannah screamed, and rolled away, soaking, into the tide. The knapsack ripped off her back, clunked heavily into the waves.
Do not shoot, Falkner told herself. This is not a gamma, this is a frightened teenage girl. Think, don't shoot.
"Why shouldn't anyone touch you, Susie?" Falkner asked, quiet, careful, forgiving. Her breath was heaving; too hard. Too hard and she would choke on it if she didn't calm the hell down, soldier.
"It'll—" the girl said, and broke down into sobs. "It'll take you away. It'll hurt you, Mama, it'll hurt you."
Ginny's hand was still out; she was crawling in the sand, crawling towards her baby girl, and Susannah wept and wept as she inched farther away.
"We won't touch you, Susie," Falkner said, and caught up to Ginny, and with a deep breath, put herself between them. "You take all the space you need. Nobody'll touch you unless you ask."
Falkner was up to the knapsack now. She bent to lift it, to put it aside, and her wrist and arm and shoulder stopped short as it did not lift and did not lift. Rocks, she thought, with hyperclarity. She steeled herself, cautioned her grumbling back, and heaved it up onto her shoulder with gritted teeth. Susannah's mother should never know this. She would make sure it was never known.
"Tell us what's wrong, Susie," she said, low and soothing. "We'll help you out. We'll make sure you're safe, okay?"
They were close now. Falkner could hear the occasional sound of an engine, a step in the brush that led to the beachside.
"I'm hungry," Susannah whispered, and buried her face in her terrible, Auschwitz knees.
Ginny Greenwood's keening wail could not drown out the surf, but it echoed up through the fog, off the rocks, into the night.
The first flashlight broke the darkness.
Falkner knelt five feet away, in the gritty, giving, unstable sand. The ocean came in. The ocean drifted out. "Don't worry," she said, soft and calm. Not Susannah's mother, but somebody's. "We'll get you something to eat."
Ashton, VA, October 8, 2008
Daphne Worth was normally good at waiting. She'd cruised city streets in empty ambulances at three hours to dawn enough nights, sat in mercifully quiet emergency rooms enough nights, sat by the bedsides of people she loved while they breathed in one rattling wheeze after another, in-out, in-out, waiting. She'd waited without complaint for the two whole days it took to get Susannah Greenwood packed up and in custody, shipped carefully to Virginia under federal guard while, in Cape Cod, they put Juliana Ferreira-Albrecht in the ground. Two days before she'd been released home to D.C. and the arms of her wife and a wedding perilously close, herself perilously tired. She prided herself on waiting.
She wished she'd brought a book.
The elevator sounded, up-not-down, and behind the nurses' station she straightened, blinking. But not Reyes, not Falkner; instead a skinny, tough little man got off the elevator, eyes down and watching the white lino floor, moving quick and compact so as to alert as few of the surrounding fauna as possible of his presence.
"Dyson Cieslewicz," she blurted, and her face went from cool to Nevada at noontime in about two seconds.
They'd only met in passing about thirty catastrophes ago, but he recognized her. "Hey," he said, slightly awkward. His left hand crept behind his back. Worth was sure he didn't notice it.
Only one catastrophe for him, she reminded herself. Of course he recognized her.
"Hey back," she said. Overcautious. Paramedics didn't see most of their patients a second time unless things were going really wrong, and FBI agents never did. "How are you doing?"
He gave the tiniest of shrugs. Almost one-shouldered. "Moved up to D.C. Still tending bar."
Not much else, Worth translated, and worked heroically to not bite her lip. "Visiting?"
He nodded. Sharp and quick. Breath-held. "It's my day."
"Well," she said, shifting in her chair because awkwardness was contagious that way. "Don't be a stranger."
"Yeah," he said, faint in the way that meant he didn't mean it at all or meant it all too much, flashed a pained smile at the nurses, and took himself down the hall.
"He visits every Wednesday," Nurse Sharon said conspiratorially. "Good brother, that man."
Families didn't visit Idlewood. They didn't even have to actively discourage it, when there was family left. Worth filed that tidbit away for later.
He was in and gone, with a tiny, hesitant wave goodbye, before Falkner and Reyes made their way back into the lobby. There were fatigue bruises under Reyes's eyes. Worth presumed she couldn't see Falkner's because of the makeup. They looked around the lobby, and from behind the comforting barrier of counter and computers and clutter, she stood.
"We're about done here," Reyes said.
Worth let out her breath. "They signed?" she asked.
Of course they signed.
"They signed," Falkner answered, and nodded to Nurse Sharon, eavesdropping avidly behind a clipboard. "Thank you for your time," she said, formally, as if they'd imposed rather than provided a fresh month's worth of gossip to the staff of Idlewood Psychiatric Institute.
Worth gathered her shoulder bag and jacket, slugged down the last of the coffee in her paper cup and dropped the cup in the blue recycle bin. "Thanks," she said, likewise – even if it wasn't an example, Mom wouldn't be unhappy – and started down the hallway.
Esther Falkner didn't follow.
"Go ahead," she said, and smoothed down her navy-blue skirt. "I'll catch up."
Ah, Worth thought. Two cars. It was hard to not abruptly feel used.
Reyes swept past her and into the elevator. When she glanced back, Falkner had already turned, seating herself on the one little couch that served as a makeshift lobby for the whole rangy, Victorian, ugly building. There weren't any magazines for her to pick up; she had clasped her hands in her lap and was just waiting.
Worth gritted her teeth and got into the elevator with Stephen Reyes.
She didn't look at him while the old accordion-grate elevator descended. Idlewood was a historic site, and while the state of Virginia had somehow been informed of the necessity of reinforcing the walls, installing certain countermeasures, replacing the glass with something double-paned and unbreakable, they had held firm on the original elevators. When it shuddered to a halt he held the gate for her only in a cursory way. It slammed shut once she was through.
If they were going to work together, she would have to talk to him. Or quit.
So: "Should she even be here?" Worth asked. A pause. Reyes kept walking. "She's not a proper gamma. She isn't--"
Out of her head. Nuts. Malevolent. Susannah Greenwood had been operating for months on low blood sugar. Low blood sugar made you stupid. It altered your decision-making skills. It let you think things and do things that...well. Made it easy to be a gamma.
Reyes turned the corner, waved his pass at the door that locked from both inside and out until the little light turned green. "Susannah Greenwood is difficult to classify."
The sunlight flooded into the hallway as the metal door swung out. Late afternoon; maybe enough time to get home for a solid dinner and a quiet night on the couch with Tricia if the traffic wasn't horrific. Here she was, leaving Idlewood. Not having to come back, or stay.
She was the luckiest woman alive.
"She's not out of control," Daphne pressed, and it was dangerous, maybe, what she was thinking. A good diet plan, friends and family who loved her, a solid awareness of her abilities and what they meant, what they could and could not do and who had to be in charge at all times. Those small, piddling things, and she could be just like--
"All teenagers are out of control," Reyes said. "Most of them survive it."
The door swung shut behind them. Closed. Locked.
Daphne Worth got into the car with her boss and shut the door. They were silent all the way back to D.C., and when he let her off at the office garage, she declined to say goodnight.
Esther Falkner waited forty-one minutes in the lobby for Robert and Virginia Greenwood to say goodbye to their daughter. They emerged from the hallway guided by an orderly who looked a half-year's work out of trim for the weightlifting event at the Olympics just as the nurses were changing shifts, day to evening, leaving their records for overnight. There was a full complement of staff on duty at Idlewood twenty-four hours a day. The Municipality of Ashton was grateful for it. Ashton had been a logging town and then a tobacco town, and with tobacco farming in decline after years of relative prosperity, the farms had shrunk and withered. The double handful of stable government jobs that Idlewood brought were, despite everything, never empty.
This employee's tag read Troy. Troy smiled at them, equal little children under God, and said, "Ma'am, can I leave the lady and gentleman with you?"
Falkner took the hint. "Yes, thanks," she said, and rose to smooth her skirt. The Greenwoods' eyes were hollow. It was a familiar expression.
"You're staying the night?" she asked.
Robert Greenwood nodded. It was sharp and distracted, and his eyes did not meet her own, but watched something over her shoulder, far away. Another world. "There's a bed and breakfast in town."
She knew it. "It's good," she offered, and fell silent again. The Greenwoods looked at the walls, at the curious nurses trying hard as they could to overhear a conversation where the voices could be nothing but low. They didn't know the way out. She would have to show them.
"Ginny—" Falkner said.
"Virginia," she corrected.
"Virginia," Falkner repeated, and cursed her thoughtless tactics. "Robert. Thank you both for coming out here. It's the best thing for her. I promise."
"She looks happier," Virginia said. Met Falkner's eye. "Healthier."
"Healthier," Falkner agreed. Idlewood knew how to feed a gamma. Susannah Greenwood was young enough that five high-carbohydrate meals a day was something she might adjust to, in time. Once the psychiatrists were gone and she could look at a magazine ad without flinching once again.
Not that she would. Magazines were another thing you didn't see much of in Idlewood. Just like television, internet, and telephone privileges. For all intents and purposes, Susannah Greenwood's fragile body image would never be threatened again.
"Casey's a good doctor," is all she said, sounding weak to her own ears, but Robert Greenwood just nodded once, terse and sorrowful. Normally she would have said Dr. Ramachandran, respected his professional standing. But the papers were signed, and henceforth the Greenwoods and Casey Ramachandran would see enough of each other for first names.
"He seems to be," Virginia said, and once again ducked her chin, staring at the walls.
It was intolerable. It was her obligation, and though the work was heavy some days, neither was she free to desist from it, but today, tonight, tonight of all nights it was intolerable.
"Can I ask you—" Falkner started, and it caught.
"What?" Virginia Greenwood asked, her voice shorn of courtesy, of anything but gaping, frightened pain.
Falkner swallowed and plaited her hands behind her. Professional. Bulletproof. A false at-ease. She did her best to meet the other woman's eye. "I'm so sorry for all of this. We did not want to do this to your life. Please--" and she thought about what she was really asking, what she really wanted; believe me. Understand me. "—forgive me," she finished.
Virginia Greenwood did not look down first.
"Marissa Tobin's dead." She said it in a rush, breathless; like a slap she was afraid to deliver. "They buried her at home two weeks ago."
Falkner shut her eyes. Remembered Marissa's mother – Alex, protective and angry, holding her sister's hand – and wondered who was there to keep the crows off for her, who was holding her hand. She would have to tell Reyes and reopen the file. She didn't want to speak to Reyes.She'd thought they'd accounted for them all.
"It wasn't that," Robert Greenwood said, toneless. Taking pity. Or pitiless. "Anorexia. Her parents took her to the doctor. They were going to put in a feeding tube." He paused. "She threw herself into the harbour in the second week of school and they dredged her out two days later."
Of course. They were addictive, the bad things you did to your body. Even when you didn't have a gamma to help you along.
"Did you tell her?" Falkner asked, and immediately felt shamed for it.
A pause. "No," he said, and the chill passed and they were three imperfect and teenage-awkward and guilty parents once again, lying to their children so as to push off the day of their breaking just a little farther out.
Falkner nodded, slow. "I'll leave that with her doctor," she said. The Greenwoods ducked their heads as one, acquiescence, and all three knew Dr. Casey Ramachandran would never hear a word of a teenage girl two days missing, driven to starvation and grief by the deaths of her cousin and two childhood friends, committed to earth in all mourning for her lost potential by surviving mother, father, aunt and uncle, and two brothers of university age.
They were good enough to shake her hand before they left. They had not forgiven her, Falkner reflected, but they had shaken her hand. Perhaps that was close enough.
There was a bank of monitors behind the nurse's station, some blanked for privacy or medical privilege or the sheer desire of the nurses and guards not to know what went on in the lower rooms. Esther Falkner watched Susannah Greenwood's for a time before she left, painted in black and white and sunshine-drenched with the fading afternoon, the sun you could only get in a semi-rural place in early autumn. She was looking out the window, staring somewhere far away, with a little box in her hands.
One of the orderlies noticed her watching, shuffled up beside her. "That isn't contraband?" she asked.
"Doctor said it was fine," the orderly said, and the bony little hands opened it.
She waited until Susannah Greenwood had strapped her homecoming corsage onto her wrist and reseated herself on the bed by the double-thick plastic institutional window that looked east, eastward towards home. Her wrists were delicate; the very picture of youth and grace. She could have been a painting.
Esther Falkner was a long time in leaving.
Falkner took the freeway back to Maryland in silence. Traffic was snarled for five miles before her exit. The sky was turning pink before she made it home to change for Kol Nidre.
"Mom!" Rebekah hollered as Falkner kicked off one shoe, then the other. "Where were you? We're going to be late!"
Her eldest was at the top of the stairs, navy blue tights and dress half zipped up, her little sister trailing in a mess of unkempt hair and quickly silenced complaints. "Mommy!" she said, still young enough to use the word. "Rebekah's pulling my hair."
"Bekk," she corrected automatically, then: "I was combing it."
"It hurt," Deborah snapped.
"Girls," she said mildly. Something in her voice stopped them; a shadow of still-green lawns and the autumn flowerbeds installed every September by groundskeepers who still believed in Moral Treatment, windows with unbreakable glass and bedrooms watched by camera, doctors and mothers and nurses who lied.
"I didn't," Rebekah said lamely, and edged herself against the banister.
Falkner studied her face. The hitch of her shoulders.
The kid was worried.Should have called home, she thought, and added it to her list of faults to enumerate before the river tonight. But forgiveness before God could not come before that of human beings, and so "I'm sorry, Bekk," she told her eldest daughter. "I should have called."
Rebekah blinked at her for a full second. Fourteen years old; not old enough to have received many apologies from parents, to have it ceded to her fully that she was in the right. "S'okay," she said a little faintly, and glanced down at her sister.
"Deborah, let your sister fix your hair while I get changed?" she said. "And just tell her if it pulls and she'll be more careful."
"Okay," Deborah said, and caught Falkner's hand as she came up the stairs. Falkner dropped a kiss on her youngest's head, gave her eldest a smile. "Thank you," she told them, and went into her bedroom.
She had chosen her outfit on the way home; Falkner didn't believe in phone calls or distracted driving while stuck in traffic on the freeway, but there was plenty one could do with the radio off and nothing to watch but the road. Organize one's thoughts. Plan ahead an evening in every detail. Walk in one's front door with one's hands and mind clean again, to not bring the graveyard into the house.
She peeled her white pantsuit from its dry cleaner's plastic. Not professional FBI field wear: it was too fussy to wear into the office, never mind trekking through the backwoods and ditches – and beaches -- of America. But for a night both about death and cleanliness, about becoming clean, it was right. Bleach in a mortuary to scrub a child's death off the floor. The false clarity of fasting. Grave-clothes. White upon white upon white.
Falkner glanced at her watch; no time to shower. She stripped down to her underwear and wet a washcloth in the sink instead. It had done very well in the field, for months on end sometimes. A shower was a privilege. It would have to do.
As she sponged off and reapplied deodorant, perfume, makeup, she noted that she hadn't eaten since lunch either. It would be a long go of it, tonight through the Kol Nidre service, tomorrow all the way until sundown. Bad tactical planning. She was already hungry.
It was all right. This year of all years, she could go a little hungrier.
The bathroom door opened, and "Es," Ben said, all aftershave and undershirt and sober creased grey pants over those thin socks that men bought to wear with their better suits. "I was about to call."
"Sorry," she said again, easier this time somehow, easy to apologize to her husband with whom there were years and years of practice, of give and take, of forgiveness. "I caught traffic on the freeway."
He gauged it somehow, from the rushedness of her voice or the way she held her head, from something she wouldn't know to read in her own skin, her own habits. "Work?" he asked, and offered her an arm for balance. She took it, and leaned on it, and slid one leg into her carefully pressed slacks. He smelled good, like soap and hair and that peculiar scent that each person had all their own. Work is bad, she thought. Very bad.
"It doesn't matter now," she said, and kissed her husband with her pants still half-on. You're here. It's there. This is how you made it home on time.
The traffic had lightened on 495. They made the trip to Shaare Tefila in record time, and she parked the car while Ben gathered up the High Holy Days tickets and the four Siddurim with their brown and gold covers and hustled the girls inside. Too late for good seats by a long shot, she thought, as she navigated patches of the frighteningly full parking lot, finally spotted an empty space and slid into it as another car was turning, ungainly, to try to get around a corner in time. They were too late for good seats and Deborah would want to stand on the chair to see everything, but at least they hadn't missed the opening of the service.
The building was all bustle and light. She tucked in through the front doors, heels clicking on the old flooring – they were raising money for a new building; this one was much too small – and caught Deborah's waving hand at the door to the back hall, which they opened into the sanctuary for the large holiday services. "Mom!" she called, and Falkner shed her coat and took her youngest by the hand. "Daddy saved a seat for you," she said.
The girls had put Deborah's hair in two smooth braids. She was smiling. Falkner looked down for a moment, and smiled back. "Thanks, munchkin," she said, and "Mooommm," Deborah replied, aping her big sister, tugging Falkner into the tight-packed aisles.
They were halfway to the back, in the middle of a row already stuffed with people; the group of Friday night regulars and twice as many more, who only came around the High Holidays, for barmitzvahs or funerals. Deborah wiggled herself self-importantly into a chair between Ben and their last empty one, and Falkner sat down on the outside, taking her Siddur from Ben's hand wordlessly. Let out a breath.
Finally, time to stop running today. Finally home.
A shock of melody from the piano came through the speakers, and as one, the congregation broke off chatter, fidgeting, conversation, and opened their books.
They stood, sang, sat. They took the Torah from the Aron Kodesh and raised it up before the congregation, and they sang the Kol Nidre three times.
Kol Nidre Ve'esarei, Ush'vuei, Vacharamei, Vekonamei, Vekinusei, Vechinuyei. All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, from this Day of Atonement until the next, we do repent.
Forgive me the oaths I cannot fulfill. Forgive me the obligations I fail.
They prayed, and the rabbi closed the service with an announcement of tomorrow's study group and service times, and they went down to Sligo Creek.
When Esther Falkner was a child, this was her favourite part of the service. Tashlich: the mile walk in the dark along the path to running water, the distribution of the challah from the rabbi's precise hands. The line to throw it into the water, freighted with all your sins, while the Reb muttered the prayer over and over to catch each person's amen.
This was not the same river. But the walk was still a murmuring shuffle through the night, the stars watching from between the shadow-leaved trees, and the river bank steep and slippery with mud.
As her mother once did, Falkner reached out to hold her daughters' hands as they came within sight of the brink.
Last year Bekk had pushed her hand away, said I won't fall in that trademark teenage scorn all kids must have received in the mail when they sprouted their first armpit hair. This year she didn't. She held on too, and Falkner squeezed her big girl's hand and for a long moment, woods-smell and running water and the murmured sharp of Hebrew words, she thought she might never have to let go after all.
She did, of course, in the end. That too was a parent's job.
The line moved silent to the river. They moved with it.
When they reached the shore, the Rabbi passed her bread; she split it in three with two slow pulls, gave a piece each to her two children. Deborah squished hers tight in her hand; afraid of dropping it before the time was right, before she chose.
Aren't we all.
The river whispered around the rocks. Somewhere beyond the trees, the stars were out, and the world smelled like good earth and autumn and things that were alive and clean. The world smelled like reprieves and second chances, and the world smelled like honest prayer.
She mouthed it along. She knew the words.Who is like You, God, who removes iniquity and overlooks transgression of the remainder of His inheritance? He does not remain angry; He desires kindness. He will return and He will be merciful to us, and He will conquer our iniquities, and He will cast them into the depths of the seas.
The children tossed theirs in fast, but they were children. Esther Falkner held silence a moment. To the water and the trees and her children she prayed forgive me.
There was no answer, not right away. But it wasn't about the answer. It was about the asking.She tore good bread in her two hands and fed it to the river.