"Wireless Girl - by Emma Bull and Stephen Shipman
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Part 4Houston, Texas, December 11, 2010
Six-thirty a.m. in Texas was seven-thirty in D.C. Daphne Worth leaned against Detective Jackson's as-yet-untenanted desk and thumbed a text message into her phone. "hot brkfst at hotel not so hot. c what ur missin?" Then she selected Chaz's number and hit "send."
It didn't occur to her until then that his phone might now be announcing itself in a tray by a door in Idlewood. For an instant she considered texting an apology to Hafs.
She could still forget. And remembering could still drop a stone into her stomach.
"Report to the boss?" Jackson's rumbly voice echoed in the empty detectives' room.
Daphne looked up and put a nice smile on. "Texting Agent Villette. I thought I'd let him know that whatever he had for breakfast, it beat mine."
"Lousy food across the street?"
Not polite to dis the local eats, she reminded herself. But it was too late to back out. "Not very much of it, though."
Behind his metal-rimmed glasses, Jackson's eyes narrowed, as if she were printed in too-small type. He already had his jacket off and his collar button open; he slung the jacket over his desk chair. "Well, now. If you want to make up for it at lunch, there's a burrito place nearby that'll deliver. Make their own chorizo."
The saliva that sprang to her mouth almost washed away the taste of cheap boxed waffle mix and pseudo-maple syrup. "Oh, god. Do we have to wait for lunch?"
Jackson's smile was slow and approving. "I'll call it in. It'll be waiting for us when we get back upstairs with all these damn case files."
There were four archive boxes, which they managed in one trip because Daphne insisted on carrying two, just as Jackson did. She was breathing hard by the time she swung them onto the table in their conference room, but Jackson was red-faced and sweating.
Neither of them knew Stephen Reyes was right behind them until he circled Daphne and set a four-cup cardboard tray beside the boxes. "Good morning, Worth, Detective." He handed Daphne a large cup in a corrugated sleeve. "Decaf, not from the hotel." He handed another to Jackson, saying, "Sorry--I wasn't sure how you take it."
"However I can get it, mostly." Jackson saluted him with the cup and pulled half-a-dozen case jackets out of the box nearest to him.
Daphne slid one of her boxes to Reyes's side of the table and sat down in front of the other. Reyes took out his cell phone and laid it next to his own cup, then pulled a jacket from the box.
At the corner of her vision, she saw Jackson watching Reyes.
Reyes eyed him over the top of his box. "They don't fly me out here to look pretty." He returned his attention to the first page of the case file.
Jackson pursed his lips. Daphne wondered if it was to keep from grinning. Then he settled in to his own pile of reading. He took it like a trooper when Falkner came in and said, "Those must be mine," and drew the fourth box and cup toward her.
They knew what they were looking for--parallels with their four existing cases--and they sorted briskly through the jackets in front of them. Out of the missing-children cases from 2001 to 1997 that weren't abductions by family members, twenty-seven involved male children of solo mothers.
"We're sure about male children?" Jackson asked once.
Falkner nodded. "At that point in his history, the person we're looking for would be a classic child predator. A preferential offender."
"And nine year olds?"
"That may be harder for him to determine, depending on how he's finding his victims."
"Pay extra attention to the relationship between the boy and his mother," Reyes said, not looking up from the page. "Or as much of it as you can tell from the reports."
Nine case files held clear suggestions that the household was troubled before the abduction occurred. Daphne leafed through them: alcoholism; drug use; reports from neighbors of shouting, screaming, sounds of breaking objects; frequent late-night visits from strangers, usually men; reports from teachers of dirty clothes and acting out. They're the kid equivalent of high-risk victims of serial sexual crime, Daphne thought with a shudder. Nine was too many. Nine was a drop in the bucket.
Suddenly Reyes's spine stretched, as if someone had pulled his scalp toward the ceiling on a string. "This. What's this?" He spun the file and slid it across the table to Jackson.
Jackson's mouth worked. "Before my time. I was driving a unit back then. Navasota's a good hour and a quarter north of here." He slid his thumb down the page margin. "This isn't too close to what our guy's after. The boy's twelve, the woman's not a single mom."
Reyes skidded the file back and flipped two pages. "No, she remarried. She took her new husband's name--she became Cynthia Anacort Raymond. But the boy stays Michael Anacort. Here, though. The investigation into the boy's disappearance was reopened three years later when a fifteen-year-old girl saw a description of Michael and claimed she'd seen him, that he was in her class in school. She then withdrew her statement, saying she was mistaken."
Jackson shrugged. "You don't get great resolution on a milk carton."
"Look at the description of Michael that was circulated by law enforcement agencies."
Jackson pushed his glasses up his nose and studied the sheet. Daphne couldn't resist; she hitched her chair closer and read over his shoulder.
And she spotted it. "Oh." She raised her eyes to Reyes's eager face. "She did see him. And it happened three years after he was abducted." Daphne poked the circulated description as if she had a pushpin on the end of her finger. "See? 'Brown birthmark on upper left thigh.' She and Michael were both fifteen years old."
It was a moment before Jackson flushed bright red.
"Almost everything else in his description at the time of his disappearance could change, or could be changed," Reyes said. "His hair could be dyed. He could be made to wear glasses. But not the birthmark."
"His kidnapper didn't see him as fifteen." Falkner's voice was thoughtful, her head tilted slightly as if she were listening. "He couldn't imagine the boy being sexually active. Even high school gym class, at fifteen--but to the UNSUB, he was still a child."
"He sent him to school, because that's what you do with children," Daphne finished.
Jackson cleared his throat. "He moved the boy to Houston, though. Biggest school district in the city. Maybe he figured the kid'd get lost in the crowd."
Reyes grimaced. "And he might have, if he'd kept his pants on. Detective Jackson, we need to talk to the girl. Elizabeth Mary Cashman."
Jackson levered himself out of his chair. "I'll call DPS."
"Worth. Update Villette on this."
Daphne looked pointedly at Reyes's phone on the table, but he ignored her. Well, of course. He was ready if Chaz needed him. Until then, he'd leave Chaz alone, no matter how nervous that made Reyes.
Daphne headed for the detectives' bullpen and the privacy of a crowd.
Ashton, Virginia, December 11, 2010
"You made cake," Hafidha said. She stared at it--two layers, chocolate frosting, on a white plastic plate on the white plastic desk of her cell--as if she expected it to open its eyes. Chaz was pretty sure they were safe from that, at least.
Sometimes when he brought her treats she smashed them, or dug her fingers into them, or tipped them onto the floor. He'd found the less invested he seemed in pleasing her, the more likely she was to be pleased. "Turns out they had all the ingredients in the kitchen here. Oh, except it's commercial vanilla extract. Sorry."
"Gosh. Unfit for human consumption." She slicked frosting off a top edge with her index finger and popped it in her mouth. "Tastes like breakfast." Her eyes cut to his face and stayed there until he felt almost squirmy. "You get any sleep?"
He shrugged. "Some."
She turned back to the cake. Her voice was a little too high-pitched and loud when she said, "So how are we doing this?"
"I've got your laptop ready in the next room."
The next room was also a cell, as far as security went. But Ramachandran had had the furniture replaced with a pair of padded desk chairs and a square table.
For another long moment Hafidha hovered over her desk. Fear response. OCD. Paranoia. Chaz wanted to touch her, but it was the wrong move, the wrong time.
"Let's do this," she said, and walked to the door of her burrow.
LaShawn was on duty this morning. She worked the door bolt; Chaz reached past Hafs and pulled it open. The outer room was insulated with copper wire just as the inner one was, so visitors could come and go. An airlock for stray signals.
Hafidha took the few steps to the outer door, where LaShawn waited. Chaz, following, couldn't see her face, but he thought she shivered as LaShawn unlocked the door and opened it. He brought the mirror up, ready to unfold with a snap.
"Hafs? You okay?" he asked.
She walked out the door.
She managed about three steps, mostly because she had a little momentum. Then she staggered, grabbed for the wall and missed, and fell hard on one knee.
Chaz lunged forward and caught her under the armpits so she wouldn't go all the way down.
LaShawn's hand had dropped to the holstered tazer at her hip. LaShawn liked Hafidha. She was also highly trained Idlewood security staff. Anything unexpected was to be read as a threat.
And Chaz kept the mirror ready.
"Hafs, I'm going to get you into the next room, okay? You can sit down there."
Hafidha's eyes squeezed tight shut; her lips parted to show clenched white teeth. "Noisy," she said, like a cough. "I didn't think..." Sweat rolled down her neck from under her hair.
"Yeah, you're not used to it. Do you need to go back?"
"No! No. Just...give me a sec. I feel a little pukey."
She sat cross-legged on the glossy linoleum of the hall, folded forward over her knees. Chaz stroked her back slowly, trying to keep the rhythm as steady as he could. A counterpoint to chaos.
At last she sat up. "Give me a hoist, baby brother. Okay?"
"Got you," he said, and pulled her to her feet.
"Damn. Now I really need that cake."
Chaz flung a hopeful glance at LaShawn, who nodded. Then he helped Hafidha into the room where they'd work.
"Palatial," she announced, dropping into one of the chairs. Her voice and her hands both trembled. "Is this so I won't like it as much as Burrow Sweet Burrow?"
"Either that, or Idlewood's running out of furniture," he answered at near-random. "You want to eat with your fingers, or a plastic fork?
He'd stocked the room with a day's worth of jammer fuel: turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic and stored on ice in a cooler, along with a gallon of orange juice and another of milk, and four orders of takeout cold noodles in sesame paste in their foam clamshells. Two boxes of cheese crackers with peanut butter, which she had a perverse love for. Half a pound of chocolate truffles. Blue corn tortilla chips with salsa.
And the cake, which LaShawn brought in. Chaz cut a wedge with a plastic knife, laid it on a paper plate, and slid it in front of Hafidha. She ate it with her fingers. While she did, Chaz nodded to LaShawn, who left the room and shut the door.
"That's better," Hafidha said, when she'd blotted up the last crumbs. "Have to say, I just love looking like a fucking idiot in front of the whole place."
"Just LaShawn and me."
Hafidha rolled her eyes. "Sweetie, you do know there's surveillance in here, right? Doctor Casey was probably in his office with a bag of popcorn."
Arguing with the Bug never did any good. It didn't have a mind to change. The mind belonged to Hafidha, and she'd change it herself as soon as the Bug had had its say. Chaz handed her a napkin, and she wiped her hands before she lifted the lid of her laptop.
"Hey, baby. Did you miss me?" She closed her eyes again, but not as if she hurt; she might have been blocking one sense in order to savor another. "All right. Give me names and dates."
He did. Windows began to pop open on the screen, slowly at first, picking up speed, then finally faster than he could follow. Suddenly the furious cascade froze.
Too much for the laptop, was the thought that flashed through his mind. But the next was, Stroke.
But Hafidha sat with her hands on the table to either side of the machine, watching him. "Are you doing the mirror thing?"
He was ready to reflect whatever she thought, good or bad. Ready to expose her if she was working on anything other than the case. "Because I know you don't want the Bug to win. And I know, if it looks as if it's getting the upper hand, you'll tell me."
Her fingers curled against the tabletop and her mouth worked. "God damn. You really know how to take the fun out of things, don't you?"
He'd said, effectively, "I trust you." The most manipulative thing he could think of. He swallowed and asked, "So how's it going?"
She gave her shoulders a shake and turned back to the screen. Chaz knew she didn't need to. "What I have to do here is Internet archaeology. And the Internet is a place where people just keep building new cities on top of the ruins, man. Layers and layers. Marotta's online world? Pretty easy--it's all at the surface. And hey." Hafidha turned to Chaz and waggled her eyebrows. "She's just your type. As in, prefers girls."
Since it was the kind of joke Hafidha sometimes made, he let it go, though she'd managed to make it cut a little deeper. "Focus, Wabbit, focus."
"Burell Wilkins went missing in 2007. That's still mostly the Internet we know, but with ninety percent less Twitter. In 2004, when Cover was snatched, you don't have Facebook, and MySpace is still about indie bands. Blogger and LiveJournal are thriving like weeds.
"Ah, but then there's little Billy Schutts in 2001. 'Social media' barely exists." She marked the words with air quotes, crooking two fingers on each hand. "AO-fucking-L still rules the net. CompuServe forums and GEnie RoundTables are hanging in there.
"If we have to go further back, things get really interesting. Three years before that is 1998, and everybody's still all buzzy about personal homepages, and most of the world is on dial-up. And three years before that? Craigslist was a baby, the World Wide Web was four fucking years old, and they finally had a version of Windows with a native TCP/IP stack. Netscape 3.0 was king. Internet Explorer was still flashing a copyright message showing its roots in Mosaic."
"You know I understood about half that last part, right?" It wasn't true, but it would make her feel good. "So what you're saying is, pretty much, to track this guy you're going to have to go places that don't even exist now."
"Pretty much." But she grinned at the screen, laced her fingers together, and cracked her knuckles. She was looking forward to this.
It was what she did, after all.
He unwrapped a package of cheese crackers and laid it beside her on the table. Then he sat back and watched her face as she scribbled in the air and gestured and frowned, and her changing display bouncing fluttering light off the lenses of her glasses.
She muttered to herself now and then: "Hah!" and "Oh, honey," and "Suuuure you do." Half an hour in, his nerve faltered. He let the mirror reflect, just a little, just for a few seconds. He found himself subvocalizing a cloud of words, numbers, information. Some of them were recognizably Hafidha's thoughts, but most were the facts she was hunting. There was so much so fast he could barely comprehend it.
Under the flood of information he felt/heard the anomaly, the Bug, like an itch in his inner ear. It muttered resentment, warning, anger. But it couldn't compete with the data.
At last Hafidha sighed and stretched in her chair. "More. Cake. Naow."
Chaz carved her a substantial chunk, and another for himself. Not exactly on The Nutrition Plan. But it won't do to get shaky now.
Hafs wolfed a bite and began to talk around the crumbs. "The good news is, I found a whole lot of our mommies' online past. The bad news, absolutely no actual sites in common among the four women. Not all that surprising, given the timeline."
The weariness that swept over him had nothing to do with jamming. "Bummer," he said faintly.
"And the post-bad-news good news is," she drawled. The sly sideways look she shot him said she'd yanked that chain on purpose. "All the women had common online behavior."
"If someone were trolling bulletin boards, comment threads, and blogs for phrases like, oh, 'I hate my goddamn kid,' guess who you'd find?"
He remembered Gina Marotta, limp and faded in her hospital room. Anger heated his skin. He'd felt sorry for her, damn it, and all the while--
No. Whatever she said, she didn't do anything. He took a deep breath. "That sounds like it would trigger our guy. Details?"
Her smile was blissful. "Oh, baby brother. Docs are neatly tied with a red ribbon and delivered to everyone's phones. And before you ask, no, I didn't put any dirty needles in with them."
Which was what the subvocalizations in his throat were saying. "I didn't think you had," he told her in a convincingly wounded tone.
"Also, bunkie, I haven't been out of service for so long that I've forgotten the point of this exercise. Don't you want the post-good-news good news?"
She tilted her chair as far back as it would rock and stretched again. "Whatever our mommies said, it ain't nothing without an audience. They all got sympathetic responses from other women. And of course, you have to figure more people were lurking than commenting. But all four women got responses from username 'marguerite,' who not only sympathized but used the kind of tactics our pals in the courtroom call 'leading the witness.' She was just too damned 'Oooh, me, too!' to be true."
"ISP?" Chaz asked, not very hopefully.
"Over this span of time, I'd expect them to be different. But I snagged the conversations for you to read." She spun her laptop around so he could see the screen.
He read...then read again, more slowly, noting frequency of certain words, sentence construction, concrete detail, grammar. "I think Marguerite is male," he blurted out.
"Oh, good." Hafidha swivelled the laptop back and petted the screen. "I love it when I'm right."
Houston, Texas, December 11, 2010
When Esther Falkner saw the sender's ID on the text message--0metotchtli--the world tilted just a little with the weights of her conflicting responses. A purely reflexive leap of joy--it had been so long!--followed by fear for Chaz's safety. Then what she thought of as sensible wariness.
Her phone chirped again; this time the text sender was Chaz. It's okay, his message read. You can open hers.
Hafidha was perfectly capable of sending her an authenticating message that seemed to be from Chaz. Perfectly capable, at least, if she had slipped whatever limits Chaz had found to place on her. But that rabbit hole had no bottom. She opened Hafidha's message.
The attachment consisted of a summary and supporting documents of the online lives of Marotta, Burke, Cover, and Schutts. Hafidha had worked her miracle.
Oh, Hafidha, how much did you pay for this? And are you done paying for it? Falkner let grief wash over her and fade before she settled more comfortably against the lumbar support of the rental car's driver's seat to read.
In 2001, Tara Schutts was in Narcotics Anonymous by court order. She'd been a frequent participant in a CompuServe forum for single mothers until the moderator, or whatever they'd been called then, banned her for "disruptive behavior and violation of the user agreement." She was also on a BBS called NASUX. There she'd written, "At meetings their all 'think of your kid" when they give me shit for useing. Why teh fuck do they think I use?" and "If Id wanted a kid I would of married my boyfriend. Dont make me choose between coke and motherhood cause motherhood loses."
Shawna Cover had a weblog, in which she did her best to prove the claims of those who said blogging was an outlet for narcissists. In Cover's case, Falkner thought "narcissist" could be used clinically. The narrative showed her son, Shawn, as alternately a kind of human fashion accessory and a weapon to be used to hurt his father. "I don't know why he wants custody," she wrote. "This is the ugliest most stupid most annoying little boy in the universe. I should have named him for his dad."
Lekeesha Burke, on Yahoo!, said, "No ot, no raises, just schedule rotation--different every week! WTF I supposed to do to find a sitter? I got to lock him in the apt. til hes 16 and get his onw job." Later, she wrote, "Burell opend the door to the JWs while I wasnt there. I come home find their magazine shit on the table. I told him never do that and he stil does. Some crazy MF come in and kill him if I dont do it first."
And finally, Gina Marotta chronicled the ups and downs of her relationship with Josh on Facebook. He took his parents' divorce badly--at nine, Falkner could imagine it--and acted out at school and at home. "One of us is going to kill the other," she wrote in a status update. "Luckily, I'm bigger."
After Falkner and Ben had brought baby Deborah home, Bekk had spent four months being a perfect brat, as if a minor demon had snuck into her skin. Had Falkner ever said to anyone besides Ben that she'd like to kill that kid? She was pretty sure Ben had heard it. She thought he might even have said it to her, patient as he was. Did that make her a bad mother?
Maybe someone out there would think so.
Ashton, Virginia, December 11, 2010
Chaz powered off his Adorable Overhyped Phone, slipped it back in the pocket of his backpack, and pushed the pack into the closet in Dr. Ramachandran's office. Then he walked back to the vaulted corridor in Idlewood where Hafidha was waiting. Walked, because running in the halls of Idlewood tended to provoke an emergency response in the staff, as in, wanting to know what you were running from or to.
He knocked on the door of Hafidha's temporary cell. LaShawn peered through the reinforced glass window, then opened up for him. "Everything all right?" she asked, which surprised him. LaShawn was a woman of almost no words, beyond the necessary.
He must be wearing the news on his face, then. "Just the usual," he replied, before he realized, That's a hell of a thing to be able to say about one's job.
LaShawn considered that. "I hear you." She slipped past him through the door to her post in the hall.
Hafidha sat very straight in her chair, though she made it rock very slightly back and forth. "News," she declared. "We can has."
"Got another one for you." He felt as if the words could burn his mouth. "Michael Anacort. Mother, Cynthia Anacort Raymond of Navasota, Texas. She didn't forget he existed, but Michael may be our first victim."
"Ah, Texas, sweet Texas." But Hafidha's fingers were already fluttering in the air above the keyboard. "Bleah," she said suddenly.
"If somebody hadn't already done it, I'd be tempted to kidnap this kid myself. A teacher reported the family to Child Protective Services when she saw bruises on little Mikey's face and arms. New stepfather denied responsibility. Mom said Mikey had started lying and making trouble. What does that sound like to you?"
Like child abuse and bullshit. "Was Cynthia Anacort online?"
"Excuse me while I haul my shovel to the data mines." She fell silent for a few minutes; Chaz wondered if she was still aware he was there. "Oh, here we are," she announced as the screen stuttered pages like a flip book. "Back in the days when SIG stood for 'special interest group' rather than 'signature'. This one's for remarried moms. 'I don't know why Michael doesn't want me to be happy.' I don't guess you'd let me kill Cynthia Anacort. How about if I just flag all her accounts as a hundred and twenty days overdue?"
"Funny," Chaz said, aware that his tone said otherwise. He couldn't tell her her right to make jokes like that was temporarily suspended. She already knew it, anyway. "Was she e-stalked by Marguerite?"
"Noooo," Hafs growled. "Damn. Or wait--" She drew a funny sliding arc with her left hand as she twiddled the fingers of her right. "What do you think of these?"
Chaz squatted down to read over her shoulder, but avoided leaning; she hated it when people leaned over her as if she were furniture.
The first poster, Charlene, was seconding Anacort's posts a little too enthusiastically. The second, Pimpernelle--
There: the word choices, the way compound sentences went together, consistent misspellings, frequent use of periods at the ends of interrogative sentences instead of question marks.
He pointed to the screen. "That's him."
Houston, Texas, December 11, 2010
Falkner slid out of the car and crossed the strip mall parking lot to the door stenciled with "A Cut Above." Opening it released a blast of fixative smell and the dull roar of hair dryers and chatting. The receptionist smiled at her. "Can I help you?"
"I need to speak to Elizabeth Cashman."
"Liza? She's with a client."
"As soon as she can take a moment, please." Falkner showed her FBI creds.
The receptionist blinked. "Um. Sure." She scurried to the second station in line, where a tall, zaftig woman with a copper-colored updo was painting streaks into a teenage girl's hair. When the receptionist spoke, the woman's eyes darted to Esther. Esther nodded back and looked as unthreatening as possible.
The woman put her customer under a dryer to bake and walked over to Esther. "I'm Liza Cashman."
"Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner of the FBI. You may be able to help us with an investigation. Is there somewhere we can talk?"
It was a combination office and supply room. She did her best to ignore the incongruous surroundings of shelves of pink, orange, and lime-green bottles and said, "In 2001, you reported to police that you'd seen a missing boy, Michael Anacort."
Cashman drew her upper arms closer to her ribs and smiled. Falkner suspected smiling was one of her defense tactics. "Yeah. But I was wrong. I told them that."
"You said he was one of your classmates."
"I thought Joe Woodruff was him, but I was wrong."
"How did you know you were wrong?" Esther asked.
She watched Cashman try to answer that: her mouth opened, and closed, and her eyes wandered everywhere except Esther. "Well, it wasn't. It wasn't him."
"Ms. Cashman, the person who abducted Michael Anacort continued to kidnap children. None of them has been found. He took another child only a few days ago. You're the only person to report seeing one of his victims after they were abducted. What you know may save the latest boy's life."
Cashman shook her head. "I told you, I didn't--"
"It was ten years ago. You can't get into trouble now. You and--what was his name? Joe Woodruff--were engaged in sexual activity. That's how you saw the birthmark on his thigh."
Cashman's face flushed a blotchy magenta, then turned pale.
"Please, Ms. Cashman. That's in the past."
Cashman pressed her fingertips to her mouth. "Shit. I said it, but when the police asked, and I would have had to tell why I knew it was him... My mom was with me, in the living room. What was I supposed to do?"
"When was the last time you saw the boy you knew as Joe Woodruff?"
"That day. After school, when we... We went over to his house. He wanted to show me a bicycle he was fixing. It was in his room. And we... He'd never done anything before. I was just giving him, you know. Oral sex."
"You didn't see him after that?"
"His dad walked in on us. He was so mad. I've never seen anybody like that--it was like he almost couldn't talk. Joe was scared shitless. I was angry and embarrassed, but then I got scared, too. And he said I was giving Joe poison, and I was poison, and...I ran."
"Joe didn't come back to school."
"I think his dad must have moved them away, like, right away. It was maybe a day or two after that when I saw the missing kid flyer in the nurse's office at school. It was three years old, and it didn't really look like Joe that much, but..."
But it described the birthmark on Anacort's thigh. "So you told the nurse, who reported it to the police."
Cashman nodded. "It was like everything hit the fan at once. My mom was already mad, and then the cops knocked on the door and asked for me."
"Why was your mother angry?" Had her mother already heard the story, and insisted her daughter not tell the police what she'd been up to? Liza Cashman might have been the last person other than his kidnapper to see Michael Anacort. If she'd been braver, might Anacort and four other boys be with their families now?
"She had a big garden in our backyard. And in the night a dog or something tore it the hell up, seriously wrecked half of it. She'd just found that, and then the police--I was too scared to say I'd been with boys, you know?"
"Wrecked," Falkner repeated, feeling the hairs on her arms stand up.
"All dug up. Dirt and plants everywhere. Mom had to replant almost everything."
Falkner pulled a pen and a tiny spiral notebook from the pocket of her jacket. "What's the address of the house you lived in then?"
Cashman recited it. "My folks are still there. Why do you want that?"
"Thank you, Ms. Cashman. You've been a great help. I'll leave you to your work now."
She strode as calmly as she could through the salon and out the front door. Then she snatched her phone from her pocket and dialed Reyes. "Write down this address," she said without preamble when he answered. She read it off the page. "I'm fairly sure Michael Anacort's body is buried in the back garden."
The elder Ms. Cashman preferred to talk to them on her front porch, while the police searched her garden with density imaging devices and, subsequently, shovels. Daphne couldn't blame her. She didn't know it was a body they were searching for, but finding out your garden had hidden evidence of a crime for the past nine years could shake your nerves.
"I never found anything out there while I was working," Cashman told Reyes. "Oh, the usual bits from an old neighborhood, like rusted cans and glass from old bottles. One of those china insulators from electric poles, once. People pay money for those at flea markets."
Reyes nodded as if he were filing the information away for his eBay store. Patience, Grasshopper, Daphne told herself. Watch the master and learn. "Tell us what you remember of the time you found your garden vandalized. You thought it was a dog."
"Well, I didn't, really, because when I thought about it, a dog would just dig one or two holes, and this was the whole length of the bed all chopped up. There wasn't any hole at all. But I couldn't imagine what else it could be."
"The whole garden plot was destroyed?"
"Oh, no." Ms. Cashman drew herself up proudly. "I've got a quarter-acre cultivated. Half of it's in flowers, half in vegetables. We hardly have to buy produce at the store anymore. No, it was only the flowerbed. I don't think the vegetables were touched."
Reyes's face displayed absolutely nothing. "Thank you very much, Ms. Cashman. And I apologize again for the damage to your property."
"Just the flowers?" Daphne repeated as they rounded the house and headed for the excavation. She could see Detective Jackson, like an outsize garden gnome in a sport coat, standing to one side of the coming and going of the forensics team. "I'm thinking not a coincidence."
Reyes shook his head. "He destroyed beauty. And he did it in Liza Cashman's backyard."
"What he wanted to do to her?"
"Or a message. 'Here's what you did.' And he disposed of Michael's body in her yard as if to say, 'See what happens because of what you've done? This is your responsibility.'"
"'You broke him, you bought him,'" Daphne offered bitterly. "How much light would there be in this yard after dark? I'm not sure I could tell flowers from vegetables in--it was April?--in daylight."
Reyes stopped and stared at her. "Good catch. Very good catch."
When they reached the garden, the CSIs were six feet below the lawn, gently exposing what was left of Michael Anacort's upper body. In spite of clinging dirt and the effects of decay, Daphne could see the crushed skull, the shattered jaw, the snapped ribs.
"Beat to death," Detective Jackson said, his hands in his trouser pockets. He might have been trying for laconic, but Daphne could hear the anger that pushed the words out of his throat. She suspected his hidden hands were clenched.
Reyes nodded. "He abducted Michael believing he was saving him from abuse. Three years later, he beat the boy to death himself. He had to either acknowledge that he'd become what he hated, or construct a narrative that absolved him."
"Which involved being able to magically make women forget their own kids."
Took you long enough, Daphne thought. But she remembered how hard it was to make that leap, even with the evidence under your fingers. So she settled for quoting, “‘When one has eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth.’”
Jackson startled her by turning his head away and spitting, with force. “You know what Sherlock Holmes and Spooky Mulder have in common? They always get to figure it out in the end.”
"And we don't," said Reyes. "But for the sake of the victims, we don't stop trying."
"CSIs say there's only the one body here."
"No, he wouldn't bury anyone else here. His dump sites are as carefully planned as his victims. But thanks to something Agent Worth just said, I think we can find them."
Before Daphne could stop herself, she'd turned to stare at Reyes.
"He's a gardener," Reyes replied to her thought. "He knows how to hide the bodies under cover of cultivating and planting."
"There's a lot of planting in the greater Houston area," Daphne said.
"But only three places where he can be saying, 'See what happens because of what you've done?'"
Daphne drew a quick, horrified breath. "Where the mothers lived."
"They're his victims. Start to finish, they're the ones he wants to hurt."
Ashton, Virginia, December 11, 2010
LaShawn knocked lightly before she came in. She held out to Chaz a square of off-white paper torn from a notepad, then turned and left the room.
The note was from Dr. Ramachandran. In his prescription-writing scrawl, it read:
According to Dr. Reyes, the body of the first victim has been found on the Cashman property. Reyes believes the gamma is knowledgeable about gardening. Wants to know, can you identify him from his contacts with Cynthia Anacort?
Chaz read it aloud to Hafidha.
"Oh, poor Mikey. All that for a blow job."
"Stop it," Chaz snapped.
She turned her face away, and the sight of her bent neck stabbed him with guilt. He raked his fingers over his scalp. "Sorry. Sorry, sis. You're working hard. You deserve not to be stomped on."
Hafidha shook her head as he'd seen her do before Idlewood, the way that used to make her braids helicopter around her head. She slouched sideways in her chair and smiled up at him. "Working? Honey, I'm having the time of my life. How about you?"
He noticed the narrowing of her eyes, the curl of her lips that was oh, so not a smile. "Want another sandwich?" Because sometimes the Bug took advantage of low blood sugar.
"No, I don't want another sandwich. Guess again."
"Cake," he sighed. They'd finished it, and Hafidha had cleaned the crumbs off the plate.
"Let's get back to Captain Stephen's latest request for Customer Service. He wants to know if I can track down Pimpernelle's identity."
"Yeah." But Chaz could scent something else, like blood in the water.
"Well. What's in it for me?"
Just like that, he was on high alert. Just like that, she'd brought the fight.
And he'd started to believe it wouldn't come to this.
"If we get there in time, you save a kid's life." He was trying for earnest and casual. He didn't think he'd managed.
"Little messed-up kidlet. Maybe he'll grow up to be a serial killer." She stared into space, as if weighing her options. "Huh-uh. Not enough."
"You know this isn't on the barter system."
She leaned forward, elbows on knees, and the thing that stretched her mouth was a shark-smile. "It wasn't until now. First taste is free. Now that you know I can deliver, we can establish terms."
"That's not what's going on here, Hafs."
She drew air in through her teeth. It hissed. "I want access, Chazzie. It doesn't have to be all the time. But I don't think I'll go back to all that radio silence. A girl needs connections, you know."
"You've got nothing to prove. Everyone knows you can deliver. That's why Reyes sent me." Calm, calm. Drawing the boundaries of reality to fence out the delusions and the boogeymen.
"Is that so."
"Why else would I be here?"
She laughed. "Oh, sweetie. The question is, why did Reyes send you?"
"You said it yourself, to Dr. Ramachandran. I've got the mirror."
Hafidha clutched her knees, her eyes on her lap. Chaz couldn't see her face, until she raised it. The laughter was gone. "Is that the only reason?"
Chaz pressed his mouth tight closed.
"El Doctor knows me, little brother. He knows you. He knows there's two people on this team he can trust to blow my cute digital brains out my eye sockets if necessary, and Sol's not here right now. Do either of you really think I don't get that?"
Chaz wondered, from a great, strange distance, what Hafs would do if he threw up now. Because it was true. And he'd known it, and tried not to know.
The silence was thickening like sediment when Chaz finally sucked air into his empty lungs and said, "Michael Anacort is dead."
Hafidha frowned at him.
So he took another breath. "Probably William Schutts is dead. Shawn Cover is dead. Burell Wilkins is dead. Twelve years old. Never did anything to anybody. Dead." Apparently there was not enough air anywhere for this speech, because he found he was panting. "And you want to make this about computer access?"
For an instant, he saw Hafidha, his Hafidha, in the wide wounded eyes and open mouth. Then she said, "What the hell else do I have?"
Chaz swallowed past his tight throat and stood up. "No. Nobody's making deals with you. And I'm not going to turn one of the only-- This is not a fucking flea market."
He spun on the balls of his feet and headed for the door.
"You're going to let the kid die?"
"We've got more to work with now. We'll finish this without you."
Hafidha stood, swift and rough. Her heavy desk chair tipped off its five-wheeled base and landed with a bang. "You can't find him!"
Chaz stopped, but he didn't turn to face her. "I'm not going to sell my best friend to save his life." He took the two steps to the door.
She was silent. He turned the knob.
"No. No, Chaz. Don't. Don't go." Her voice came out in a series of sobs.
Ruthless, Chaz told himself, and felt it like a sword in his stomach. He went through the door and closed it behind him.
Conroe, Texas, December 11, 2010
At the apartment house where Lekeesha Burke and Burell Wilkins had lived, a line of arbor vitae trimmed the foundation of the building. They'd been planted barely a month ago; the cedar mulch around their trunks was still raw and red and fragrant.
Shawna Cover's condo building had had a lot of landscaping done in 2007. The centerpiece was a bed of annuals, regularly replanted, around a flagpole in the center of the circular drive out front.
By 2004, Tara Schutts had moved out of the sprawling, shabby, eighty-unit building she'd lived in at the time of William's abduction. It must have been past due for a face-lift. The management company had put in oleander to screen the parking lot, then neglected it until it stood like a forest and shouldered pedestrians off the sidewalk.
If they didn't find Josh Marotta in time, he might lie under the bedding plants in the commons of his mother's Houston condominium.
Reyes stared down at that cedar mulch, displaced now by police forensics units, and felt panic rush his heart, felt his lungs clutch at every breath. Count the inhale, he ordered himself. Count the exhale. Do the work. They'd found the dump sites. They would find the gamma.
When had he stopped thinking of them as hosts, that gentler word that absolved his quarry of responsibility for their actions? Was it William Villette who'd parted him from his academic distance? Was it Hope Mitchell? He couldn't remember.
He pulled out his phone and called Worth. "Follow up on the landscaping companies," he said when she answered. "He may have been on the payroll. He certainly knew when they'd be working these jobs, because he used the disturbed ground to disguise his own digging."
"Have you heard from Chaz?" Worth asked.
He'd been about to ask her the same. "No. If he and Hafidha get anything, he'll call."
If they didn't get anything... Reyes counted the length of his exhale.
Ashton, Virginia, December 11, 2010
Cathy Raleigh must have just come on shift, because she came to find Chaz where he sat in the empty dining room. "LaShawn says she's asking for you."
Chaz's fingers spasmed closed on the files he was reading, creasing the paper. "Tell her I'm on my way."
He watched Raleigh leave the dining room. If Hafidha asked for him, he would come. Did she know that? Would she abuse the knowledge, thinking that no matter what she did, he would come when she asked?
She was right. He would. That wasn't the same thing as giving in to her.
LaShawn let him in. Hafidha sat at the table, laptop closed, hands in her lap. "Hey," she said.
Her face clenched at the name. He couldn't tell how it hurt her, just that it did. "Sorry."
"Me, too," he said, and waited for what she would do next.
She looked down at the table. "Got plans for the holidays, little brother?"
Well, this is creepy and awkward. "Not really. Can I come visit you?"
She snorted. "Christmas in Arkham. I hear we're going to sing carols and have a trophy exchange."
"I'm pretty sure they didn't let anyone bring their trophies with them."
"How do you know?" Hafidha asked brightly, but she still wasn't looking up from the table. "Mrs. Chow is going to upchuck one of hers." Her shoulders rose and fell, rose and fell again. She was crying, silently, taking great gulping breaths and swallowing back the sounds in her throat.
Chaz crossed the room and sat in his chair. "Don't worry. Whatever happens, I still love you."
"Are you fucking crazy? I am bubbling full of evil, evil shit. You can't say that. You can't mean it."
Did he mean it? If she refused to help them save Josh Marotta, would he still love her?
If she had schizophrenia or dementia or a brain tumor, would he still love her? Even if he couldn't find a scrap of the old Hafidha in her anywhere?
"I'm Mister Mento. I already know what's in you. I mean it."
She folded forward and cupped her face in her palms. After a minute of that awful silent weeping, she said, "It hurts, Chazzie. All the time. Sometimes, if I hurt somebody else, it's not as bad."
He wanted to cry, too. "I know," he said instead.
She straightened up at last and wiped her face with both hands. "God damn it. I need a tissue."
He kicked his chair back to where the food and paper plates were stacked, grabbed a napkin, and rolled back to the table with it. She took it and blew her nose.
"Need another one?"
She shook her head. "I went looking for him."
"Pimpernelle. You didn't tell me I couldn't jam if you weren't here to supervise, so I did."
But she'd known it was the unspoken rule, enough to point out that he hadn't said it. "And?"
"He was logged in from computers in the library at Texas A&M. Users had to register, and sign up to use the machines. I unencrypted some stuff and got at the password listings for the users, and matched the times Pimpernelle posted messages to Anacort with the times each user was logged in. And I got him, Platypus. I got his name."
Chaz's heart walloped his ribcage from the inside. "Good work, you."
"Geoffrey Seinkov. He was a student, a senior. He had a lot of financial aid, good grades, but he never graduated. Only child of his mother, who didn't marry the guy listed on his birth certificate as Dad. And I couldn't find any record of Dad living at the same address after Geoffrey was about six.
"I did find his mom's arrest record, though. DUI, drunk and disorderly, possession of narcotics. Child Protective Services talked to her for the first time when Geoffrey was nine. When he was twelve, they took him away from her. The intake report is enough to make you gag. The kid's crying and yelling that his mom needs him to be the man of the house. The counsellor is noting classic signs of the incest victim. Meanwhile, neighbors have told the cops they heard her screaming, 'I wish I'd never had you.' No amount of LOLcats will get the taste of this out of my virtual mouth." She grimaced. "And since I don't get much LOLcats nowadays, that's not an option, anyway."
Chaz realized the reason his fingers were going numb was because he was gripping the edges of his chair until he'd cut off the circulation. He let go. "You almost feel sorry for the guy."
Hafidha wrinkled her nose. "Sure. Like you do for a giant man-eating radioactive spider."
"Not even a little?"
She sighed. "Yeah. A little. I understand where the broken is coming from. But when something's so busted it can't be fixed, you throw it out." She lifted her chin and stared at him, defiant. "Speaking from personal experience, honey."
"No one's throwing you out."
"And I'm doubting the wisdom of that policy. Look, when it comes to the milk of human kindness, I've always been a little lactose-intolerant. The Bug just makes me ever so much more so."
Chaz stretched out a hand to touch her arm, but she slid out of reach. "Not just now, Chazzie."
Sometimes it hurt so badly even a loving touch was too much contact. He understood. "I have to go pass this on to the team."
Hafs nodded. "He's dropped off the grid under his own name. But I think... There's a thing I can use. I may be able to locate him physically. There's a team of guys in China working on finding a server by measuring the time the signal takes to get from node to node. They're capturing data as it's happening. But I might be able to get enough off the ISP's servers that I can do it with the stuff he posted to Marotta."
Chaz blinked. "We're talking microseconds."
"Yeah. And I'm not certain there's enough information to work with. But if I can send an identical packet from a couple dozen or so likely locations and time them, and compare it-- Oh, hell. Trust me. It might be possible."
"Assuming he's still at that location."
She was exhausted, from jamming and emotion and fighting the Bug. In her face, in the line of her shoulders and back, in the limp quiet of her hands, he saw resignation and a weary calm. But she was still ready to try this.
"Let me call Reyes. Then I'll come back, feed you a couple sandwiches and a quart of milk, and we'll see what happens."
Houston, Texas, December 12, 2010
Sometime in the early 1960s it had probably been a rather nice trailer park, judging by what Falkner could see in the chiaroscuro of perimeter security lighting. Now it was circled by a high chain-link fence and a necklace of warehouses, and according to public records, the landowner was holding on to the property out of sheer spite in the face of several commercial developers' offers.
Of the remaining dozen trailer houses that rusted and sagged on their cracked concrete pads, only one was occupied.
Reyes had pointed out that the gamma would need to isolate the boy at first, to indoctrinate him. After that he could slip them into some other community as father and son. Hafidha, through some means Esther probably didn't want to examine too closely, had narrowed down the neighborhood where the gamma hid. She'd found a discrepancy between a utility provider's electricity demand and its billing that suggested someone had tapped into a line before it reached a meter. Detective Jackson had sicced the power company pole climbers on finding the tap.
On his order, they disconnected it.
Falkner settled her night-vision goggles on the bridge of her nose and snorted. A world colored green and black with limited contrast was better than darkness, or getting shot by someone targeting your flashlight. But only barely. She double-checked the closures on her Kevlar vest as she listened to the status reports popping in her earpiece.
Reyes was with the police team at the front of the property; Daphne accompanied the group on the east side. Falkner and Jackson and two other officers were entering from what had once been an alley, before the cement block of a new building made a dead end of it.
Ahead of her, the two officers cut through the chain link with almost unnatural speed. Beside her, Jackson shifted from foot to foot, like a child who needed the bathroom. She hoped he didn't.
"Two heat traces," said the voice of the street-side team's infrared operator in her ear. "One adult, one child."
"Are they separated?" Jackson growled, double-voiced through the air and the earpiece.
The power outage had spooked Seinkov, and he'd clutched at the boy. He couldn't yet trust him not to run. But the officers needed the darkness to cover their approach.
Falkner's group pressed through the fence gap. She could hear them breathing, the crunch of boots on gravel laid long ago, the muted ring of something metal kicked and sent rolling. The sound went up her nerves like a firecracker, but it wasn't loud enough to be heard indoors.
Bobbing green highlights showed her the other teams' helmets as they converged on the rust-blotched box of the trailer, like a giant saltines tin on its side. "IR, report," Jackson snapped.
"No change. Repeat, no change."
Jackson handed Falkner the bullhorn. There was no telephone in the trailer, and if Seinkov had a cell phone, it was dark on the grid.
She powered the bullhorn on. "Geoffrey Seinkov, this is the FBI." Conversational and authoritative at once, a powerful but friendly figure. "We need your help. Will you talk to us about Josh?"
The silence was profound and lasting. "No change," the infrared tech said again.
"We know you wouldn't hurt Josh. You took him because you believed he wasn't safe. But his family is worried about him, Geoffrey."
"They're moving," the IR tech warned. "Checking a window."
"Weapon?" asked Jackson.
"Geoffrey, we know what happened to you. We know what your mother did to you. You took these boys because you were afraid it would happen to them, too. It must be hard, feeling that responsibility."
Come on, Seinkov. Give me something to work with.
"No change," said the IR tech.
"You don't have to be responsible for them anymore. We'll keep Josh safe. And he has family who love him and miss him."
Silence. Then a harsh, high, frightened voice: "My mom forgot about me!"
He was forcing Josh to speak for him. Making Josh complicit in his mythology. Falkner fought down the longing to dash in and pound Geoffrey Seinkov senseless, mostly because it wouldn't happen that way.
"Geoffrey. You know you hurt Ms. Marotta. I understand why you thought you had to. But if you let Josh come out now, we'll protect him, and we'll make things better for you. You can be safe, too."
Falkner waited, and the heavily armed men and women with her did the same. Josh Marotta's voice came again, flatly inflected; he was repeating what Seinkov muttered in his ear. "Nobody protected me!"
Josh's voice, but Seinkov's thought. Nobody had protected him. Child Services had come and gone away again. His father had disappeared. No one had saved him.
"That was wrong, Geoffrey. We know that now. Let Josh go, so we can try to make it better."
What she heard sounded like a scuffle, and hope and fear fought it out in her chest. But Josh's voice rose again. "She doesn't love him. You told her to pretend she did." That sounded like the boy parroting what was whispered in his ear. Then he added, "She doesn't!" The words wobbled and rose, begging to be corrected. They were Josh's own.
If she told Seinkov the truth, he wouldn't hear it. But Josh would.
"Josh's mother can't love him, Geoffrey. You did that to her when you took away her memory. You took Josh's mother from him."
"That's not true!" A voice stretched high and thin with tension...but it was Seinkov's.
Gently now, Esther. "It is true, Geoffrey. I'm sorry. You're the one who made her forget."
She lowered the bullhorn and waited. Nothing. She had to get him to listen again. "But you can make it right. You can let Josh go. Please, Geoffrey."
The scream was from Seinkov. Or maybe she only figured that out afterward. In her distorted night vision, a black seam on the trailer became a black rectangle in a crash of metal and fiberglass, and motion tumbled in it. A small figure ran staggering over the dried grass and gravel, fell, scrambled up, and a voice shouted "No! No! No!"
A crackle in her ear, and a new voice: "Unit two, we have the boy. We have the boy."
Falkner surged toward the trailer door. She felt Jackson beside her. Fast when he needed to be. Seinkov stood braced in the opening, screaming and crying at once, incoherent with anger and loss. His wasted frame was tall and heavy-boned.
Falkner stopped and drew her weapon. But Jackson didn't stop.
He reached the door. Seinkov's left hand shot out and circled his neck. Jackson clawed at Seinkov's heavy fingers as Seinkov lifted him off his feet. The gamma was still screaming with the inconsolable rage and misery of an infant.
"Geoffrey, put him down!" she shouted.
Seinkov didn't. Falkner felt the surface of the trigger against the pad of her index finger. "Take the shot," Reyes said in her earpiece.
But she knew she'd already made that decision. She acted on it.
Geoffrey Seinkov's face and chest bloomed red as Jackson dropped gagging to the dirt.
If the officers had followed orders, Josh Marotta was already in the ambulance. If he'd come to identify with his captor even slightly, he didn't need to see him gunned down. Falkner knelt beside Jackson, pulling off his tie and tugging his collar apart. But his breath was rasping in and out already. No crushed windpipe.
A paramedic descended as if from the clouds, and Falkner let Jackson pass into better care than hers. She looked up to find Reyes stepping out of the trailer, night goggles around his neck and a bright-beamed flashlight in his hand. She pushed her own goggles off her head.
"You got him," Reyes told her.
Falkner knelt in the prickly dry grass and took what seemed to be her first full breath in thirty minutes. "Good. I could use a week's leave." She could feel the urge to cry working its way up her throat and into her sinuses, but she wasn't going to give it a chance.
Reyes squatted in front of her and studied her face in whatever light he found for it. "I'm going to ride along to the hospital. The kid'll have questions. Will you call Gina Marotta and Leigh Wilson and tell them he's all right?"
"Sure." Work to do. The best remedy for the aftereffects of anything. "Where's Worth?"
"She's the one who grabbed Josh and got him out. She'll probably show him how to work the siren."
Falkner wanted to laugh, but she wasn't sure her self-control would handle it. "Call me from the hospital," she told Reyes, and pushed herself to her feet. He knew enough not to offer to help. Instead he disappeared into the swirl of law enforcement the trailer park had become.
The scene team were already at work in the trailer. Falkner stumped wearily to the door and looked in at Geoffrey Seinkov's body.
He'd been a little boy once. The smugly righteous liked to say that innocence was a shield. But it was made of cardboard and crayon, and wasn't meant to stand guard alone. So he'd been harmed, and had carried that harm forward and wreaked it on others.
The anomaly would have hardly needed to prompt him at all.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to him. The crime scene team didn't notice.
Reyes found Gina Marotta at the end of a deserted hospital corridor, sitting on a molded plastic chair, her feet drawn close under her and her arms wrapped around her. She looked up as he approached, because his rubber soles squeaked on the hard commercial flooring.
"He's going to be okay, they said." It didn't sound like a question, but Reyes was morally certain Marotta wanted reassurance, even so.
"He's dehydrated and undernourished, and he's got some bad scrapes and bruises. But he'll heal. The lasting damage will be psychological and emotional."
"Because that man... Leigh explained to me that he undermined Josh's ability to identify with...with us. And that Josh will be insecure, and have trust issues."
"Everyone reacts differently to trauma. But those things are very likely, given Josh's age and the story his kidnapper must have forced on him."
Marotta pulled her feet up onto the chair edge, so she was as much in a fetal position as she could manage. "But it wasn't a story, was it?"
"It's true. I forgot him. I still don't remember one damn thing about him. I can't remember if he knows how to throw a baseball, or what he got for last Christmas, or his favorite color. What do I say to him when he asks, 'Mom, remember that time I fell off my bike?'"
I've never been a parent, Reyes thought. Falkner should be here. She could answer this. But Falkner wasn't there, and Marotta's desperate face was raised to him.
"Tell him the truth," he said.
"What? That I don't know him, don't remember giving birth to him? That if Leigh hadn't asked where he was, I wouldn't even have known he was gone?"
"If you'd had a stroke or a head injury, he'd have to learn what that meant. He'd have to help you fill in the blanks. The man who abducted him tried to take away his ability to trust other people. The way to give it back to him is to tell him the truth. Don't hide the things you've lost. Trust him to get to acceptance by the best route he can find."
She closed her eyes, turned her head, pressed her cheek to her drawn-up knees. "It's not fair. He didn't do anything."
"Tell him the truth about that, too. And neither of you is alone. You have Leigh and Josh's father to help when you need it."
She nodded, eyes still closed. "This is going to suck, you know?"
After a moment, she asked, "Will you send Leigh down this way, please?" She opened her eyes and smiled, just a little. "If I'm going to get used to asking her to help me with this, I may as well start now."
Ashton, Virginia, December 12, 2010
They left the room with the table and two chairs, and the ruins of a staggering amount of food. Hafidha looked back once from the door at her laptop, its lid closed. Then she turned and walked firmly back to the outer door of her burrow.
Cathy Raleigh let her and Chaz inside and closed the door behind them. This time Chaz stood beside her. He could watch her face as the signals cut off, as silence descended like a fire curtain. Her eyes closed, her mouth twisted crooked. He slipped his hand into hers, and she gripped it tight.
"Would you leave us alone for a minute?" Chaz asked Raleigh.
"I need to see Ms. Gates through the inner door first," she replied, apologetic.
"We can has security protocol," Hafidha announced, gravel in the light words. "Stick to the program, Chazzie, or they won't let you visit."
So he led her to the inner door, and Raleigh bolted it remotely after she passed through. Raleigh slipped through the outside door, and they were alone.
"You did good, Hafs."
She shrugged. "We got the sonofabitch."
"Yeah. But I mean, you did good. You spit in its eye. You won another round."
Hafidha's arms slipped around herself in a hug. "That would feel so good. Except, the thing I just beat? It's in here with me. And it's a sore loser."
He laid his hand on the barrier between them, clear high-impact plastic hazed with copper. "Any time you ask for me, I'll come. If, you know, that helps."
Weariness dragged at him like a fifty-pound pack. Two hours' sleep and a really long day. "I should get home. Otherwise, I think I'll be sleeping here tonight." She didn't answer, and he turned back to the outer door.
He stopped, dropped his chin, lowered his eyes from the reinforced window and a glimpse of Raleigh, who waited to let him out.
"Do you want me to get the treatment?"
Deep Brain Stimulation, she meant. DBS. Implants in the brain. "That's not the question, Hafs."
"Come on, you must have an opinion. I wonder what the connections look like? Maybe I could get them to put in RF connectors, and I could do a Cable Girl thing for Halloween."
The brightness in her voice was a giveaway. "It's okay to be scared," he said, then wanted to kick himself for it.
"Hey, thanks. Because I thought invasive procedures involving the brain might be a little nervous-making, but I wasn't sure. Especially when they're designed to hunt down a piece of me and kill it."
"Suppress it," he corrected. He had to dig his nails into his palms to keep from adding, "And it isn't a piece of you."
"Suppressed." She smiled and stretched her arms out like a game-show assistant showing off the new car. "Kind of like this."
Chaz let his gaze roam around the room that was also a cage and a carapace. "Just like this," he said, and forced himself to say it firmly and to meet her eyes. "The Bug gets to live in the box. But you can walk out."
Her smile faltered; her eyes widened and shone with the involuntary tears of fright. "No fair. No fair, Chazzie. You're my little brother. You're supposed to love me and wring your hands over my suffering and bring me cake."
"I brought you cake." I'm confident of my own ruthlessness, he'd said in that meeting. Ruthlessness was barely holding its own against the part of him that wanted to shield her from everything, even healing, if it meant she was safe.
She turned toward the shelf of colored spinning fiber, like a stained-glass window without light, outside the barrier that held her. He could tell by the way she moved that it was random, an attempt to escape him. "There's a memory. Zap. There's a motivation. Zap. There's an urge. Zap, zap. I'd be edited by some creep with a high-frequency current. How could they tell what's supposed to be there?"
"That," he said on a sigh, "is a totally inaccurate description of the process."
Her shoulders sagged.
"I have to go," he told her. When she didn't react, he raised his eyes at last to the window and nodded.
"I'll think about it," she murmured. She sounded as if she'd forgotten to take a breath before she spoke.
The outside door opened, and Raleigh stepped in, respectful and alert as a soldier.
"Okay." Because he couldn't say, "Good," or "Thank you," or anything that would sound as if he had a stake in her deciding one way or the other. If she thought he was pushing, she would push back. "I love you," he added.
She didn't answer that. But then, she never did.
"Fear is interest paid on a debt you may not owe." -- Anonymous