Thursday, 16 August 2012

Graveyard Shift: Our Heroes

Graveyard Shift has three primary protagonists. In the best traditions of Charlie's Angels they all went to police academy together, and then things went to Hell.

Aleks is the Crusader. A Moscow-born immigrant with an ex-spy for a father, family money, and a belief in doing what is right, not what is easiest. Aleks wasn't an easy woman to get along with when she was human, but eight years ago she was gutted by a Loup Garou, and since then she's shared her psyche with a wolf-bitch with a primal hunter's disdain for convention. A detective sergeant with the 13th Street precinct, she is as much a hunter as a detective, but her psychic lodger and her temperament leave her inclined to be too direct for her own good.

Laura is the Earth-Mother. An all-American girl, and witch, she was Aleks partner until the Loup Garou incident, and where Aleks was gutted, but on her feet in days, Laura was left with the permanent consequences of a spinal injury. Denied a role on the streets, she transformed herself into a forensic sorceror, climbed the departmental hierarchy, and is now the lieutenant in charge of SPD's CSI nightshift. Along the way she found time to marry and is the mother of a precocious three year old. She remains Aleks' closest friend, as Aleks is hers.

Bobby is the Operator. Whether it was his career, women, or the case on his desk, Bobby always had his eye on the fast-track. Sometimes that fast-track came with a cost to others. Others like Aleks, left emotionally broken at the academy when Bobby lured her into a relationship and then dumped her. Two months ago the pigeons came home to roost, and Detective Roberto Ventimiglia found himself pinned to the ground in a filthy alley with a pack of juvenile vampires bleeding his major arteries dry. Newly risen as a vampire, Bobby is still a detective, but his comfortable job at headquarters is a fading memory, the 13th Street ghetto his new beat, and his partner, and senior officer, is the woman he once loved and threw away. The time may finally have come for Bobby to grow up.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Graveyard Shift: Why Seattle?

Why pick Seattle, a city I've never been to, for Graveyard Shift?

The most fundamental reason is probably market driven: most dark fantasy/modern urban fantasy / whatever is published in the US. I wanted a novel set in a US city, once that was decided Seattle was the obvious choice.

While I've never been to Seattle, Boeing are based there, and I spent several years working on the development of the 777 (in fact there were days I knew what the weather was in Seattle, but not what it was 10 feet outside my windowless office here in the UK). My company maintained a team of engineers in Seattle, and at one point I was due to be seconded there. The secondment fell through, so Seattle was always the great missed opportunity, and even if I didn't get to go, a good friend did and can potentially be leaned on for detail. Effectively I have greater links to Seattle than to any other US city, and besides, I'd already bought the guide books when the secondment was cancelled, I might as well get some use out of them....

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Graveyard Shift: What is it?

Graveyard Shift is the novel I'm working on - and saying that is a milestone in itself.

I originally started work on Graveyard Shift back in 2007 and completed about 55,000 words before things went berserk careerwise and life became too painful/stressful for me to write. I've been slowly luring myself back into writing again, I've known probably for the last year that I needed to return to Graveyard Shift, but it's taken a good while to manipulate myself into the right frame of mind. I finally started working about a month ago, and the word count is now just short to 80,000. I'm reliably turning in about a thousand words a night (and I do mean night, writing after the witching hour suits me best) and when I haven't managed to turn in any new wordage it's generally been because I have been focused on structural/plot issues. Apparently leaving a novel aside for several years gives your subconscious time to get gothic with the plot.

I'm going to be using Graveyard Shift posts to try and keep myself moving and to record some of the thoughts that drive the structure of my writing, both from a general diary approach, and so that I can record and review changes as they occur to get a better feel for how they fit into the novel as a whole.

Graveyard Shift is a police procedural, in a world where myth isn't just real, but has the right to vote. If the guy next door is a werewolf, then who do you call to police him? What if he actually is the police? Graveyard Shift has three protagonists, sharing focal point of view on a rotating basis, each of them an officer with Seattle PD, and each of them preternatural in their own way: Aleks the werewolf, Laura the witch, and Bobby the vampire. Preternaturals might have the vote, that doesn't mean they are accepted, and the Seattle of Graveyard Shift is a city with a ghetto so clearly delineated it even has its own police precinct - 13th Street (don't look for it on a map, Seattle has a 13th Avenue, but that's not it).

As for the plot: once upon a time two very young patrol officers stumbled into a domestic abuse call that was more than it seemed; that call changed both their lives, and eight years later their actions are coming back to haunt Aleks and Laura, and all those they love.

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Most Accessible Olympics Ever - Yeah, Right...

We've had ministers, LOCOG and BoJo all claiming London 2012 would be "the most accessible Olympics ever", but the sad reality is that they have actually slashed the budget for accessibility improvements and quietly dropped targets for improvement (while still proclaiming their virtual sainthood to the masses).

 Out of 270 Tube stations, only 66, virtually all in the suburbs, have step free access to the platform, and 49 of those then have a step up to the train.

 Good enough, or a sick joke?

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

More Jet Sturgeons

Hypothetical markings for a Sturgeon NF.II of 1782 NAS, serving with the British Pacific Fleet and shore-based at Manus in August 1946 for defence of the fleet anchorage at Seeadler Harbour against night-raiders.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Short Jet Sturgeon

The complicated development of the Short Sturgeon started with the S.6/43 requirement for a high-performance torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft with a weight of no more than 24,000lb. Short Brothers were not invited to tender, but when the initial estimates from the firms that had been approached came in it became apparent that a twin-engined aircraft meeting all of the requirements was unlikely to weigh less than 26,000lbs, while a single-engined aircraft was unlikely to have better performance than those already in service. The S.6/43 requirement was allowed to continue, in case something useful might arise out of it, and there is some evidence to suggest Shorts submitted uninvited proposals for both single and twin-engined aircraft to meet S.6/43, which, like the proposals from other manufacturers, were not adopted.

Meanwhile the initial requirement was split in two with the torpedo bomber becoming O.5/43, and eventually the Fairey Spearfish, while the reconnaissance aircraft became S.11/43 for a reconnaissance aircraft with bomber capability to operate from the Ark Royal and Hermes class carriers that were building for service with the Royal Navy off Burma and Malaya and in the Pacific. Shorts submitted the twin Merlin S.38 Sturgeon as their tender, while Armstrong Whitworth proposed the twin Merlin powered AW.54 and, after the AW.54 was criticized for lack of power, the AW.54A with two MetroVick F.3 turbojets, submissions were also made by Blackburn and Fairey with twin Merlin designs and Westland with a mixed-power design with a Pratt and Whitney R.4360 radial in the nose and a Halford H.1 turbojet in the tail. On 19th October 1943 Shorts received an order for three Sturgeon S.1 prototypes, with the tailored requirements following in February 1944.

The Sturgeon S.1 flew for the first time on 7th June 1946, and proved to have excellent handling. As initially developed it was a neat and compact three-seater with navigator and radio-operator carried within the fuselage, powered by two 2080hp Merlin 140s driving contra-rotating propellers (in order to minimise the yaw from asymmetric power in the single engine out situation). Provision was made in the design for the later replacement of the Merlins with Griffons. Fuel tanks held 410 gallons of fuel. ASV radar was carried in the nose, while armament comprised 2 or 4 .50 Brownings in the lower nose, a single 1000lb bomb, or equivalent combinations of smaller bombs or depth charges, in the bomb bay, and up to 16 60lb/3 inch Rocket Projectiles under the wings. Two F.52 cameras and a single F.24 camera were carried for the reconnaisance role, which was intended to be flown with a crew of two and a 180 gallon long-range tank in the bomb bay.

A contemporary article on the Sturgeon S.1 can be found here.

Unfortunately by the time the Sturgeon flew the war was over and construction of the Ark Royal and Hermes class carriers had been suspended. It was theoretically possible to operate the Sturgeon from the Illustrious and Colossus class carriers, but at the cost of keeping the aircraft on deck at all times and of having to rework the arrester gear on the Illustrious class. The requirement for the Sturgeon S.1 was therefore abandoned. The Sturgeon did see successful service with the fleet, but as the largely shore-based Sturgeon TT.2 high speed target tug with a grossly elongated nose holding a camera position. Later in their career a handful were reworked as TT.3s with a nose much closer to the original design. Later still Shorts attempted to develop the Sturgeon into the SB.3 as a competitor for the Fairey Gannet, replacing the engines with Armstrong Siddeley Mamba turboprops and installing a grotesque nose housing both a large radar scanner and two sensor operator positions. Unfortunately the downward exhaust of the Mambas, which varied with thrust, destabilized the SB.3's handling throughout the envelope and it proceeded no further.

The Jet Sturgeon shown here is based on an illustration of a Shorts proposal reproduced in British Secret Projects 3, and probably originated with N.21/45, an urgent FAA requirement for a night fighter to replace the Fairey Firefly. It is likely the unidentified design is the Shorts S.41. N.21/45 was written around the modification of the De Havilland Sea Hornet for the night fighter role, however this was considered high risk as the Sea Hornet was designed as a single-seater with the most compact fuselage possible, meaning space would need to be found to shoe-horn a radar operator into the fuselage somewhere, while a radar scanner would need to be installed in the nose, which was almost completely masked by the Sea Hornet's engines. The Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Air) therefore directed that a night fighter variant of the Sturgeon should be investigated as an alternative design against failure of the Sea Hornet NF.21. It was recognised that the Sea Hornet would be the superior combat aircraft, with considerably better performance, but the Sturgeon conversion would be considerably lower risk. In the event the Sea Hornet NF.21 was successfully deployed with the fleet in 1949.

The Jet Sturgeon Nightfighter retained the wing of the Sturgeon S.1, but replaced the Merlins with two Rolls Royce AJ.40 turbojets (Axial Jet, 4000lb thrust - the well-known Avon started as the AJ.60). The fuselage was modified, raising the nose relative to the engine nacelles to maximise the arcs of the AI radar in the nose radome (the Sea Hornet NF.21 ultimately carried ASH radar in an elongated 'thimble' radome, but the considerably larger radome of the Sturgeon would potentially have been able to carry other AI sets with larger antennae), while the tailplane was moved half-way up the tail in order to clear it from the jet efflux. The crew was reduced to pilot and radar operator, the latter having a canopy of his own. The Brownings of the S.1 were replaced by 4 20mm Hispanos, while the space freed by the elimination of the radiators, bomb load, cameras and radio-operator was used to increase the fuel load to 910 gallons in 9 separate tanks.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Short Seamew

The ungainly Short Seamew was designed for anti-submarine work from escort carriers to specification M.123D in 1951 and first flown in 1953. The requirement was intended to provide the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and the RAF's Coastal Command with a simple, cheap aircraft capable of surge production to counter the rapidly growing Soviet submarine fleet - essentially a Cold War equivalent of the Fairey Swordfish. Following initial trials the Seamew was ordered for both the Royal Navy, as the AS.1 to replace the ASW-modified Avengers used by the RNVR Air Branch, and by Coastal Command, as the MR.2. However Coastal Command lost interest in the small Seamew as it faced cuts to its more capable Neptunes and Shackletons, while the Royal Navy order was cancelled in the 1957 defence cuts, which also eliminated the RNVR Air Branch in its entirety. In spite of its awkward looks, with fixed gear in an era of fast jets, the Seamew was fully capable of aerobatics and Short's chief test pilot claimed the Seamew's handling was 'vice-free', but other sources claim it had some vicious handling tendencies that were never entirely cured.

The Seamew was powered by the Armstrong Siddeley Mamba ASM.6 turboprop, sensors included ASV radar and sonobuoys, while armament comprised 4 275lb depth charges in the internal bomb-bay and 4 underwing rocket projectiles. By removing the radar and radome, the bomb-bay could potentially be extended from 14ft to 17ft, allowing carriage of 6 depth charges, or a torpedo.

A 1956 Flight article on the Seamew by Short's Chief Designer can be read here.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Handley Page HP.55

My newest art project is teaching myself to do 2D computer artwork, and I'm using aircraft profiles as the test subjects. I suspect I'm already butting up against the limits of what I can do with MS Paint, so I likely need to teach myself a more complex paint programme as well.

The subjects I'm choosing reflect another interest, in the more obscure aircraft of the post-WWI through WWII period. This is the Handley Page HP.55, a precursor of the Halifax that was one of the main British bomber aircraft of WWII.

The HP.55 was Handley Page's submission for the B.1/35 requirement for a twin-engined heavy bomber able to reach speeds to 230mph while carrying a heavier bombload than the B.3/34. The competition was won by the Vickers 284, an enlarged Wellington derivative which ultimately became the Warwick, but the Handley Page design was regarded favourably and was one of three prototypes commissioned on 7th October 1935 (alongside the Armstrong Whitworth AW.39 development of the Whitley and the Vickers Warwick). The HP.55 could be powered by either the Hercules or the Merlin, had a wingspan of 95 feet, and was expected to have a top speed of 251mph. However the contracts for both AW.39 and HP.55 were cancelled in June 1937. Armstrong Whitworth felt they had taken on too much work to be able to tender to the new B.12/36 heavy bomber requirement, while Handley Page's attention had drifted to the P.13/36 medium bomber and they wished to redesign the HP.55 to meet the new requirement (which they ultimately did as first the twin-engined HP.56, and then the four engined HP.57 Halifax).

By contrast with the manufacturers, the Air Ministry did not want to cancel the B.1/35 contracts and turned down the initial request. Although they finally gave in to their contractors, the HP.55 could easily have flown. If it had been adopted, then the near certainty is that it would have taken the name of a town starting with H. The development history of the Warwick gives us a likely pattern for the HP.55. The prototypes were originally due to fly in 1937, but in 1936 the Air Ministry increased the required fuel and bombload, then in 1937 started to move away from the Hercules and towards the Vulture and the Sabre which promised higher performance, finally settling on the Vulture in late 1938. The first prototype Warwick eventually flew with Vultures in August 1939, the second with Bristol Centaurus, following in April 1940. At one point in 1939 it was proposed to abandon any plan for production, but eventually orders were placed for 250 in December 1940, though the failure of the Vulture and scarcity of the Centaurus meant that they would have to use the inferior Double Wasp. An HP.55 that followed the Warwick's development path would likely have failed for identical reasons, but if it had been delivered as originally intended in 1937, then there might have been a brief opening for it as a partial replacement for the Wellington before the later four-engined heavies came on line.

The aircraft is shown in the colours of Q-Queenie of No. 446 Squadron, RAAF, with Bomber Command's No. 4 Group at Driffield in 1944-5, based on the profile here, and is based on the HP.55 illustration in British Secret Projects:3.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Shadow Unit: WTF?

For anyone who has found An Open Mind, without first being aware of Shadow Unit, a little explanation may be in order. An Open Mind is Shadow Unit fan fiction, but what's Shadow Unit, I hear you ask....

Imagine a world where Criminal Minds and the X Files, or Criminal Minds and Fringe co-exist, where down the corridor from the BAU is a unit the FBI prefer not to talk about, a unit charged with investigating crimes in which not just the law, but the rules of physics as we understand them have been broken. Welcome to the world of the Anomalous Crimes Task Force, better known to the team of agents assigned to it as the WTF.  The WTF team are the people whose job it is to hunt down the Gammas who commit these anomalous crimes, and ultimately to understand the Anomaly itself.

Shadow Unit is the creation of a team of speculative fiction authors led by Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear, and exists on multiple levels; there are the Shadow Unit stories themselves, there is the metafiction within which Shadow Unit is a TV show produced by the WTF Network, there are the Live Journal blogs and the Tweets of the characters,in which the boundaries of fiction and real life blur as fans and characters cross paths, and there is the message board, where authors and fans, Deltas, interact. Take all that's good about Criminal Minds, the solid characterisation and intelligent writing that expects the audience to keep up, rather than be spoonfed, and cross it with a little bit of science fiction and a dash of horror, add characters we truly care about, characters who face being seriously hurt every time they confront a Gamma and authors' who openly state that our minds and emotions are there to be manipulated, and that's Shadow Unit.

The Shadow Unit stories are available through the Shadow Unit website, where we are currently in Season 4, while Seasons 1 through 3 are available as a series of E-books on Amazon. Shadow Unit is entirely reader funded, but the quality of writing, and the willingness to take risks, is as good as anything you will find in a dead-tree edition. Also to be found on the website are the Shadow Unit Wiki and the message board. So go on, take a peek into the Shadows....

Shadow Unit: An Open Mind (Hidden Extra)

Texan Hunter, Cuban-American Heart

Olympic Peninsula, Washington State,
Thursday, 13th November, 2008
1125 Hours, PST

“You’re lagging, El Jefe, there’s a gap opening between you and Nikki.”

Stephen Reyes paused, glancing around as Hafidha’s voice whispered into his earpiece - trees, more trees, hanging moss shrouded trees, and nothing but trees, the only plus side was that for once it wasn’t raining. A double flash of fluorescent orange in the distance showed him where Nikki was escorting the local sheriff, all attempts to shed her having failed, but Hafidha was supposed to be another hundred yards beyond Nikki, with Chaz filling the gap between them. None of which stopped Hafidha being right and he upped his pace to close the gap in the skirmish line. They’d called it a search line to the extended line of thirty-odd Washington state troopers and local cops who were pushing through the woods a hundred yards behind them, but the WTF agents knew the truth, knew that a Gamma would die today.

“How are you doing that?” he demanded.

“GPS chip in your cell,” she admitted.

“Let’s add my cell’s GPS to the list of things Hafidha has been ordered not to hack,” he said, “but put that order on hold until we’re out of this damn rainforest.”

“Si, Mi Generale,” the slightly mocking voice whispered. “Platypus, watch out, you’re coming up on a brook according to Google Earth.”

“Found it,” Chaz’s voice said, “More a bog than a brook, not deep enough for her to hide in – watch your footing.”

“Too late,” Hafidha said, “I’m in it up to my calves, which considering I’m wearing two hundred dollar ankle boots isn’t ideal. I don’t think antique leather and foetid pondweed really complement each other.”

“You people need to be quiet,” the voice of Sheriff Marion Lacombe demanded, “This isn’t the city and a stalking line is no use if you make enough racket to scare away every critter in the woods before you ever see them. People are no different, particularly those who spend as much time in the woods as Janey does.”

“Nikki,” Reyes said.

“On it, boss-man,” Nikki’s voice said, followed by a breath of half-heard whispers as she reminded Lacombe that they weren’t stalkers, they were beaters.

“Possible contact,” Chaz whispered, “I’ve got a boot-print still filling with water, angling slightly right I think.”

“Hafidha, up your pace slightly in case she’s trying to slip past us to the right,” Reyes ordered, “I’ll do the same to the left. Chaz, Nikki, Sheriff Lacombe, keep to the same pace. No one fires without identifying your target, no one fires to the flanks except Hafidha or me.”

Reyes grimaced, wishing he hadn’t had to send Sol off to points New Mexican, but hugged the MP5 tight to his chest and darted ahead through the trees.

“Contact,” Chaz called, echoing his call with a rapid series of single shots, “I missed, she’s rabbiting.”

“Chaz stay with her, Hafs, guide us on Chaz.” Reyes ordered, upping his pace and switching his heading to cut across the line.

“Chaz, we’re coming up from behind and left,” Nikki yelled, “I can see your jacket,”

“Still moving, fifty yards to my front,” Chaz panted, “browny-red shirt, brown pants.”

Reyes’ heart froze as the sharp report of a rifle echoed through the trees, started again as Chaz answered with more shots.

“She’s armed,” Chaz reported redundantly.

“Fire-trail coming up fast,” Hafidha warned, “I’m coming in on your right, Chaz.”

“I’m on the left,” Reyes panted, trying to make up the distance, Nikki and the Sheriff momentarily visible before the trees swallowed them again.

“Fire-trail, 100 metres,” Hafs called, “75, 50…”

Another rifle shot echoed through the woods, deeper, more piercing than the first.

“Target down,” Danny Brady’s laconic Texan accent reported.

Reyes broke out onto the trail as Chaz and Nikki cleared the body. Both kept their MP5s locked on the body as Chaz hooked the rifle clear with his foot, but there was little chance of even a Gamma walking away from the large calibre bullet that had all but obliterated the skull of the Skokomish Cannibal, AKA Janey Walters, 23 year old kindergarten teacher and church volunteer.

“Damn it, Agent Reyes,” Lacombe protested as soon as she saw him, “we could have brought her in. But you had your goddamned sniper gun her down without even a word. You set me up!”

Reyes looked past her to where Danny Brady was jogging steadily towards them along the trail. His outline was blurred by the ghillie suit he wore, but the .50 calibre sniper rifle he’d borrowed from the Seattle Field Office’s armoury was all too apparent.

“I seriously doubt anyone could have brought her in alive, and she did fire at us, I’ll remind you. I said I had another task for Agent Brady, I just didn’t tell you what it was.”

“Lurking ahead of us at every fire-trail,” Lacombe said, proving his estimation of her intelligence. “The one spot he would have a clear line of fire across our front with that monster he’s carrying. Now I understand why Agent Gates kept counting down the distance as we came close to every break in the trees. You never planned on bringing her in alive, did you?”

“I would far preferred to have brought her in alive,” Reyes told her, absolutely truthfully. But once they had found Janey Walter’s hidden diaries, the ones in which she had meticulously documented her experiments as her body changed, her discovery that her stomach could no longer tolerate anything but fresh human flesh, he had known that they could not take her back to Idlewood. They could catch her, they could hold her, but they could not feed her, and slow starvation was as cruel and unusual as it came. Casey Ramachandran and Amrita Srinivasan would have a field day with the diaries, the body would go to Frost, but for the WTF away team the job had finished the moment Danny Brady’s finger caressed the trigger.

Shadow Unit: An Open Mind

It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.
The Buddha

Act 1

J. Edgar Hoover Building,
Washington D.C.
Tuesday, 4th November 2008
2323 hours EDT

11:23PM in the WTF bullpit, not quite the dead of night, but close enough for government work, and with most of the team in Washington State, as opposed to Washington, D.C., the place just echoed every last keyclick or scuff of paper. Daphne Worth leaned back in her chair, rubbing her eyes and working the core muscle groups in her back. She really needed to get up and walk around, or at least stand and stretch, but the file in front of her was almost done and she wanted to get out and head home to her new wife.

Going home to her sweetie every night was nice, she could curl up with her head in Trish’s lap and pretend there was a normal world outside her door. But missing out on the call for the away team meant not being there to back up Wabbit and the Monotreme and she missed her alternate-sibs, Live Journal and SMS messaging not withstanding.

Daphs sighed and turned her attention back to the screen and her explanation as to why the case in front of her was weird, but not WTF-weird. She was a profiler, she could have worked it up properly, there was enough detail to shape the initial profile, but that was what they had the Behavioural Analysis Unit down the hall for. The Anomalous Crimes Task Force was targeted at a very specific brand of weird; anomalous weird, cracked weird, mad-screaming-effing-terror weird, and that was why they had sent the rest of the team off to Seattle on Monday, and why the case in front of her just wasn’t WTF. Making those judgement calls on cases that came in was a big part of the reason Daphs and SSA Esther Falkner had been left behind to hold home base. Theory said that the home-office team was also there to do the data-mining for the away team, but with Hafidah on-site playing combined analyst and walking broadband downlink, and Chaz backstopping her on the analysis, theory was only taking a fraction of their time. Potential WTF cases, on the other hand….

She finished the paragraph, scanned it for correct grammar and saved it. If she let it sit for five minutes before a final review then the chances were better that she would spot any howlers and avoid making a fool of herself. Call it out the door by the stroke of the Witching Hour, which was appropriate in a perverse, the universe hates me, kind of way.

Daphs started as she realised Esther Falkner wasn’t in her office any more, but was standing at the entrance to the bullpen, waiting for a break in her concentration before demanding her attention. As bosses, or at least as bosses’ right-hand-women, went, SSA Falkner was one of the good ones and Daphs wondered if that leadership ability was something West Point had taught her, or something inborn that they had nurtured like the tenderest of shoots.


“How’s the Sunnyvale case?” Esther asked.

“Done,’ Daphs answered, taking in Falkner’s too-perfect carriage. Obviously she wasn’t the only one who had spent far too long at her desk, and Esther’s spine clearly had not enjoyed the experience. “It’s not ours. I think it’s someone using an unusual projectile weapon at close range, maybe a slingshot or a hand-crossbow, and cleaning up after themselves. The projectile crushes the throat and the subjects suffocate, but it’s big enough and slow enough it doesn’t penetrate and the bruising is, pardon the term, anomalous. I’m guessing something like a hard rubber ball as the projectile. Even if they left it behind CSI might just take it for a kid’s toy.”

“Send it down the hall,” Falkner told her. “As is. I’ll handle any flak if it rebounds on us, but I need you to come and look at the Taos case. I need someone with medical training to look at it and see if they agree with me.”

Daphne raised an eyebrow. There had been five new case files to be triaged this morning, not the usual one or two. Falkner had taken four of those, because the Sunnyvale case file was huge and was going to have Daphs staring at autopsied crushed throats all day, and because they had both thought Taos could be checked and bounced as not-WTF in fifteen minutes at most. In fact Daphs was pretty sure she had seen the physical file in the out-box after lunch, which suggested Falkner had had second thoughts and had taken another swing at it.

The older woman turned back to her office and Daphs quickly threw her Sunnyvale assessment in the direction of Pete Pauley’s email in-box and hurried after her. She frowned as she caught Esther up. Most of the team wouldn’t have noticed anything more than a little extra stiffness in her stride, but in a previous, pre-Bureau, pre-Anomaly, life Daphs had been trained to assess injuries at a glance in uncommunicative patients and she could see that Es’ pelvis and lumbar spine were hardly moving as she walked. That hip-swinging sashay beloved of catwalk models was an exaggeration of how every human moved, the pelvis tic-toccing left then right to let the stride pattern develop naturally. Es’ pelvis was currently stuck a little right high and she was rising an extra inch or so on her right foot at each step to compensate and give her left leg space to work.

Falkner reached her desk and sat, stiffly, as Daphne schooled her attention back to WTF business. The EMT in her longed to tell Falkner to start treating her back problems with the same professionalism she applied to a case, and pretty much everything else in her life for that matter, but it wasn’t her place to tell her that. Es would hate that anyone had noticed for one thing, and it wasn’t so much that she refused to acknowledge the problem as that she insisted everything else: career, case, and family, most of all family, had priority over her own comfort.

Daphs sat in the waiting chair and Falkner waved her hand over six individual case folders, already turned for her to look at.

“Six individuals, every social class, different sexes, different races. All residents of Taos, New Mexico or just a tad outside of town boundaries. All died in accidental falls within the past 7 months. All died from open head wounds.”

Daphne frowned and started flipping through the files, scanning the autopsy info and pictures.

“Only open head wounds? No spinal trauma? No bleeding out? No cardiac arrests?”

Falkner nodded. “Six lethal penetrating brain injuries with no other injuries than Done Fell Over bruising. That’s why I should have given this to you and not kept if for myself, but the autopsy detail isn’t really prominent until you get into the individual case files, and it’s fairly skimpy even then. It took me three hours into the next case before I realised what was niggling at me. You saw it immediately.”

“You pointed me at it.”

“True,” Falkner admitted, “but you made the connections as soon as I laid them in front of you.”

“It could still be accidental,” Daphs said, switching to Devil’s Advocate.

“Also true, but if I’m reading these autopsy reports right, none of the penetrating injuries had any foreign matter in them, not even bone shards.”

“That’s inconsistent with a penetrating wound.”

“Anomalous, even.” Falkner agreed.

“What do we do? Wait for the team to get back from Washington?”

“I spoke to SSA Reyes before I came to find you. He doesn’t see them being done there in under a week. It’s not a case that’s going to be break quickly. Taos, on the other hand, had four cases in 6 months, then two in three weeks. That points to an escalation in the rate of attacks and I don’t think that we can wait. Stephen agrees with me. If you confirmed my suspicions, which you have, then we are to be wheels up at 0700. If we confirm a gamma then we’ll call in back-up for the takedown, probably Bureau SWAT out of the Albuquerque Field Office. In the meantime, go home, see your wife for a little while, you can study the file on the flight.”

“My family will be up whatever time I get in.” Daphs pointed out, “If yours is still up then you’ll be annoyed at them. I can handle whatever set-up needs doing.”

Falkner shook her head. “For once I’ll be out on your heels, the only thing to be done is arranging to courier the autopsy files to Doctor Frost. But thank you for the offer and I will see you at the airport in the morning.”

Daphne stood, then hesitated.

“What about the office? What if another case comes up with everyone out in the field?”

“Then we re-evaluate on the fly,” Falkner told her, “Pete Pauley will man the phones for us, he knows what to look for, and when to call SSA Reyes, or me. Now go, see Tricia while you have the chance.”


“Just the two of you?” Tricia asked, her breath whispering against Daphne’s ear as they lay spooned together.

“Yeah, but we’ll be playing it softly-softly,” Daphs said. “No tiger-hunts this trip. If we need backup we’ll call it in from the Albuquerque field office.”

“I still don’t like it,” Trish said, “I like it better when Chaz or Hafs are there to cover your back.”

“Esther Falkner is very capable,” Daphs said reassuringly, “You met her at the wedding, the woman just projects capability.”

“But I don’t know her,” Trish protested.

Daphs found Trish’s hands and interlinked her fingers with her lover’s, then she drew both pairs of hands together over her heart, hugging the two of them tight.

“I do,” Daphs said, “I’ll be fine. And you’re kind of cute when you fret.”

“Am not!”

“What,” Daphs asked, twisting to face her, “Fretting, or cute?”

“Hey!” Trish protested, then squealed as Daph’s hands started tickling her mercilessly.

“Better?” Ben Falkner asked his wife.

“Much,” Esther told him, looking at him from the depths of a mountain of bubbles floating atop a steaming hot bath, “Sorry it turned into such a long day, but with only Daphne and I in the office we have to keep ahead of the tide or we’ll be swamped.”

“And today was flood tide?”

“Unfortunately. I didn’t want to miss dinner, but there was no way I could leave before Daphne. I’ll try and make it up to Deborah and Bek, but I’m wheels-up first thing in the morning and I don’t know how long I’ll be in Taos, not long hopefully.”

“They understand,” Ben told her, “In their heads if not in their hearts. On the other hand, I’m not certain your spine understands, so just stay in there until you’re cooked limp.”

Esther smiled ruefully, “So, how was your day?”


Ronald Reagan National Airport,
Washington D.C.
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
0627 Hours EDT

Washington National Airport at 0630 in the morning had all the appeal of one of the Outer Circles of Hell, but for the ACTF it was only ever the first waypoint on their route into wherever the heart of darkness was this week. Daphne was a couple of minutes early for her rendezvous with Falkner, but Esther was there ahead of her, discussing their flightplan with the Bureau pilot.

“Ma’am,” Daphne greeted her, getting a nod from Falkner in return.

“Hey, Shannon,” she added, “How’s the weather looking?”

“Pretty good,” the petite blonde told her, “We might get a touch of turbulence over the Mississippi, there’s a front trying to decide whether to play macho or peter out, but it shouldn’t be anything too major. I was just telling SSA Falkner that the main problem with this trip is altitude – the Taos Regional strip is just too high and too small, I can get the Gulfstream in, but I can’t get it out without a reduced fuel load and an intermediate stop, so we’ve agreed we’re going to Albuquerque again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go do my walkaround checks.”

“Thank you, we’ll get aboard now.” Falkner told her, waving Daphne to proceed her up the airstairs.

The Gulfstream seemed empty with only the two of them aboard – your tax dollars at work, Daphne thought, imagining what some of the more rabid senators could make of it, seeing only the vote-grabbing headline, not the efficient use of a scarce asset – aka the WTF – that the business-jet enabled. She took her usual place at the four-top, laptop and case files ready at hand to be spread out all across the surface as soon as they were in cruise. Falkner slipped in opposite her, surprising her at first, but then she realised that Mom would never allow someone even the chance to assume that she felt too good to sit with them. The more space there was, the closer Esther would sit.

“Don’t worry,” Falkner said, “I’ll get out of your way and give you space to work once we’re in the air, but I’ve spoken to Doctor Frost and she’s going to call as soon as she feels able to discuss the files. I’ll want you to videoconference us together at that point so that we can discuss the physical findings, so let’s take a few minutes and decide what we need to talk about with her, what questions we need to ask and what questions she may have for us.”


[Trollcatz, Locked/Work]Leaving, on a Jet Plane

Headed South with Mom. Spate of mysteriously lethal head-injuries in Taos. Moderately high ick-factor, Frost consultation imminent.


Taos, rhymes with chaos. Try not to get Frost-bite….

Remember Mom frets less when allowed to Mom-you. Away team is family-substitute.

PS: Try not to get ick-factor on new green blazer.


Somewhere over Virginia
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
0950 hours EDT

The monitor screen lit with Madeline Frost’s square-jawed face.

“Good morning, SSA Falkner, Agent Worth,” she said, managing to give the impression that she had read about greeting other humans in a technical manual translated from the Korean by someone with no English and only intermittent access to a less than perfect Korean-English dictionary. The words were there, they were even in the right order, but the understanding as to why the words were really needed had been lost in translation.

“I have read the autopsy reports you had couriered to my office. Of necessity I have only skimmed them at this point and anything I say may be subject to future re-evaluation. I would much prefer not to comment at this point, but I understand that you feel that it is essential for me to give you some guidance prior to you discussing the case with local law-enforcement and Medical Examiner’s personnel. All that I can tell you at this point is that Agent Worth’s assessment of the injuries is correct. Six outwardly penetrating head injuries, with no extraneous matter in the wound tracts and only incidental bruising are inconsistent with the aetiology of conventional head injuries. They are, for want of a better term, anomalous. However there appears to be insufficient evidence at this point to guarantee that the cause relates to the Anomaly.

“Unrelated to the nature of the wound or necessarily to the case itself, I can tell you that the autopsies appear to have been quite inappropriately rushed, shoddy even. Any competent Medical Examiner should have realised that the injuries were anomalous just as soon as he looked at them in detail. Even with foreign matter in the wound they should have been flagged as suspicious, without it, they are singularly abnormal, clearly requiring a deeper inquiry. I would like you to teleconference me with the Medical Examiner at your earliest opportunity after arrival in Taos. I need to understand whether there is some reason for the inadequacy of the autopsies that would alter my reading of the reports.”

Daphne kept the wince off her face. Frost had unremittingly high standards; if she felt the need to tell another ME that their work was inadequate she was unlikely to pull any punches and she was incapable of doing anything to make the message more palatable. Being told they were incompetent by a hired gun never went down well with doctors. Nor anyone else, for that matter, but the incidence of God-Complexes amongst doctors was alarmingly high and Daphne could sense the likelihood of having to throw herself in front of a Frost-induced meltdown rising rapidly.

Daphne glanced sideways at Falkner, sitting close against her to fit in the webcam’s pickup zone, but Esther didn’t react to her, keeping her attention focussed on Frost’s image instead.

“Thank you, Doctor Frost. I will have Agent Worth arrange precisely that. Now, you said outwardly penetrating…”

Act II

Albuquerque International Sunport, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
0910 hours, MST

“Good grief, it’s colder than Washington!” Daphne protested as the Gulfstream’s hatch opened onto a wave of cold air, Albuquerque singularly failing to live up to her expectations. She reached hastily for her coat, glad she had brought it.

“Deserts in winter are colder than people expect,” Esther said, already wearing hers.

Coat fastened against the biting wind that gusted in through the hatch, Daphne gathered up her gear and followed Esther down onto the concrete of the airport’s business aviation ramp, glancing around for any reception committee, or even just the nearest place to get out of the wind as it nipped at her ears and nose. Their reception committee turned out to be waiting in the lee of the nearest hangar, climbing out of a eggplant-purple-shading-into-black Explorer that just screamed Bureau to anyone who so much as glanced at it.

“SSA Falkner?” the woman, young enough to make even Chaz look a seasoned veteran in comparison, asked as they angled towards her, “I’m Agent Martinez from the Albuquerque Field Office, our SAIC asked me to meet you. There’s just the two of you?”

Esther checked Martinez’s credentials and badged her in turn before speaking.

“Yes, just the two of us. I requested transport?”

“Yes, Ma’am, the Explorer is yours, I’m to see that you have anything you might need.”

“All we need is the transport and we’re on our way, Agent Martinez. Do you have transport back to the field office?”

“I know where the taxi rank is, Ma’am.”

“Climb in the back,” Esther told her, “We aren’t in so much a hurry we can’t drop you on the way out of town.”


“Agent Martinez was so new she squeaked,” Daphne commented as the Explorer left Albuquerque behind them and headed for the mountains.

“And so very obviously charged with finding out what brings ACTF into the Albuquerque SAIC’s territory,” Esther agreed.

“I’m surprised we don’t see more of that,” Daphne said, “Local field offices getting pissy about their territory when we invite ourselves in.”

“Technically Taos PD invited us in,” Esther pointed out, “And usually that’s true of either local PD or the local Field Office, so we have an in they can’t object to, but Nikki does a lot of smoothing ruffled feathers in the background, Brady too, his cop background helps. It is usually only when we don’t have her with us that we see the local hierarchy territory marking like tha—Look Out!”

Daphne was reacting even before Esther’s warning. The big-rig in the opposite lane had been blocking a Camaro, and the idiot driving the Camaro had swung out to pass, never mind that there wasn’t sufficient space between the truck and the Explorer to squeeze through a pushbike. If Daphne hadn’t spent hundreds of hours at the wheel of a balky ambulance in traffic then the results might have made the evening news; not to mention being personally unpleasant; as it was her frantic evasive manoeuvre put them onto the gravel at the edge of the road in a cloud of dust as the Camaro disappeared into the distance. The big-rig slowed for a moment, but accelerated again as the driver decided from the view in his mirror that they had survived the experience unscathed.

Daphne wasn’t quite so sure about the unscathed. Getting out of the way of the Camaro had meant stamping hard on the brakes while she down-shifted and got the nose of the Explorer turned away from the impending crash, then accelerating hard for the margin to get them clear before braking hard a second time to stop them hitting anything off the road. The decelerations had been violent enough to make the seat belt grab at her, hard. She tugged at the belt to loosen it again and turned to look at Esther.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Esther was wincing at the jolting, but at Daphne’s question she wiped the pain off her face, rebuilding Mom’s façade of professional impermeability.

“Shaken, but not stirred,” she said, an almost unique moment of humour from her, “Good driving. I don’t suppose you got that idiot’s licence plate?”

“I’m glad not to be wearing his license plate!” Daphne said, reaction starting to set in.

“Let’s take ten minutes,” Esther decided, reaching to release her seat belt, “I think we need to check the car over before we go any further – it took as much of a jolt as we did.”

Taos, New Mexico
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
1225 hours, MST

The Explorer got them to Taos without anyone else attempting to turn them into a road death statistic, and the wonders of satnav delivered them to the Taos Police Department’s station house.

“Special Agents Falkner and Worth to see Chief Preston,” Esther announced to the officer manning the front desk as Daphne followed her in.

“That would be me,” a voice said from behind them.

Daphne turned to see a man limping towards them, leaning heavily on crutches. Something had made a mess of his left leg. The knee wasn’t bending worth a damn and by the angle of his pelvis the leg was at least an inch, if not two or three, shorter than it should have been.

“Chief Dan Preston,” he introduced himself, “And I am really glad to see the Bureau here, c’mon back to my office and I’ll get you situated.

“Excuse the waddle,’ he said as they adjusted their pace to match his slower one, “Vehicle Borne IED in Fallujah, the docs pulled half a Toyota out of my leg – lucky to still have it, I guess. I was over there with the 200th Infantry – National Guard.”

“Desert Storm was my war,” Falkner told him. “We didn’t make it as far as Fallujah, but I did my time in country.”

Preston’s office walls were covered in framed photographs. Half of them showed him in uniform, younger ones as a patrol officer, more recent ones showing his increasing seniority. The other half showed him in a different uniform, doing a different style of policing.

“You were a sniper?” Falkner asked, studying a picture of Preston sprawled on a anonymous Middle-Eastern rooftop, aiming a scoped rifle through a hole hacked in the parapet.

Preston shook his head, “Never did the sniper course, but I can shoot better’n most, so they made me a ‘designated marksman’, gave me a better rifle and the opportunity to use it.”

He dropped his crutches noisily in the corner and braced himself against the window, staring out into space.

“The insurgents had people harassing our Forward Operating Base on and off for pretty much our whole tour. When they’re five hundred or more metres out, lobbing RPGs round street corners or over compound walls, machine guns and assault rifles won’t cut it, you need a marksman to fight back at them. I’ve killed more people than any man should rightly be asked to, head shots mostly, being able to see a torso for a centre-of-mass shot was a rare luxury. When that IED went off and they shipped me home, I hoped I’d never have to kill again, never have to look at another blown apart head.”

He shuddered and pushed himself away from the window, limping awkwardly back to his seat. Daphne followed Falkner’s lead and seated herself facing him, both of them quiet for the moment, giving him the chance to talk while he wanted to.

“In a way, that IED, having this bum leg, maybe my whole tour, is the reason you’re here,” Preston told them as he handed over cups of coffee from the machine standing on the corner of his desk. “I had to put myself on permanent desk duty when I got back here after they released me from Walter Reed, so I’ve been spending more time reading reports than might have been the case a couple of years ago. The last thing I wanted to see was more head injuries, but I kept seeing them in the accidental death reports and they left an impression. I wrote it off for months, thinking it was just my mind making too much of them, but then I met up with the neighbouring sheriff for a beer, mentioned it, and he had another weird case had just happened that fell just in his jurisdiction rather than mine. That made me think maybe it wasn’t just me, maybe something really was happening. I remembered the circulars about reporting anomalous patterns of crimes and decided it couldn’t hurt to send it off to you.”

“We’re glad you did, Sheriff,” Esther said, “this is precisely the kind of pattern we’re looking for and we can’t find it unless people like you flag the incidents for us.”

“So you really think we have a serial killer here in Taos?”

“The evidence suggests it is possible. It might still be a coincidence, though we tend to be very suspicious of those, or it might be – for want of a better term – a conventional serial killer, but it might be something different, the kind of serial my team specializes in. I don’t mean any disrespect to you or your men, but these criminals can be very difficult to take down. If we identify a suspect, then I would prefer to bring in the Bureau’s regional SWAT team from Albuquerque to effect the arrest rather than use your own officers.”

Preston frowned.

“If you think that’s necessary, but it won’t be popular with my men.”

“I’m afraid we’ll have to accept that,” Esther said, “But you should consider warning your men: if anything blows up unexpectedly, they may need to use extreme force. We’ve had perpetrators resisting after multiple bullet wounds. With this kind of crime, you have to put your perceptions of what is normal aside, or you’ll find them flung back in your face when things go wrong.”

Preston smiled grimly.

“I saw men trying to fight with four or five bullets in them, with entire limbs blown off. I’ve been emphasising that escalating to lethal force means overkill ever since I got back. If something kicks off, then I don’t think you’ll find us wanting. But I’ll talk to the guys anyway.”

He reached into his desk and pulled out two case folders.

“If you really think we have something, then you should have these as well. After I sent the files off to you I realised that if one neighbouring sheriff had something, then all of them might. I made a mite of a nuisance of myself and two more possible cases popped up. All the sheriffs involved are willing for you to investigate them, though I suggest you go through me for contacting them, they’re old-fashioned country sheriffs who don’t particularly hold with inviting in the city-boys.”

“And city-women would be a step beyond the pale?” Falkner suggested.

Preston grinned, “Pretty much. I think that it’ll be easier all-round if I handle it. It’ll let me be a bit more directly involved than I’ve been of late, so I don’t object.”

Falkner shrugged; a little stiffly, Daphne thought. “That works for me, Chief Preston. Now, do you have somewhere we can work?”

“I can try and clean out the break room,” he suggested, “But what might work better is the rooms I’ve found for you at the Plaza Inn – Adele, the owner, let me have their family suite for you at a cheap rate, that’s two bedrooms and a common sitting room, might be that would make you a better office than anything we could do here.”

Falkner nodded. “As long as it has internet and a lock on the door, we can use it.”

“The answer’s yes, to both of those. I’ll take you over now and you can check it out.”

“I’ll get us set up,” Falkner said, “And if you can take me through these two new cases and any points on the first batch you think might be significant, then I would be grateful. Can you arrange for Agent Worth to meet with your coroner while we do that?”

Autopsy Suite, Taos Pueblo Hospital
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
1425 Hours, MST

“I don’t understand the problem,” Doctor Willard, the Taos coroner, told Daphne, “you have my full reports.”

“Doctor Frost, our consultant pathologist, is very meticulous,” Daphne explained, “she prefers to conduct all autopsies in our cases, and where that isn’t possible, as in this case, she often feels the need to discuss the findings with the coroner who did conduct the autopsy.”

“My report covered everything,” he protested once more.

Daphne bit her tongue, refraining from further comment. Willard wasn’t impressing her, the man was probably no older than she was, but he looked gaunt and moved and acted like someone desperately waiting for the day he could finally retire. He seemed washed out, or maybe even wrung out, and if he was just going through the motions, as seemed all too likely, then Frost would tear him apart.

She ignored his protests, checked the picture being picked up by her laptop’s webcam, then steeled herself and hit Frost’s speed-dial on her AOP.

“Stay still, please, and let me talk to Doctor Frost,” she hissed at the fidgeting Willard as the call connected.

Frost picked up the call at the second ring.

“I have the Taos coroner, Doctor Willard, ready for a video conference,” Daphne told her, knowing that the usual pleasantries were not just wasted on Frost, but actively disliked.

“Thank you, Agent Worth,” Frost answered, “I am connecting now.”

The laptop lit with Frost’s face and Willard instantly both stilled and blanched.

“Your specialist is Doctor Madeline Frost!” he hissed at Daphne.

“Yes, that is correct.” Frost answered, “You have the advantage of me.”

“Doctor Frost, Doctor Walter Willard,” Daphne supplied.

“I, I know your work on cancer, Doctor Frost,” Willard explained, “I saw you speak at the Bethesda conference last year and I’ve have had…” he paused, “occasion to study some of your papers of late.”

Frost frowned, and Daphne braced herself.

“If you take the time to study papers as specialised as mine, Doctor Willard, then I fail to understand how your autopsy work can be so slap-dash. Each one of these autopsies should have rung alarm bells for an intern, never mind a qualified coroner. The head wounds are singularly abnormal, each and every one of them is grounds, on its own, for ruling the death suspicious, and yet you signed each of them off as an accidental death after what seems the most cursory of autopsies. I believe you need to explain yourself, sir; not simply to me, but also to Agent Worth.”

“It’s difficult…” Willard began.

Frost snorted, “Difficult is what we do, doctor. If our work was simple, I would not have chosen it as a career.”

Daphne winced at the implied “But you might,” but the sting seemed to cause Willard to rally, and to do it in a direction that Daphne hadn’t expected.

“Yes, I suppose you might very well characterise my work as slap-dash, but I don’t work for a leading teaching hospital or a research institute, with dozens of people to do my lab work and admin. I am the only doctor in the county with the appropriate training, and if I need something doing then either I do it myself, or I have to have it couriered to a lab, which takes days, sometimes weeks for me to get the answers.

“I knew my work was suffering, I asked for a leave of absence, but the county and the hospital refused, they said their budgets didn’t have sufficient allowance in them for a locum.”

His tone turned bitter, “Maybe next financial year, they said, fat lot of use that will be.”

Daphne fought to keep her eyes front, but her brain couldn’t help replaying Doctor Willard’s haggard look and multiplying it by the anger in his words. Was his appearance the look of someone who had lost too much weight too quickly, or simply a thin man going through a bad patch. She couldn’t decide, but her hand twitched the lie of her jacket, pulling it clear of her holster.

“My wife is dying, Doctor Frost, she has a glioblastoma, with a Karnofsky score that has progressed rapidly downwards to 40%. You know what that means better than I do.”

Frost’s interest had clearly waned while Willard poured out his excuses, now it positively perked up, which given Daphne knew enough medicine to recognise that Willard had just described a fatally aggressive brain tumour was verging on the macabre.

“Prognosis?” she asked.

“Weeks, not months.” Willard said, slumping hopelessly in his chair.

“You realise you shouldn’t be working,” Frost said, almost kindly.

“I know, but I told you what happened when I requested a leave of absence, and I can’t resign…” 

He paused, clearly embarrassed.

“I may be a doctor, but I’m not a rich man – I have to work, we, my wife rather, needs my medical insurance, you see.”

Frost nodded, “I do see, doctor. That doesn’t get us around our current problem, but it helps me to understand the reason for it. I suggest that we work through each of the cases in turn, and you can answer any questions of mine. And once we are done, I would be grateful if you could email me a copy of your wife’s case notes. I may not be able to offer you any hope, but perhaps one day they might let me offer it to someone else.”

“Agent Worth?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Doctor Willard and I are likely to be some time, and the conversation is likely to be above even your admirable level of competence in these matters. I suggest that you go and get a coffee or some such while you wait.

Daphne nodded and pushed her chair back from the table. She had worked with Frost long enough to recognise “Go away, the adults are talking” when she heard it.


Carson’s Restaurant, Taos, New Mexico
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
1930 Hours, MST

The restaurant Chief Preston had recommended was a block or so from the Plaza, across the street from the Kit Carson House that gave it its name. Given the name, the Old West design aesthetic was probably inevitable, cowboy-chic meets Tex-Mex meets Pueblo. The tables and chairs looked rough-hewn, but the supposed axe-marks were lacquered smooth, and what looked like Native-American weaving on the upholstery turned out to be printed fabric.

“The décor’s a little clichéd,” Preston said, stowing his crutches by the side of the table as a waitress headed for them, “but the food is pure South-Western. I think every other restaurant in town has tried to poach the cook, but Martha – the owner – had the good sense to marry him first.”

“Best move I ever made,” commented the waitress, Martha, as she reached them, “and that clichéd décor is precisely what most of the tourists want, as well you know, Dan Preston.”

Preston shrugged and grinned, “Reckon I do. Martha, these are Special Agents Falkner and Worth from Washington. Agent Falkner, Agent Worth, my sister Martha. I might be biased, and there might be a couple of places in town a mite fancier, but I don’t think the cooking will disappoint.”

“Seeing as you’ve taken the back table, I take it this is a working dinner?” Martha asked her brother, the sibling resemblance obvious now that it had been pointed out.

“Yeah,” he told her, “though not so much that I won’t take a beer. Ladies?”

“A beer would be good,” Falkner said, “though just the one for myself and Agent Worth, we need another session with the files once we’re done here.”

 “Coming right up,” Martha told them, setting menus in front of Daphne and Esther, “I’ll keep the other customers near the front to give you as much privacy as we can, though we’ll probably fill up before you’re done.”

“Would you prefer Kosher?” Martha asked Falkner, “I noticed the Star of David on your necklace.”

“Please.” Esther told her.

“Okay,” she said, reclaiming one of the menus and rapidly putting ticks against a selection of dishes before passing it back, “we can do Kosher for the ones I’ve ticked, the others just won’t work – South-Western cuisine is pretty big on mixing meat and dairy. I’ll be back in a moment with the beers.”

“Observant,” Daphne noted.

“Yeah,” Chief Preston agreed, “I sometimes think that she would have made the better cop.”

“Now what did you make of our coroner,” he asked Daphne, “I’ve been worried about him.”


“I knew I had trouble as soon as I heard the Winslow boy DFO’d,” Preston said, mopping up the last few refried beans from his plate. “You’d be wrong to say his daddy runs the town, but it’s not for want of trying, and he probably is our single wealthiest resident.”

Both Daphne and Esther nodded, Preston had provided a quick drive-by of all the scenes where the victims had been found on their way to the restaurant and the Winslow residence had been in a different league to any of the others.

“Not many twenty-two year olds living in a place like that,” Daphne noted.

“Yeah, family money, though give Matt his due he was a better kid than I expected, lot fewer complaints about him than his dad.”

“Does Winslow Senior have enemies,” Falkner asked.

“Rivals, lots of rivals. I guess there’s a few whose businesses he steamrollered might consider him an enemy, but none I would finger for taking it further. Besides, Matt could look after himself, easier to go after his sisters.”

“First-born son,” Falkner said.

“Apple of his father’s eye,” Daphne echoed.

“Taking him out would be the way to hurt his father worst of all.”

“Can’t argue with that, I suppose,” Preston said, “Winslow Senior has been pretty much obsessed by this – his wife died a year ago, stroke, losing his son so soon after this hit him hard. He’s been all but harassing me, the city council, anyone else you can think of, and not just his lawyers chasing and threatening, he’s doorstepped me twice personally, the mayor more times than I can recall. He had the decency to leave Doctor Willard alone given his circumstances, but I understand there was a private autopsy after we released the body, and he definitely flew in investigators from some big-city PI firm to look into the case. There may be more, that’s just the stuff I’m aware of.”

“All of which means he’s distracted from his business interests,” Falkner said, “that’s another potential motive.”

“Should we try to get hold of the private autopsy results?” Daphne asked, “No disrespect to Doctor Willard, but they probably did a better job than he did. Doctor Frost might get more from that report than from Doctor Willard’s.”

Esther frowned, considering the proposal, “Let’s hold that card back for now and see how things develop. I don’t want Mr. Winslow Senior trying to inject himself into our investigation the way he did the Chief’s. Given what we’re looking for, that’s potentially a recipe for disaster. But if the situation arises, we will…”

She stopped mid-sentence, turning as a commotion broke out at the door.

“Aw, crap!” Preston said as he looked past her, “Talk of the devil and he shows on your doorstep.”

The man in the doorway was sixtyish, slight, and dressed in a suit that had probably cost more than Daphne’s entire wardrobe. A Stetson, decorated with silver conches on its hatband, lifted his appearance out of the ordinary, but simultaneously injected a note of cliché.

Preston’s sister had met him in the doorway and was arguing quietly but vociferously with him, their words inaudible across the room, but punctuated with emphatic hand gestures, Winslow’s mainly directed towards their table.

“Excuse me,” Preston said, using the table to push himself to his feet, “Duty calls.”

He limped across to the doorway without bothering with his crutches, though one or two of the diners found their shoulders being used as impromptu supports – from their laughing reaction it was obvious that Preston was picking people he knew to lean on and joking with them as he went.

Esther wiped her mouth with her napkin, placed it neatly on the table beside her plate, then stood up.

“Wait here, Daphne,” she said, “No sense in both of us going.”

By the time she got to the doorway Preston had eased his sister aside and was standing with a hand against the doorpost for support, and not so coincidentally blocking Winslow’s progress into the building.

“Look, John, you know and I know that you’ll make a scene if Martha lets you inside, and Martha has a right not to subject her other diners to that.”

 “I don’t care, I want to know what’s going on. Word is out that you’re suddenly treating my son’s death as murder, that the FBI are taking over the case. I have a right to know what is going on, Matt was my son.”

“I understand that, Mr Winslow,” Esther said, stepping in beside Preston. Her hand touched Winslow’s shoulder, drawing him into her confidence, and simultaneously easing him back out of the doorway and onto the street. The cold and the piercing wind sent the muscles of her back into an instant spasm as they cut through her blouse, but she kept the discomfort from her face.

“I’m Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And yes, we are looking into your son’s death, amongst several others. I’m afraid that I can’t tell you anything more about our investigation, simply for the fact that we only arrived today and are still getting ourselves situated – in fact Chief Preston was still briefing us right up until a few moments ago. I give you my promise that I will discuss this with you, but now is not the time for that.”

“Tomorrow,” Winslow demanded, “I can clear out my morning,”

“You have to give us an opportunity to work, Mr. Winslow. You’re a successful man, you know micro-management doesn’t work, that you have to trust people in order to allow them to produce their best work. Doesn’t your son’s death deserve our best work? Tomorrow isn’t feasible, because we need to talk to the witnesses and visit the scene, but we also need to talk to family, to understand the victim as a person, and I promise you that I will contact your office and arrange a meeting for Friday, probably in the afternoon. If you answer my questions about your son, then I will answer as many of yours about the case as I reasonably can. You understand that there are constraints, that I can’t promise you full candour, but what I can tell you, I will.”

“Friday?” Winslow asked, seemingly surprised at what he was hearing.

“My word on it,” Esther told him, “But there may be a way you can help us even before then. Chief Preston told me he thought that you had arranged for a second, private autopsy?”

“I did, two in fact. A waste of time, they both said the wound didn’t make sense.”

Esther nodded, “Nevertheless, it would help our pathologist if she could get access to those files. She is having to work without access to the bodies and the more reports she can have to cross-reference and analyse, the better.”

“Yes, yes, I can do that.” Winslow told her, almost stuttering in his eagerness to help, “In fact, I’ll go and arrange to have copies couriered to the police station right this moment. Thank you, Agent Falkner, and I look forward to meeting with you.”

“Friday, my word on it,” Esther told Winslow, taking his hand to shake firmly on her promise, and transforming that motion into something that subtly turned Winslow away from the restaurant and started him on his way.

“Smooth,” Chief Preston told her as Winslow retreated towards his waiting limo and she stepped back into the welcome warmth of Carson’s.

Esther shrugged, wincing as her back twinged in reaction, “If you can use the other person’s needs to get them to give you what you want, then there are times that that saves an awful lot of effort.”

“Makes sense,” Preston said, “But I’ve never seen anyone else manage to send John Winslow scurrying off like an errand boy.”

“He’s grieving,” Esther told him, “Doing something stops him thinking about his loss.”

She paused, looking at Preston.

“Tell me, has he lost weight recently?”


Plaza Inn, Taos, New Mexico
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
2115 Hours, MST

Esther allowed a wince to cross her face as she stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in a towel. The pummelling heat had helped, but her back was clearly unhappy after the near collision. It could have been worse, she acknowledged, she might have been at the wheel rather than Daphne, and for all that she was a Bureau trained driver she didn’t have the sheer experience of someone who had spent years of her life behind the wheel of an ambulance.

She pushed the thought away as she snagged a second towel for her hair and limped out into her bedroom. She had called the kids before dinner, and spoken to Ben then, but that was a family call, with a different set of rules to when it was just her and her husband in the call. She reached for her cell.

“Hey, Es. How was your day?”

A tiny fraction of the tension in her spine drained away as she heard Ben’s voice.

“Long, and uncomfortable,” she admitted, “You have Daphne Worth to thank for an idiot in a Camaro not making you a widower.”

She shuddered, imagining Ben answering the door to find Celentano and their rabbi at the door, what it would do to Bek and to Deborah didn’t bear thinking about.

“Case related?” Ben asked, no extra inflection in his voice, the perfect Bureau husband.

“No, just plain old vehicular stupidity. Daphne got us out of the way before he did any damage.”

“If he didn’t do any damage, why are you in more pain than usual?”

Esther rolled her eyes, the better part of 2,000 miles between them and she couldn’t hide her pain from him. She couldn’t hear any difference in her voice, but clearly Ben could.

“We stopped hard, and we both got jarred about a bit. I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep.”

“So go to bed!”

Es sighed, “Not happening just yet, Daphne and I are having one more session with the files. The local chief of police is great – he’s an injured vet, so he and I hit it straight off – but there’s external political pressure I hadn’t bargained on. I’ve bought myself a reprieve until Friday morning, but that means we need to get as far as possible in the next 36 hours.”

“Politics, ick!” Ben said, imitating something Bek had said earlier in the week. It made her laugh.

“Enough of me,” she said, “How was your day?”


Plaza Inn, Taos, New Mexico
Wednesday, 5th November 2008
2230 Hours, MST

Daphne looked up from the files, conscious that something had disturbed her, not immediately sure of what. She turned to look at Falkner and grimaced. Esther was white-faced, sweat standing out on her brow, a drop just starting to dribble away from her temple. One hand was clenched on the wooden arm of the loveseat, the other braced on the edge of the coffee table, as though she was trying to take the entire weight of her body through her arms. Falkner’s breath hissed through her teeth in a wince and Daphne knew what it was that had caught her attention.

“Are you all right, Esther?”

Stupid question, clearly she wasn’t, but you soon got to spot the patients who weren’t going to be sensible, the ones you had to talk into helping themselves.

“Just my back playing up a bit,” Falkner admitted, which by her standards was a major concession.

“Rubbish,” Daphne told her.

Falkner looked startled at being so bluntly contradicted, but the emotion flickered across her face in an instant, swallowed behind the mask she hid her pain with

“Pardon?” she asked.

“I said ‘rubbish’,” Daphne repeated, “‘just my back playing up’ is someone feeling a bit stiff and achey the morning after a hard game of racquetball. You’re white-faced and sweating and the only reason you aren’t shaking is that you won’t allow yourself to. Right now you’re hurting so much it even hurts to breathe. Put the files away and go and lie down.”

“Doctor’s orders?” Falkner asked, her tone hovering somewhere between annoyance and just plain startled.

Daphne sniffed. “Unlike doctors, some of us worked for a living. I’ve seen enough people in acute pain to know when they can be left to manage it and when they need help. You need help.”

“Okay,” Falkner said, “I’ll admit that I probably need to go lie down for half an hour.”

Daphne’s inner demons considered asking her ‘Was that really so difficult to admit?’, but she kept her mouth firmly shut. Some people dealt with pain in public, but others fought a private fight and Esther Falkner would thank no one for forcing her to deal with what she undoubtedly considered a weakness in front of an audience. The paramedic in her wanted to help Falkner up from the seat and through to the bedroom, the profiler in her preferred not to have her head bitten off.

Falkner shoved down to help herself up and she almost made it all of the way to her feet, then her left knee wobbled and she staggered, turning almost 180 degrees as her hand clutched at the arm of the seat and she swung around the pivot point. She hit the ground hard before Daphne could launch herself out of her own seat and there was the unpleasantly wet gurgle of someone losing their dinner the hard way.

“Don’t move, Esther,” Daphne told her, physically blocking her as she tried to stand again.

“Think I might need a little help here,” Esther admitted reluctantly, sagging against her.



ER Department, Taos Pueblo Hospital
Thursday, 6th November 2008
0030 Hours, MST

“Reyes,” the richly textured voice said into Daphne’s ear.

Daphne closed her eyes and mentally braced herself. She felt stupid for having to do it, but the whole situation just seemed awkward. Talking to Stephen Reyes seemed like a breach in Esther Falkner’s trust.

“This is Worth,” she told her other boss, “SSA Falkner is in the ER.”

“What happened?” Reyes’ voice demanded, sharpening.

“It’s not case-related,” Daphne told him, “We had a near miss driving from the airport. I stopped hard and SSA Falkner jarred her back. She said she was okay….”

“She would.”

“….but we were reviewing the paperwork on the case this evening and it got worse. Worse than I’ve ever seen it before.”

“I’m surprised you got her to the ER.” Reyes told her.

“You have no idea”, Daphne thought, though now she considered it he had known Falkner for years longer than she had and maybe he did know. She had had to threaten to dial 911 for an ambulance just to get Esther to let her take her to the ER and the drive had been anything but pleasant for the other woman. The local roads weren’t in ideal condition and Esther had clearly felt every pothole. In fact she’d been so pale by the time they got to the hospital that Daphne suspected she was even feeling the road markings and if she could drive around the worst of the potholes there wasn’t any easy way of avoiding a stop line.

“What is your estimation,” Reyes asked, “Can SSA Falkner continue on the case.”

Daphne winced. Falkner hated showing weakness, she wasn’t going to be happy if Daphne told Reyes she wasn’t fit to continue, but she also had a responsibility to her, not to mention the victims.

“No sir, not in my opinion. She might be mobile by tomorrow, but I doubt she’ll be moving anything like normally.”

“And if you find a gamma, you need her moving normally. How far did you get with the case today, did you confirm your conclusions from the case notes?”

“Pretty much, I talked to the local coroner, teleconferenced him together with Frost. You know they found two more cases when they talked to the neighbouring jurisdictions?”

“No, I hadn’t heard that,” Reyes said, “But I’m not entirely surprised.”

“They fit the same pattern, penetrating brain injury with nothing in the wound tract. In fact Frost thinks the penetration may be outward, not from the exterior in. We’re going to have to think through what that may imply over mythology.”

“Okay, I’m going to give you two jobs, Agent Worth.” Reyes said, “The first is to keep working up the case notes, the forensics and the mythology – make sure Dr. Frost has anything she hasn’t seen. I’m sending Todd down to help you, and I want you in a position to brief him when he arrives. I’m guessing that will be sometime around mid-morning tomorrow depending on flights. I don’t want you interviewing any witnesses until he arrives and you have backup available if needed. The second job is a thankless one, I’m afraid, I want you to keep SSA Falkner from hurting herself or trying to do more than she can. She won’t be happy with you, but she is her own worst enemy in this situation.”

“I’ll do my best, Sir” Daphne told him, though her inner agent was screaming “Why me?” and “I am so screwed!” Reyes had just stuck her between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, between Mom’s wishes and Dad’s orders.

“I know you will, Daphne.” Reyes said, an instant ahead of the click as he disconnected the call.

Albuquerque International Sunport
Thursday, 6th November 2008,
1030 Hours, MST

Sol Todd looked even more rumpled than usual and all of his 50-odd years as he walked into the arrivals lounge at just gone ten-thirty the next morning. A hand rose in half salute as he saw Daphne waiting and he shaped his course to meet her, moving through the crowd with an ease that belied his physical appearance.

“Some of the early passenger aircraft were designed around a figure of 200 square feet of space per passenger,” he told her, a typically off-kilter Sol greeting, “on the idea that air travel should be a luxury experience akin to the best ocean liners. Suffice it to say that Southeastern doesn’t seem to follow the same design ethic.”

“You couldn’t swing the jet?” Daphs asked, handing him a waiting coffee.

“Not for just me,” Sol told her. “After you called him, Stephen had Hafidha check the timetables and it turned out the redeye to Dallas-Fort Worth and then a connecting flight was actually faster than waiting for the jet to reposition from DC and then fly me here direct. So for the sake of two hours and the taxpayer’s dollar, here I am. How’s Esther?”

“Annoyed, frustrated, and not exactly a happy bunny.” Daphne told him. “I left her in bed at the hotel, pumped full of hospital grade painkillers and muscle relaxants.”

“I notice you didn’t say ‘and the worst patient you’ve ever dealt with’,” Sol told her. “You’re destined for sainthood, young Daphne, your loyalty is commendable, and your patience remarkable, but Stephen and I have been here before. The others haven’t and they don’t need to know, so we just told them that with the extra cases there was more in the case files than two agents could get through in a reasonable time.”

There was a very polite, very indirect ‘and keep your mouth shut’ in there somewhere, Sol taking charge without actually needing to say so. She should resent that, not talking about patients was basic medical ethics, but Sol managed to turn it into something no more offensive than a gentle reminder.

They emerged into the sun and Sol squinted up into the winter sun before pulling on a pair of mirrorshades that shouldn’t have worked for a man of his age, but somehow did.

“Why is it always the South?” he muttered, then turned his full focus on Daphne.

“So, fill me in on the case,”

Plaza Inn, Taos
Thursday, 6th November 2008
1310 Hours, MST

“You were right,” Sol said as Daphne let him into the suite.

Falkner was curled up on the couch, which wasn’t really long enough for her, but she’d squeezed herself onto it, lying on her side with legs curled. She had her head hanging over the edge, reading a file that had been opened out on the floor.

“Right about what?” she demanded.

“Right that you would be too stupid to stay in bed. Oh, Daphne is far too polite to call you stupid, you being SSA and all, but she called it that you couldn’t stay in bed a minute past her being out of the door.”

Falkner sniffed disdain at his opinion, “It was at least five minutes,” she said, “And I need to do something, being bored makes it worse.”

“I offered to turn the TV on,” Daphne said.

“Daytime TV? That’s worse than being bored, thank you. Unfortunately whoever is in the next room doesn’t think so, and likes their TV with the volume turned to 11. I was better off out here.”

“Did you find anything?”

“Maybe, but I can’t decide how it fits in.”

“What is it,” Todd asked, folding himself into a legs-crossed position on the floor in front of Falkner with an ease Daphne hoped she would still have at his age. She echoed him, recognising that it would save Esther from having to twist her neck to look up at them.

“Victimology, I found a common factor.”

“I thought we had agreed that there wasn’t one,” Daphne said.

“So did I,” Falkner admitted, “but it just suddenly struck me when I was coming out of the bedroom, which I admit was not the most pleasant dozen steps I’ve ever taken.”

“The point, Es,” Sol prodded.

“The point is I was thinking what a pain it is having a party wall, then I realised that so did five of the original six victims.”

Sol saw Daphne frown, not making the connection, but his own brain leapt on it. “And multiple residence buildings just aren’t that common around here.”

Falkner shook her head gingerly, “No, they aren’t. I checked the census database. Multiple occupancy units in Taos County are only 9.7% of the housing stock, chance of 5 out of 6 victims being random is….”

“That’s not a…” Daphne said, catching up quickly.

“No, it isn’t.” Sol agreed, “What about the outlier?”

“Trailer unit,” Esther told him.

“That’s not an outlier,” Sol said, “it’s the same phenomenon from a different perspective. 6 out of 6 without good boundaries with their neighbours.”

“What about the two new cases?” Daphne asked.

Esther shook her head, “Not enough detail in the case reports to tell, they are a lot more cursory than what Chief Preston gave us, I tried looking up the addresses online, but I couldn’t get a definitive answer. We will have to concentrate on the first six until Chief Preston can get us an answer for the last two.”

“Socioeconomics?” Daphne suggested, “You’re more likely to live in a multiple occupancy unit or a trailer park if you have a lower income.”

This time Falkner’s head shake was a bare twitch from side to side, “You looked at the victims yourself, Daphne. The socioeconomic side of things was all over the place. The Winslow boy’s family has a seven figure income, that apartment complex he lived in was pretty high end.”

“So we start at the ends and work into the middle,” Sol decided, “Daphne, talk to the neighbours of the Winslow kid, I’ll take the trailer camp.”

“And what should I do, SSA Todd?” Falkner asked, her voice deceptively mild.

“What you should do is lie down flat, either on the bed or on the floor in here, but if you insist on doing something, then you can telephone the sheriff, bring him up to speed with your idea and see if his local knowledge can take it anywhere we can’t.”

Act IV

Taos PD HQ, Taos, New Mexico
Thursday, 6th November 2008
1415 Hours, MST

Esther Falkner dismissed her taxi outside the Taos PD HQ and limped slowly into the building. The officer manning the front desk frowned as he saw her and half-rose from his seat, but settled for “Are you okay, Ma’am?”

“SSA Falkner,” Esther told him, ignoring the question, “Is Chief Preston free?”

“Let me just check, Ma’am,” the officer told her, checking her badge before picking up the handset for a quick, soft-voiced telephone conversation that Esther didn’t entirely catch.

“The chief says to go right on through, Ma’am. You know your way to his office?”

“Yes, I do. Thank you, Officer Vega.” Esther told him, steeling herself for the walk along the corridor.

Preston was seated at his desk and waved her into one of the chairs with a welcoming smile when she opened the door. The smile faded to a frown as he saw how she was walking.

“Or considering the way you’re moving, would you be happier standing.”

Esther had to stop and think seriously about the question. She finally settled for sitting, but cautiously, and twisted around so that she could keep her right hip mostly straight.

“What happened?” Preston asked, fixing her a cup of coffee and sliding it across the desk to her, “I think even I could outpace you at the moment.”

“My back’s a mess,” Esther admitted, more comfortable talking about it with a stranger, but a veteran, than she was with the team, or even with Ben. “Has been ever since Desert Storm. I got thrown around the car on the way here yesterday when some idiot nearly ran us off the road and my back decided to take umbrage. I can still function, but I’m not really fit enough to be out in the field.”

“Frustrating as… all heck, isn’t it?” Preston said, the half-pause betraying his internal editor at work, some words not fit to be spoken in front of the womenfolk, not even armed, badge-wearing, veteran womenfolk.

“Yes, it is.” Esther admitted. “I’m still running the team, but we flew down an extra agent overnight to cover for me being stuck in the office, SSA Todd. He’s out in the field with Agent Worth right now, following up on an idea I had. I came over to fill you in on that, see if it sparks any other thoughts.”

“You could have used the ‘phone,” Preston said, “I wouldn’t have objected any – I find myself using it a lot more than I used to.”

“Cabin-fever,” Esther told him, “I needed to get out of the hotel suite, even if I had only been stuck there for 18 hours or so.”

“Been there,” Preston said, “Try 9 weeks in traction at Walter Reed, I was about ready to gnaw my leg off at the hip. Anyways, what’s your idea.”

“Boundaries. 5 out of the 6 victims in your original files are in multiple-occupancy housing, the other in a trailer park, I couldn’t tell from the files on the extra two cases, they aren’t as complete as your case files. We are thinking that friction with the neighbours might have been a common issue. Not necessarily to the level of police involvement, but if you can check for anything you might have that would be helpful. Todd and Worth are out canvassing the neighbours, but if you have all or even some of the information in one place then that would give us a leg up on putting things together.

“How the Hell did I miss that!” Preston growled, surprise side-lining his internal editor. He closed his eyes for a moment, obviously organising his thoughts.

“I can tell you now that there had been issues with at least two of the people involved. Possibly with the others, but I wouldn’t necessarily see that if it was low-level stuff. The Winslow boy there was a complaint against for playing his stereo loud in the middle of the night, I only got involved because he flat-out denied it was his stereo – and because he was J.P. Winslow’s son, if I’m being totally honest. It was the neighbour’s word against his, and friction going both ways, so I told them to get some counselling about being good neighbours, there’s some discretionary funding in my budget for that kind of thing, see if we can head off trouble short of pistols at dawn – didn’t do us any good in this case. Daisy-Mae Ellacott it was her dog, yappy little rat of a thing that wouldn’t shut up, she wouldn’t allow as there was anything wrong in her little darling’s behaviour, so I sent her for some counselling as well. It hadn’t done any good and we were going to have to take it to the next step before she died – no, not before she died, before she was killed – I can say that now, not just wonder about it.”

“Can I ask you to check whether there have been similar issues with the others?”

“Yes, Ma’am, that we can do. I’ll check the records, and I might need to get together with the patrol officers as well, see if there’s stuff in their individual logs didn’t make it into the central records. Take me the rest of the afternoon, like as not, and I can bring you up to speed if we meet for dinner again.”

“Let’s plan on that,” Esther told him, “It will give me an opportunity to introduce you to SSA Todd. And in the meantime, I’ll head back to the motel and do some more digging in the files.”

“If I can make a suggestion,” Preston said, “Having one leg this much shorter plays… merry Hob with my back, there’s a woman in town who does some wonderful stuff with massage, it keeps me a lot more mobile than I would be without it. Might be as that would be as useful as hitting the files, I know I don’t think as clearly when I’m in a lot of pain. Catherine’s a might hippie-dippy for my liking, but she’s also the counsellor I sent the Winslow boy and Miss Ellacott to see, so it might be you could kill two birds with one stone.”

Pueblo Apartments, Taos
Thursday, 6th November 2008
1430 Hours, MST

“That heavy-metal, I won’t dignify it with the name of music, day in, day out, blaring out like it was in the room here! No consideration whatsoever!”

Daphne kept her head nodding and her pen scribbling, though Janice Markham was now on at least her third repeat. She wondered if it was possible for the Anomaly to relieve someone of the need to breathe, certainly Markham seemed to find no need to pause mid-rant and give Daphne the chance to interrupt.

“I complained to him, knocked on his door, caught him in the car-park, the street, phoned him at his office, nothing. I called the police time and time again, but he was a Winslow, they were scared to act. Chief Preston finally got involved, but he said I was being just as unreasonable in chasing after him so much, accused me of harassing him. Me, harassing him! The last time he had music on all night and flat-out denied it was him. Chief Preston sent us both to counselling, told us to find a way to meet in the middle. I told the counsellor I just needed the music to stop, I don’t want to be chasing after some hooligan every day of my life, but he just denied responsibility and she couldn’t get him to move. It annoyed her, I could tell, not just me.”

She wound down, and Daphne seized her chance to regain control of the interview and get out of the apartment before Markham went for a fourth repeat.

“Thank you, Ms. Markham, I think that I have everything I need. If you think of anything more then you have my card. I have to re-interview all the rest of the neighbours, so I’ll have to leave you now and get on.”

As the door closed behind her, Daphne shuddered. Markham probably had had a legitimate complaint, Winslow’s stereo had looked like it could pump out some serious decibels, but sometimes the wronged party could become as much a part of the problem as the initial offender.  She checked her appearance in the mirror at the end of the second floor lobby, consulted her notes and headed downstairs to the next interview, Matt Winslow’s immediate neighbour.

Diane Wikorsky answered her door at the third knock.

“About Matt?” she asked even before Daphne could introduce herself.

“Yes, Ma’am. I’m Special Agent Daphne Worth with the FBI. I’d like to ask you some questions about Matt Winslow if you have a few moments.”

“Of course I do, Matt was a lovely kid and it’s the least I could do. Come on through into the lounge, it’s more comfortable than standing here in the doorway.”

Wikorsky was an immaculately turned out thirty-something, and her apartment had been decorated with the same attention to detail, tiled floor, walls painted in deep umbers and terracottas, broken by hand-woven rugs used as wall hangings, while the shelves and display cabinets held Zuni fetishes, silver and turquoise conches and other jewellery and art from the southern tribes. The one anomaly was a drawing board sat next to a desk in the corner. The desk itself sported a high-end computer workstation with a very large monitor. Evidently Wikorsky’s lounge doubled as a home-office.

“I’m an interior designer,” Wikorsky told her, “I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home much of the time. Would you like some tea? I’ve just brewed a pot – raspberry and passion fruit.”

Daphne weighed up the danger of getting trapped in another prolonged interview, but Wikorsky was much less intense than Janice Marham had been and the pot was sitting atop a tray on the carved wooden coffee table, all ready to be poured.

“Thank you, Ma’am, that would be nice.”

“I’ll just be a moment, please take a seat while I fetch a second cup.”

Wikorsky was back before Daphne had settled on the sofa.

“I do like your blazer,” she said, “I couldn’t get away with that shade of green, but with your colouring you can, you have a good eye for clothes.”

“Actually the credit goes to a friend,” Daphne told her as she sipped at the tea, which turned out to be rather nice. She made a note to herself to see if she could find some for Trish. “She picked it out for me.”

“Then your friend has excellent taste.”

“And yet you still picked me out instantly as law enforcement.” Daphne said as Wikorsky transferred out of her wheelchair and onto the other sofa.

“Nothing to do with the way you’re dressed. I see the world from waist-height; your gun was waving in my face when I opened the door. Now what was it you needed to ask me about Matt? The rumour is that you’re investigating his death as murder.”

“It’s probably more accurate to say we’re investigating a suspicious death,” Daphne told her, “A question has been raised as to how good Matt Winslow’s relations were with his neighbours. Janice Markham in the flat directly about Matt didn’t seem to have anything good to say about him, while the other two residents on the second floor didn’t seem to have an opinion either way. I wondered where you fell on the spectrum.”

“Clear at the opposite pole to the Markham woman,” Wikorsky told her, dislike slipping into her voice. “Janice Markham is a world-class vindictive bitch, I’ve had run-ins with her, so have half the residents in the complex.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what was your issue with Ms. Markham?” Daphne asked, sensing the opportunity to get a second perspective on Markham’s complaints about Matt Winslow.

“She complained that my parking space was larger than hers.” Wikorsky said, “It is, but that’s because mine is a handicapped bay and I need the extra space alongside the driver’s door to get my chair out of the car and then get myself into it.”

“That’s just…” Daphne said, catching herself before she could say anything negative about one interviewee to another.

“Stupid? Senseless? Selfish? All of the above?” Wikorsky finished for her, “That’s Markham for you. Matt, on the other hand, was always willing to pitch in when I needed a pair of working legs to get something done. He just treated me like a normal person, which is rare enough when you come with wheels. However much people might complain about his father’s business dealings, they brought their son up right.”

“So no problems with Matt’s music?”

Wikorsky smiled and shook her head.

“To hear Markham talk about it, Matt had death-metal blaring out of his speakers 24/7. The truth is Matt had pretty much the same taste in music that I do: female vocalists, and the softer end of the rock spectrum. But to Markham it’s all unbearable cacophony. The real problem is that there’s a design flaw in the building – there’s some common ducting in the air-con systems for the individual apartments and they tend to conduct sound from one apartment to another, both horizontally and vertically. And this is where I have to make a confession. That last complaint of Markham’s against Matt, it wasn’t him playing his music, it was me. I had a… friend over and we had music playing to cover ah, certain other sounds.”

Wikorsky flashed Daphne an embarrassed smile and shrugged.

“Did anyone else know it was your music and not Matt’s?”

“Matt did, I told him when I realised he was being blamed for something I had done, but he insisted that I not tell anyone – last time I had problems with Markham it made me physically ill. He said he wouldn’t take the blame for something he hadn’t done, that people could take his word for it or go to Hell, but he wouldn’t let me say anything, threatened to claim it really was him if I said anything. How many people would do that for you?”

“How did he feel about the way the Taos PD reacted to the allegations?”

“I can’t say that he had much good to say about them, but the woman who really pissed him off was the counsellor the Chief sent him and Markham to. He said Markham just wrapped her around her finger and convinced her Matt was pretty much the Anti-Christ. Apparently she just kept on and on at Matt as to how he had to open his mind, embrace the truth and admit his fault. Matt dug his heels in – understandably – and apparently she lost it, just got more and more angry with him. He came in to see me after their session, he had a splitting headache and was so angry at the way he’d been treated he was talking about putting in a complaint to the Chief, but two days later he was dead.”

Wikorsky sighed, “It’s just so unfair. He was a lovely kid, but everyone bought into the idea he was the hoodlum, because he’s young and Markham isn’t.”

“Thank you,” Daphne told her, putting down her teacup, “That was exactly the information I needed to hear. I’ll leave you my card, please contact me if you think of anything else I should know. I might possibly want to talk to you again with some of my colleagues; you paint such a different picture of Matt it may help them to hear that directly.”

“Of course,” Wikorsky said, escorting Daphne to the door, “If it will bring justice to Matt then I’ll talk to anyone you like.”

Daphne waited until Wikorsky’s door had closed behind her, then pulled out her AOP and hit Sol’s speed-dial as she walked rapidly out of the apartment towards the Explorer.

Taos Hills Trailer Park, Taos, New Mexico
Thursday, 6th November 2008
1450 Hours, MST

Sol walked slowly through the trailer-park, soaking-in the ambience of the place, shifting body-language and manner to fit in as best he could. There was a likeness to the places that melded one indistinguishably into another from one side of the States to the other, some residents doing fine, some only one step from desperation. Wherever he was, the stories were always the same, only the words and the actors different, and if he was there, then inevitably so was death. Here death had come for Manuela Garcia, a fifty-seven year old widow who had worked as a cleaner at several stores in town, found dead on the floor of her trailer by a neighbour when the smell began to spread. Two days ago it had been a trailer-park in the Washington backwoods, and James Selnick, a retired mechanic, found butchered in his bed by his daughter.

The lack of rain was a distinct improvement on Washington State, going door to door on days when the rainfall was measured in inches, not fractions, was a plain miserable experience, though he suspected New Mexico actually had Washington beat for lowest temperature. He shivered in the breeze and dismissed any idea of trying to look casual by slinging his jacket over his shoulder. Sometimes casual worked, particularly in places like this where a suit was out of place, but other times the jacket gave him a moment to interact with people, to see the real them, before they spotted the badge and gun and the shields they turned to officialdom slid into place.

He found Garcia’s trailer, still standing empty, and glanced around. A bunch of the nearby trailers were silent, suggesting owners who still had work or other things to do during the day, but a baby cried from the trailer to his left, its mother probably Mary-Sue Kostelnik, the woman who had found the body, He left that one for now, frazzled teenage moms with grizzling infants rarely made for productive interviews. His eye lit on a trailer two down, a big man in jeans and a worn leather jacket working on the engine of a Harley, or what had been a Harley before the customisers got at it.

‘Nice hog,’ Sol said, wandering slowly up, trying to look inoffensive, yet interested and interesting.

The biker glanced up, disdain flicking through his eyes as he took in Sol’s suit.

“Some might say so,” he allowed, “those as know their bikes.”

“Spent part of my wilder days riding something very like that,” Sol told him, “Name’s Sol, by the way.”

“They call me Lucas Brunn,” the biker told him, “and you’re a cop.”

Busted, but some groups had senses attuned to spotting LEOs, bikers tended to be one of those groups.

“Sol Todd, FBI,” Sol told him, flashing his badge, “I’m looking into the death of Manuela Garcia.”

“Yeah, figured as much – hang about, ‘Sol Todd’, the same Sol Todd as wrote ‘Life By Misadventure’?”

“Guilty as charged,” Sol told him

“Oh, man, that’s my favourite book.”

Brunn dropped his tools back into the toolbox and heaved himself up to his feet, towering most of a foot over Sol. Brady probably had a couple of pounds on him, but not more than that.

“Man, fancy meeting you here of all places, just let me wash my hands because I need to shake yours! That book’s the only one I ever read that understood bikers like me.”

Brunn plunged his hands into a bowl of murky water that looked like it had already been used for rinsing off oily parts, he dried them on a grimy towel, but Sol took his hand without hesitation when it was offered. Oil and bikes went together, you got used to it, or you didn’t.

“So, Manuela?”

“Nice lady, most of the time. Beer?”

“I’ll take a soda if you have one,” Sol told him, seeing as he was already delving into a beer fridge sat on the stoop of his trailer.

Brunn handed him a cola and parked his behind against the seat of his bike, Sol chose to lean lightly against the siding of the trailer.

“Most of the time?”

“Manuela had a temper, and when she lost it! Whoo-man, take a bigger man than me to go up against her when she had her gander up.”

“There was trouble because of it?” Sol asked.

Brunn nodded, turned his head to look a couple more trailers down.

“The Brenners, three kids under 10 and she don’t control them none. Manuela worked nights a couple of days a week, she’d come home to try and sleep and the kids would be running up and down and hollering, Best I can figure it out, Manuela tried to talk to their momma and it just got worse. Wouldn’t surprise me if Brenner was putting them up to it. Eventually Manuela’s temper went off, punches were thrown and the police were called.”

“Give the police their due, lot of places they’d just have slammed the both of them in jail, but officer they sent to handle it tried to find a way round it, told Brenner she didn’t keep her kids under control she’d be looking at a visit from Social Services, told Manuela she had to learn to keep a better leash on her temper, sent her off to see some hippy counsellor in town.”

“That work?” Sol prompted when Brunn seemed inclined to stop talking and nurse his beer for a while.

“Not hardly, Manuela came back from there in the worst temper I’d ever seen from her. She was talking Mexican half-and-half, so I didn’t catch nearly all of it, but seems like the counsellor lady decided it had to be Manuela’s fault, not the kids. She was so mad she couldn’t even see straight, cursing the counsellor in Mexican, saying she was making her head pound like a jackhammer. When they found her I thought she’d gotten so worked-up she stroked-out, but stroke don’t put a hole in your head like that.”

Sol stiffened and set his soda down.

“Do you remember precisely what she said when she came back from the counsellor? What it was she was calling her?”

Brunn frowned, “Something Spanish – Bruda?”

“Bruja?” Sol suggested.

“Yeah, ‘bruja’, that was it – know what it means?”

“‘Witch,’” Sol told him, distracted by the sudden warble of his cellphone, “Excuse me for a moment while I take this.”

He walked a few feet away from Brunn before pressing to connect the call.

“Sol, the counsellor the PD sent the Winslow boy to see!” Daphne’s voice said, breathless with excitement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Sol told her, “Meet me back at the stationhouse and we’ll brief Esther and the Chief.”

Act V

Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Taos, New Mexico
Thursday, 6th November 2008
1455 Hours, MST

Catherine Marquesa’s office lay not far off the Plaza, a normal, if slightly run-down storefront, its windows frosted over with some sort of plastic overlay and a sign that announced ‘Catherine Marquesa: Massage, Counselling and Alternative Therapies’. Esther took in the frontage, allowed herself one last look down the road to where Pueblo Peak rose beyond the town, then steeled herself against an unhealthily-high crystal and pyramid factor and pushed the door open

Marquesa was a tall, only vaguely Hispanic-looking woman with a froth of red hair falling down over her shoulders, dressed in a loose, chiffony, shift-dress of that pale-blue that looked like it really shouldn’t work with red hair, yet somehow did. She rose from where she had been sitting in half-lotus on a drift of vari-coloured cushions and Esther was unsurprised to see that she went barefoot in her office. Two chairs, clearly enjoying a second, third, maybe even fourth spin on the wheel of life presumably marked the designated positions for those in need of counselling and a stereo-system hidden somewhere out of sight was playing softly, something with too much in the way of Buddhist chanting to ever graduate to elevator-muzak, but soothing in a vaguely undefined way. A fat-bellied Buddha gazed welcome at her from a shelf and the eclectic selection of other Eastern ornamentation cluttering every horizontal surface made it apparent that if Catherine Marquesa had been born into the Judaeo-Christian tradition then it clearly hadn’t stuck.

“Hello,” she said, walking towards Esther, “I think I can guess why you’re here by the way you limped through the door.”

Esther’s first glance had put Marquesa at early-thirtysomething, but a closer look raised that to her own age. Meditation could relax you, it couldn’t leach away the wrinkles the New Mexico sun burned into a face.

“Chief Preston recommended you,” Esther told her, “I was jolted in the car yesterday and it’s thrown my back out more than usual. He said you work wonders on his spine, if you can do the same for me then I’d be very grateful.”

“Massage I can definitely do,” Marquesa said, “My treatment room is through the back, so let’s go through there and see what I can do for you.”

The treatment room had a lower ornament level than the front office, but posters for various alternative therapies and lifestyles dotted the walls. The floor was dominated by a massage table, adjustable for height and the female form, a padded ring marking the head-end. An old metal filing cabinet sat against the wall in one corner, a folding medical screen obscured the opposing corner.

“I need you to strip to the waist.” Marquesa said, “You can get changed behind the screen, there’s an open-backed gown for you to put on and there’s a lockbox if you want to secure your valuables.”

‘Let Yoga Open Your Mind,’ a poster said from over her shoulder, the image a Buddha sitting in padmāsana with a knowing smile, eyes closed, a third eye looking out from the middle of his forehead.

“You teach yoga as well?” Esther asked from behind the screen as she unhooked her holster and placed it on top of her badge and wallet in the lockbox. She frowned at the hospital gown, having ended up in one the night before, but slipped it on for modesty’s sake.

“Yes, amongst other things. Massage, yoga, counselling, Taos isn’t really open enough to the alternate lifestyle for me to make my living on any one thing, so I do a bunch of stuff,  just trying to open people’s minds as I go.”

“It sounds like you think that’s important?” Esther said, coming out from behind the screen.

“It is important,” Marquesa answered, motioning her towards the table, “People could be so much more than they are. All of the conflict around us comes from people not being able to open their minds enough to understand each other. If I can help people to open up to their potential, then I don’t think there is anything else I would rather be doing.”

“Do you need a hand up?” she asked, studying Esther as she limped towards her.

“I think I can make it,” Esther told her, hitching a hip up onto the corner of the table and then sliding and rolling herself into position. The twisting motion made her snatch a breath down, some metaphoric imp slamming another blow with their sledgehammer into the chisel jammed into her lower back. Her face settled into the padded ring and she let the breath out on a slow shudder.

“Oh, sweetie, your back is a mess!” Marquesa said, “As taut as those muscles are I don’t know how you’re moving at all. This is old damage?”

“’91,” Esther told her, eyes studying the worn, pale blue floor tiles beneath the table, “though, as I said, I was in a car that had to stop suddenly yesterday and that seems to have thrown it further out that usual. It’s been like this before, but not often, last time was three, four years ago.”

“Okay, I’m just going to start slowly and gently, see how you react.”

Marquesa’s hands touched Esther’s back, barely brushing it, but she felt herself twitch from her shoulders all the way to her toes. So much for muscle relaxants.

Lot of stress and tension in there,” Marquesa said, fingers working outwards from the point of initial contact, “I’ll do what I can, but you need to do your part as well. There’s a lot of this is pain, but I think there’s other stress here. Is your job stressful?”

“You might say that,” Esther answered drily.


“Of a sort, I work for the government.”

“This is the point I’d normally ask if it is interesting work, but if it is the government then I know the interest is swamped by the bureaucracy.”

Esther smiled, though there was no chance of Marquesa seeing it.

“It has its moments,” she answered, “But so do the bureaucrats.”

“You need to work on the stress;” Marquesa told her, timing her words with the stroke of her hands across Esther’s back, “unless you give it a way out, your body will turn that stress into extra tension in your muscles and end up working against itself. You strike me as essentially a rationalist, but I think you should open your mind to the possibilities of alternate therapies. I used to be like you, I worked for the Department of Energy at the Sandia Labs, but the stress got to me. First thing to go was my marriage, then I had a breakdown. Yoga let me put myself back together and I realised that old life wasn’t for me. Old, cold, rational, there is more to life, what rationalism dismisses as the alternate is a whole different set of truths.”

“I think you might be surprised at how open I am to the alternate,” Esther told her, “that’s basically why I’m in town.”

“You said Chief Preston sent you over,” Marquesa said, her rhythm changing as overtones of curiosity crept into her voice, “are you working with him?”

“I’m afraid it’s not really something I can discuss,” Esther told her, deciding to head off that line of conversation before she had to slam the gates down hard.

“Oh, okay,” Marquesa said, stopping her hands for a moment, before picking the massage up again with a different, brisker pattern, “It’s just he normally doesn’t send people over for my massage therapy, mostly it’s people he needs to start thinking about what they’re doing if he doesn’t want to drag them in front of the judge. I try and help them to open their minds, however much it takes. Some come naturally, others I have to nudge along, a few I have to push, hard.”

Muscle relaxant or not, Esther felt every cell in her body suddenly freeze with the certain knowledge that she was alone with a Gamma. No gun, no partner, no backup, no one on the team even aware of where she was. It was the nightmare scenario, the one that crept into her mind late at night, when she hugged her sleeping daughters.

“Does that work very often?” she asked trying to keep her tension out of her voice, “Keeping them away from the judge, opening their minds?”

“Some people are too stupid to recognise help when it comes to them,” Marquesa said, hands slowing. “Some won’t even acknowledge the truth that brought them to me. I do what I must.”

Her hands stopped, then shifted, one pressing against the back of Esther’s head,  one against the back of her neck, forcing her down against the padded ring. She was strong, Gamma strong, but the grip wasn’t one Esther would have chosen to immobilise someone.

“I do what I must,” Marquesa repeated, as Esther gathered herself to act, then the pain struck.

It felt like a flash-bang had gone off in the centre of her skull: thought, logic, senses wiped away in an instant of overpressure.

Hearing returned first of all, Marquesa speaking as though nothing was wrong, as though she was just thinking aloud, “Normally I don’t see what happens, they close me out of their houses just like they close me out of their minds, but my third eye has been opened, I understand everything now, and I can reach out to them, just like I can reach out to you.”

Vision rebuilt itself amid the pain, black fading to grey, grey peeling back to the worn blue tiles beneath the table, dotted with spots of red now, another droplet of blood falling away from her nose, plummeting down to splatter on the tiles below. The pain was like a hot iron being forced into her brain, the headache to end all headaches, but Esther Falkner was no stranger to pain, she and it had danced their dance for two decades, locked into an embrace with no escape. She thought of Ben, of Bek, of Deborah, and she gathered her will and forced her arms to move, one hand clenching onto the edge of the table, the other flattening against it. One pulled, one pushed and she rolled up and over the edge of the table, smashing down onto the floor below. She tried to kick Marquesa with her flailing legs on the way down but the coordination was beyond her. The impact with the floor drove the breath from her, pain spiking up into her back, but that pain was an old friend by comparison.

Her kick might have missed, but Marquesa wasn’t used to violence directed towards her, nor apparently to her victims fighting back, and she had reared back from the table, putting it between herself and Esther. Esther used the chance to get her feet back under her, no matter how much it hurt. She had landed on her backside and it felt like her sacro-iliac joints were tearing apart as she came up into a crouch. There was no chance of getting at her gun, not with a code needing to be punched into the lockbox, never mind that Marquesa was between her and it, but she was on her feet now and trained to defend herself, and the Gamma wasn’t.

“You’re like all the rest of them,” Marquesa spat, “A closed mind. The Buddha saw fit to enlighten me, to send me forth into people’s lives to help them to achieve enlightenment for themselves, and those petty-minded fools closed their minds against me. ”

Mythology, motive, mayhem; the Holy Trinity of Gamma-hood. Esther nodded to herself as the knowledge let the case rewrite itself inside her head; all those victims, killed by someone who only wanted to help them. The knowledge was intellectually satisfying, but dead and intellectually satisfied was still dead. Her nose was dripping blood like an aging tap, and her head throbbed from a migraine on steroids.

“I can see you,” Marquesa said, walking slowly around the table, colours flickering around her outline in a rainbow-cascade of migraine aura, “So ready to resort to violence, just like all the other fools who lack the emotional confidence to open themselves. I’m here to give you that confidence, to bring you to enlightenment, no matter your fears and your anger. Open your mind to me; or do I have to open it for you?”

“You might care to look in a mirror some day,” Esther told her, rising up from her crouch, holding eye-contact all of the way, “Enlightenment is something that can only come from within. If you force it on someone, is it enlightenment, or just plain old-fashioned rape?”

Marquesa snarled and Esther felt the pressure inside her head started to build again, the drip, drip, drip of her nosebleed picking up in frequency. She forced the pain from her and darted into the other woman’s reach, delivering a fast fist-strike to the face. Marquesa was fast, the blow barely connected with her cheek, but evidently it was enough to destroy her concentration and the pressure washed away. A flailing arm hit Esther on the way out, too uncoordinated to call it a punch, but delivered with berserk Gamma strength it promised bruised ribs in the morning.

“I don’t need the powers the Buddha gave me to kill you,” Marquesa snarled, all control gone, “I’ll break your scrawny little neck.”

She charged, and Esther took a step backwards, then reached forwards with her hands at the same time she kicked up from the ground. Both feet connected with the oncoming woman’s torso, but one hand missed its grip, or rather found its grip on Marquesa’s blouse collar, which promptly ripped free. The other collar held, wrapped in Falkner’s fist, but instead of flipping the charging woman over her head and into the wall, the asymmetrical hold flicked her sideways into a collision with the filing cabinet.

Esther rolled and lurched back to her feet with the help of a hand on the massage table. She put the table between her and Marquesa to give herself a moment to catch her breath, but the other woman stood hunched against the filing cabinet, almost hugging it. An arm dropped, then a leg bent at the knee and Marquesa slowly peeled away from the cabinet. She hit the floor with a thump, lying arms and legs askew, eyes staring blindly at the ceiling.

Esther watched her for a moment, then limped around the table for a clearer look.

Marquesa’s rage had vanished, replaced by a look of startled surprise. It was the last voluntary expression her face would ever wear. Above the bridge of her nose, precisely where her third eye should have been, a ragged triangular hole had been punched through the skin of her forehead, and through the bones of the skull. Just like those of her victims, Catherine Marquesa’s mind had been opened in death.

Esther glanced from Marquesa to the filing cabinet. Her missed sacrificial throw had been luckier than she had any right to expect. Marquesa had hit the corner of the metal cabinet head first, and the blood and flesh and brain matter marked where the angled metal had punched straight into her brain.

Esther backed away from the dead woman until her back hit the opposite wall. She pressed against it, craving the support, then let herself slump slowly, agonisingly down to the floor.

“You realise that my back is going to hate you for this in the morning?” she said conversationally, but Marquesa chose not to answer.

A handful of minutes later the door punched open and Todd and Worth came through it fast, guns out, body armour on, half a dozen Taos PD officers hard on their heels. They slowed as they realised that they had missed the main event, but still quartered the room, taking in the trashed furniture, Marquesa’s body, Esther sitting on the floor, back propped against the wall. Sol moved to make sure of the body, gun fixed on the dead woman’s forehead. Daphne turned her attention to the other casualty.


“She was the UNSUB, but by the tactical entry I’d say you already knew that. She thought I had come for her and got the drop on me. We fought, she died, I didn’t.”

“And you?”

Esther grimaced, “I think I’ll be okay, the blood is mostly mine, but it’s just from a nosebleed. On the other hand I would really, really prefer not to move right now, if you don’t mind.”

ER Department, Taos Pueblo Hospital
Thursday, 6th November 2008
1720 Hours, MST

The ER for the second time in 24 hours, Esther felt stupid, and the doctor who had seen her was definitely of the opinion she had been wilfully stupid for voluntarily putting herself in a position where someone ended up throwing her about the room. Of course if she corrected him on that, then she would have had to strike a blow against the idea of the Bureau’s infallibility. So he was left thinking she was stupid, and she was left knowing she was stupid, lying here in a hospital gown once more, smelling the same hospital smells, hearing the same hospital clatter, waiting for the pain relief to kick in and leave her so mentally fogged that she couldn’t remember that she was in pain, never mind why she was in pain. They were talking about MRIs, and checking for brain damage, but that didn’t seem like the way Catherine Marquesa’s mythology had worked.

“How are you doing?”

Worth. Young, earnest, competent. Like a certain SSA of Esther’s close acquaintance had once been. Though the afternoon’s events cast a certain doubt over any personal claim to competence.

“They just pumped me full of the same babble-juice as last night, give it half an hour and I’ll be as limp as two week old lettuce.”

Worth smiled, “That’s good, because when we found you, the muscles in your back were taut enough to play like a violin. Sol and Chief Preston are handling the wrap-up, I spoke to SSA Reyes, told him we finished up here.”

“Told him I screwed up,” Esther finished for Worth. The language surprised her, evidently the drugs were loosening her tongue.

“No, Ma’am, just that the UNSUB was dead.”

“I noticed you didn’t say I didn’t screw up.”

Worth stood silently for a moment.

“No, I didn’t,” she said finally. “May I speak frankly?”

“I may be doped to high Heaven, but I’m still a profiler, you’ve made up your mind to say something, whether I say yes or no.”

“True,” Worth admitted, perching on the corner of a cabinet.

“No,” she continued, “I don’t think you screwed up this afternoon. The Gamma got the drop on you, it happens. That’s why we work as a team. As it turns out you managed without the rest of us, that’s because you are very, very good at what we do.”


“You are screwing up, not drastically, but you’re doing it all of the time. You have a blind spot, Esther. Family, team, Bureau, those are your priorities, what’s missing from that list?”

Esther shrugged, wished she hadn’t.

Worth shook her head, “Even now you don’t see it. You, Esther, there has to be part of your life set aside for you. Family comes first, I understand that, but you can’t give your family, the team, or the Bureau your best if you aren’t at your best. I’m a trained paramedic, you might be able to hide most of your pain from the team, even from yourself at times, but I see the way you move, and that shouts it out to paramedic-me just the way that word choices and body language shout to profiler-me. Your back is a mess, you can’t change that, but you can’t do your best by bulling through it, that’s the machisma answer, not the smart one. Talk to a pain specialist, get your meds reviewed, see if there’s anything else they recommend. Maybe there’s nothing to be done to fix it, but approaching it in a professional manner has to be better than trying to bull through it like a boneheaded amateur. I’d be insulting the Cowboy if I accused him of that, and, smart as Danny is, you’re smarter.”

She wound down, looking surprised, as if she had gone further than she intended.


Worth blushed, “Okay, maybe my mouth ran away with me, but think about it, please?”

“She’s lucky, you know?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Tricia, your wife. You’re a good woman, Daphne Worth, even if you do ream your superiors a new one from time to time.”

“Think about it?”

“Maybe I should,” Esther said, laying her head back on the bed, “Know anyone you can recommend?”

“I’ll ask around,” Daphne said, watching as Falkner’s eyelids fluttered shut.

J. Edgar Hoover Building,
Washington, D. C.
Friday, 14th November 2008
1430 Hours, EDT

“Hey, home are the hunters!”

Chaz rolled his eyes at Daphne’s greeting, dumping his go-bag by his desk.

“If I never see another temperate rainforest it will be too soon. I’m on the other side of the continent and I can still feel the damp. Another few hours and I swear I would have been sprouting fungus!”

“Desert boy,” Nikki Lau mocked, trailing in past him, which Chaz answered with “Valley Girl.”

Brady followed her, smiling cheerfully.

Daphne glanced at the Cowboy’s back, glanced quizzically at Chaz.

“He got to play Great White Hunter in the backwoods when our UNSUB rabbited out of town. He enjoyed it, which can’t be said for the rest of us.”

“I know my boots will never be the same,” Hafidha said, leaning against the doorway of the Sanctum Sanctorum. “Wendigo as a mythology? Anthropophagy cases are gross enough at best, but cannibals in the backwoods? I felt like an extra in a Deliverance meets The Silence of the Lambs crossover. And it rained, constantly, my hair may never recover. I hear you, Mom and Sol kicked butt down South.”

Daphne crossed over to her friend, “Mom mostly, we got the job done…”

She stopped as Stephen Reyes stepped back into his kingdom and turned his gaze on her.



“Good job in Taos. Todd?”

“Consult down the hall, Sir, should be back imminently.”

“SSA Falkner?”

“At home, mandatory… no, I’m wrong.”

“Welcome home, Stephen.” Falkner said from behind him, “Hafidha, Daphne,” she continued, acknowledgement and dismissal in one. “I heard that you had landed and thought that I should come in and report properly.”

Reyes nodded and smiled to himself, “Let’s take this to my office. Ask Todd to step in when he reappears, please, Daphne.”

They moved off, Hafidha staring after them. As the door closed behind them she turned her attention back to Daphne.

“Is it just me, or is Mom walking better than usual?”

There is nothing so obedient as a disciplined mind.
The Buddha

David Gillon, 2012