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He Says He Is An Experimental Theologian

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The first time Carlos hears Cecil's voice is in Big Rico's, where he, one of his colleagues, and a couple of the grad students have gone for an early lunch.

It's their first day in town, and it's been a long one, between the international flight overnight and the luggage and equipment they've been dealing with all morning. Not only is there a lot of it, some of the experimental apparatuses aren't exactly light. And most of their daemons are small-to-medium-sized, which was convenient for travel and finding local housing, but gets rough when Gerald's musk ox is the only one around to haul overweight loads.

So Carlos called it quits early, and went with the subset of the team too hungry for anything but fast food to the pizza place next door.

The other three order first, exercising their various levels of Spanish skill. Brad's struggling, and it doesn't help at all that he's so nervous (poor kid's hardly even been out of the Trimountaine area before; his golden hamster daemon is hiding in the pocket of his khakis); meanwhile, Adriana's fluent (she grew up near the Florida border, and while her iguana daemon can be hard to read, her confidence is obvious). She helps out Fleur, who's been a published researcher for upwards of ten years but is a self-professed disaster at language learning (even with her red-bellied grackle drilling her on vocabulary all week before they left).

Carlos hangs back, going over the checklist on his tablet for the hundredth time.

The local municipal regulations are...non-intuitive, to put it lightly. Some of the oddness is due to normal cultural differences, but Carlos is the son of first-generation Hispanian immigrants, and nobody in his family has ever mentioned needing to fill out so many forms on a regular basis. Even with access to writing utensils.

And that's when the voice being piped over the radio says, "A new man came into town today. Who is he? What does he want from us? Why his perfect and beautiful haircut? Why his perfect and beautiful coat? He says he is an experimental theologian...."

Carlos isn't really listening. It's Isaña who nudges his leg to get his attention. She's a three-banded armadillo, slightly larger than a grapefruit when rolled up: just the right size for Carlos to scoop into his arms. He puts away his tablet and does so. "What is it?"

"Do you realize," says his daemon, "that you're still wearing your chapel coat?"

(In private, they both prefer the terms used in Harvard's experimental research departments, like laboratory and scientist. Out in public, especially in a small town where religious sentiments might run stronger, they don't want to ruffle any feathers. So capilla and teólogo experimental it is.)

Carlos looks down at himself. Sure enough, he forgot to change. "Oh. Whoops."

"And just what does he plan to do with all those beakers and humming anbaric instruments in that chapel he's renting? The one next to Big Rico's pizza?" the guy on the radio is saying. "No one does a slice like Big Rico. No one."

"Hey, Carlos," says Adriana, still in Spanish. "Is it just me, or is the radio talking about us?"

Carlos looks to Isaña, who says, "Sounded like it." He listens a moment longer; the radio has gone on to talking about making sure your kids are playing safely in the scrublands.

"If they were, they're done now," he says. "I guess there's not much else to talk about around here."

They fill cups with soda and pile into a booth, clutching greasy paper plates with a slice or two of pizza each. Isaña sits on the bench next to Carlos with her head in his lap. Fleur and Brad look like they're dying with curiosity, and it's Fleur who finally asks, in English, "Did you say the radio was talking about us?"

Adriana shrugs. "Just for a minute. The announcer doesn't understand why we're here, and he likes one of the guys' hair. Didn't say whose."

Everyone, daemons included, looks at Carlos.

"The guy hasn't even seen any of us yet," says Carlos, waving them off. "Gimmicky radio thing. Don't think too hard about it."

He takes a bite of his cheese-and-broccoli pizza...

...and Isaña sits up straight, looking across Carlos' lap.

Following his daemon's gaze, Carlos realizes there's a fair-haired child of indeterminate sex standing next to their booth. Staring at them. It's an impressively creepy stare. The child's daemon, currently in the form of a bug-eyed praying mantis, stands on its shoulder and sways its greenish-brown head back and forth at them.

Carlos switches back to Spanish. "Hello there. Are you lost?"

Still staring, not saying a word, the child holds out an envelope. It's made of heavy brownish paper and has what looks like a genuine wax seal, stamped with an insignia Carlos recognizes. The website of the local government was always down when he tried to access it from the US, but he's seen their logo on the Night Vale Tourism Board site, complete with ominous Roman motto: Cogi Qui Potest Nescit Mori.

Using a plastic knife from one of the Big Rico's dispensers to crack off the wax, Carlos opens the envelope. There's no more paper inside — no, he realizes, this isn't paper, it's vellum — but on the inside of the envelope itself there are words printed, and when he unfolds it the rest of the way he finds an official-looking message with the City Council logo printed on the letterhead.

"From the Concejo Municipal," says Isaña.

("How did they know we're here?" asks Brad's daemon. The student shrugs.)

"That, or a really elaborate prank," says Carlos. They're still using Spanish, and he sticks with it as he summarizes the letter out loud, slow and enunciating so the beginners can keep up. "The council wants us to come down to City Hall to give a short presentation on our work and our goals. The town meeting is...today." He looks at the meeting time printed in the text, then at his watch, then at the text again, heart sinking. "Fourteen minutes from now."

There is nothing like this on his checklist. And even if the council really wants a presentation, they would give their visiting experimental theologians more warning than this. Right?

"Catorce minutos?" echoes Fleur. "It must be a...a false thing, an accident, a...."

"Gazapo," supplies Carlos. What if it isn't a typo or a mistake, though? What if it's a deliberate test of their ability (or willingness) to keep up with Night Vale's rules?

He turns to the messenger child to ask for more information. Naturally, the kid is long gone. He murmurs a question to Isaña, who shakes her head; she was reading the message along with him, not watching.

Carlos makes a fast decision and codeswitches unconsciously back to English: the language he's always used for scholarship, for research, for anything to do with Rusakov particles. "We're playing it safe. Everybody up," he says, as his daemon jumps to the ground. "Quick stop at the chapel, then down to town hall. I can do the talking — I'll grab a copy of the presentation I've been using with grant committees. It has some pretty visuals, at least."

The others scramble to grab their pizza and follow him out of Big Rico's. Everyone else is either off looking for a serious restaurant, or down at the grocery store getting a head start on filling up the rental kitchens. Not a problem. Carlos can work with these three.

"Brad, we've unpacked the camera, right? Grab that while we're inside," he says. Rusakov photography is the subject of Brad's thesis.

"Fleur, grab a stack of our photo release forms, then text the others and tell them we'll be at City Hall, and not to wait on us." He'd do that himself, but he'll be spending most of the next thirteen minutes frantically adapting his presentation.

"And Adriana...." There's no online map service with details of Night Vale; someone has to read one of the town maps left in the mailboxes of the rentals, along with coupon books, fliers for local businesses, and an information packet about something called "bloodstone circles." "Your job is to figure out which direction City Hall is in."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A dark-haired woman in a severe grey suit, who introduces herself as Trish Hidge, meets the group on the front steps of City Hall and ushers them inside. Her daemon, a large mostly-black bird with a fuzzy brown head, alternates between riding on her shoulder and flapping alongside her down the marble corridors.

Apparently Carlos and company were the last to know about this meeting, because they emerge into a nice classical-looking meeting chamber with at least a hundred townspeople in the seats.

There's a screen up front, and as Carlos stands behind the main podium, the title slide of his presentation flickers into place on it. Oh, good. When Trish had handed his flash drive to a (different) (probably) pale-haired child, and that child (along with its daemon, in the form of a white, eyeless spider) disappeared through a service door, Carlos had figured he would never see it again.

It looks like a lay audience for the most part, including a couple of kids whose daemons are already shapeshifting restlessly, so he skips to the slides with pictures and tries to keep it simple. Also, to focus on how fascinating and exciting Night Vale is. Overbearing local laws notwithstanding, this is a great research opportunity, and he's genuinely thrilled to finally have the funding.

He may get a little carried away talking about the amazing properties of Rusakov particles, trying to transmute the scholarly precision of his English on the subject into the more casual emotion of his Spanish. Isaña has to nudge his leg to make him wrap it up.

"...and I'm happy to talk more about it later to anyone who's interested," says Carlos, forcing his expression back into something more serious. "Also, in the name of experimental theology, we'd like to get a group photogram with anyone who's willing. You're all invited to stop by the chapel this weekend to see how the photos develop! But first, are there any questions?"

There aren't. Carlos has the distinct feeling that most people are only here for the snacks.

(Not everyone, though. With the presentation over, three men in dark glasses and dark suits with clerical collars slip quietly out. Carlos, who had noted them at the back of the room and took care not to say anything about God one way or the other, breathes a sigh of relief.)

Snacks or not, the promise of being in a photo for experimental theology does draw the interest of more than a dozen people. Brad sets up the camera, Adriana hands out release forms, and Fleur supervises them while Carlos trades handshakes with the people who want to talk to him one-on-one.

This is when he meets Cecil in person.

His first impression is: really, people still wear tie-dye?

Of course, Carlos has been wearing a chapel coat all day, so who is he to judge?

"This is so exciting!" exclaims the man in the rainbow tie-dye tunic. Aside from the clothes, he looks awfully generic; the only feature that stands out are his eyes, which are pale purple and clouded over in a way that Carlos associates with cataracts. If his vision is impaired, it isn't enough to stop him from meeting Carlos' eyes and seamlessly shaking hands. "I don't have a question, I just wanted to have the chance to personally welcome you into town."

"I appreciate it," says Carlos, smiling and trying to remember where he's heard that voice before.

"I'm Cecil!" says Cecil. "Cecil Palmero. You might have heard me on the radio? And you're Carlos, of course."

"Oh! Yes, I heard you earlier." (The news makes Cecil beam with pride.) Carlos gestures to his daemon, by his feet as usual. "And this is Isaña."

Cecil beams at her too. "It's delightful to meet you, Isaña."

The greeting catches both her and Carlos off-guard. It's not wrong to talk directly to another person's daemon, but it's still a little weird. "Likewise," she stammers.

They're both waiting for the obvious next step, which is for Cecil to introduce his daemon. The fact that Carlos hasn't spotted her yet is understandable — a big community gathering in a small space, you get plenty of daemons breaking away from their humans to socialize directly with each other. Any of the dozen animal shapes currently within ten feet of them could be Cecil's. If his daemon has an unusually high range, there are even more possibilities.

What Cecil says instead is, "If you ever have any important experimental-theology news that you need to share with the town, call me any time! Everyone listens to my show." There's a touch of what Carlos hopes is nothing more sinister than smugness when he adds, "Everyone."

He steps out of the way to let someone else interrogate Carlos, and vanishes into the crowd. Carlos doesn't get a chance to see what daemon he leaves with.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Brad and Fleur don't want to waste any time developing the photos, even a set they didn't plan on taking, so when they get back to the chapel they all focus on getting out the equipment and chemicals they'll need to prepare the Asriel emulsion.

If there's a way to build digital cameras that can record Rusakov particles as easily as anbaromagnetic radiation, this world has yet to invent it. Even incorporating this particular emulsion into an instant camera with traditional film, Polaroid-style, has never been reliable. You have to prepare it to unforgiving specifications, and you can't leave it sitting for long.

But once you've put in the effort, the results are breathtaking.

It's just gotten to the stage where the mixture has to be simmered when Henriette and Jordan re-enter the chapel, daemons in tow: a chubby grey alpine marmot and a small dark tufted deer, respectively. They were with the contingent that went to the grocery store, Carlos remembers. "Kitchens are stocked!" announces Jordan. "We won't starve tomorrow morning."

"And we come bearing beer!" adds Henriette, holding up a six-pack. "Whenever you're ready for it. Congratulations, Carlos!"

"We have to babysit a mixture over an open flame for the next twenty-four minutes," points out Fleur. "So it may be a while."

"But you guys go ahead!" adds Brad. His hamster daemon is poking up out of the pocket of his chapel coat.

Carlos and Adriana, who are neither working on nor advising Brad's thesis, take the opportunity to retreat a few workbenches away and pull up chairs. The goggles come off; Adriana lifts her daemon onto the tabletop in front of them, while Carlos scoops Isaña into his lap. "Thanks for the thought," he says. "The congratulations...was that about the presentation? Because it wasn't that much of an achievement, I swear. If you'd seen it...."

The two new arrivals sit across from them, daemons next to their chairs. Henriette's is giggling, in a way that suggests she's had a beer or two already. Hopefully Jordan drove.

"We heard all the highlights on the radio," coos Henriette, pulling bottles out of the six-pack and lining them up along the sturdy painted oak. "Carlos, you player, you."

Carlos splays both hands across Isaña's armored plates. He's not anxious or anything, but he is...concerned. "You heard it? Nobody told us any part of that was going to be broadcast."

"No, we heard that guy on the radio report it," says Jordan. "Seriously, Ramirez, what did you say to him to make that impression?"

"Okay, back up!" exclaims Carlos. "What, exactly, did he say?"

Henriette clears her throat. Her Spanish, like her English, has a light French accent, but she lowers her voice and Carlos has no trouble imagining the words coming out of the radio: "Carlos sonrió, y todo él era perfecto, y me enamore inmediatamente."

Adriana spits beer across the table.

"Does me enamorae mean what I think it means?" calls Fleur.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"What did we say to him?" murmurs Isaña from her basket next to Carlos' bed.

If the chapel is still somewhat disorganized, Carlos' bedroom (the last one down the hallway in the larger of the two rental houses) is a trainwreck. The place did come with furniture, but all his things are piled in boxes, and only two of them are even open. He's curled up under the sheets wearing boxers and an extra chapel coat, because neither he nor Isaña can remember where he packed his pajamas — and, in a disgrace to their profession, they barely labeled anything.

"All I remember is both of us saying hello," says Carlos. "And he said to call the radio if we had news. Honestly, I don't even remember what he looked like...the half of him I saw, anyway."

"Can't help you there." Isaña was on the ground the whole time, and of course armadillo eyesight isn't great. "All I remember is his better half not saying hello."

Carlos is stuck on trying to describe the man. Tall, short, thin, fat, pale, dark, long-haired, short-haired: every adjective he can think of seems too extreme. He remembers generic black hair, and those pale eyes, and nothing else except the tie-dye.

"...Is he cute?"

"Isaña!" hisses Carlos. "He's a gimmicky local radio jockey at best, and a fast-acting stalker at worst. That wouldn't exactly be appealing even if he was cute. Which, as far as I remember, he wasn't."

(That said, he doesn't remember Cecil being uncute, either.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Everyone on the team is up bright and early the next morning: mostly out of jet lag, but partly out of anticipation. Today they start the real work, the job on which nearly everyone's research is going to build: developing a map of the ambient Rusakov concentration across town over time.

In other words, hundreds of painstaking measurements.

It isn't the most exciting part of Carlos' job, but it leads to the fun stuff, so he runs everyone through the details one more time. They have three cars, all secondhand but serviceable, and three sets of the measuring apparatus (a great credit to Harvard, because those things aren't cheap), so they'll be splitting into three teams. Start at the designated points up at the north end of town and work southward, taking measurements approximately every thousand feet. Record the time and the precise GPS location of each measurement. When you get to the sand wastes at the edge of town, move a thousand feet westward and repeat the process heading back up.

"Question," says Ichiro. He's a researcher with his name on two dozen articles and a reputation for being sort of cutthroat, although that might just be based on stereotypes about people with primate daemons, like his capuchin. "What if our tablets all die in the middle of work? Do we seriously not get to use pen and paper?"

"Don't forget to charge your tablets," says Carlos.

"Don't patronize me, Ramirez. Ordinaters crash. Accidents happen. We can't be a hundred percent sure there won't be unavoidable equipment failure."

He has a point. "All right. This afternoon we'll look for a toy store or craft shop and pick up some number stamps. Unless anybody passes a store during work, in which case, feel free to run in. Just don't forget to save the receipts so we can reimburse you."

Fleur and Brad take a detour to the darkroom to see how yesterday's photos have developed while the rest of the team calibrates the measuring apparatus. Each device looks a lot like the rover that Hispania Nova sent to Mars a few years back, if you removed the sophisticated all-terrain wheels and evidence-gathering claws. The titanium-manganese alloy that makes up the bulk of their frames is a brilliant silver.

Just as the devices are all displaying identical readings, Fleur comes back into the room. "Carlos? Can I have a minute?"

Carlos tells the team to go ahead and load up the vehicles, and follows his colleague through the chapel. Her red-bellied grackle daemon rides on her shoulder, flapping his feathers in agitation; Isaña trots alongside them. "What is it? Something wrong with the photos?"

"Hard to say," says Fleur. "We want a second opinion before we start spreading this around."

She might mean all four of them, but Carlos gets the impression she's only talking about herself and her daemon. Something's happened that they want a fellow professional, not just a student, to look at.

The lights are up in the darkroom and the photograms laid out across a table. A few control images of City Hall's interior design, then two group portraits, covering all the townspeople who wanted to be in them...all lit up with clouds of glittering golden Dust. It's present everywhere, but swirls most thickly around the humans and their daemons: Rusakov particles made visible.

Carlos picks up Isaña and sets her on the table so she can see.

There's an obvious anomaly in the first portrait: several of the humans have unusually high concentrations of Dust in front of their foreheads, so dense that they glow white at the center. One is the man in the cartoonishly racist feathered headdress. At Carlos' best guess he's from Muscovy or Lapland, but it looks like he's been committed to embodying Native stereotypes for a long time, if the wolf daemon next to him (also in a headdress!) is any indication.

Another is Cecil, whole face washed out from the brightness above it. None of the daemons around him are identifiably his. Neither can Carlos pin down a race or ethnicity for the radio host — he runs through half a dozen in his mind (Arab, Persian like Trish Hidge, Lascar, Katagalugan, one of the native tribes, mestizo like most of Carlos' family?) and realizes he's neatly circled the globe without hitting on anything he feels comfortable ruling in. Or ruling out.

Not that a person needs to have a simple, obvious ethnicity. Carlos himself, his paternal grandmother was Afro, but people tend not to pick up on it unless they catch him outside on a humid day. There's nothing wrong with Cecil being unidentifiably mixed. It's just, in context, it makes for one more potential descriptor left blank.

He realizes he's been looking at Cecil's face for a long time, and pulls his thoughts together. "Could be an exposure error. Does it show up on the negatives? We can get in touch with some of these people and see if they'll consent to be photographed again, for...."

"Carlos," says Fleur sharply. "Carlos, this one."

At last Carlos looks at the second portrait, and his breath catches.

On the right side of the group stand three people who are nothing but brightness. Head to foot, they shimmer with Dust, humanoid silhouettes of white. No visible daemons, but then, a small daemon riding in a pocket would be utterly obscured by the glow.

It's not just overexposure of the Asriel filter, either. Everyone else in the photo looks quite normal. Up to and including the woman standing next to them (who for the record is shortish, leaning on a cane though she looks about Carlos' age, and has a peregrine falcon daemon on her shoulder).

Carlos pulls off his glasses, polishes them with his sleeve, and puts them back on. "The visible-light version?" he asks faintly.

Brad hands it to him.

The normally-developed photogram shows all the townspeople as human eyes see them, neither illuminated nor obscured by the Rusakov particles floating invisibly around them. And on the right side of the group, it shows...nobody. All the individuals are the same up to the woman with the cane, after which the photo displays nothing but blank wall.

Hoax reports of this exact phenomenon are a dime a dozen. Carlos has seen all the classics. But even if he suspected his colleagues would falsify evidence, they never could have pulled off something this sophisticated at such short notice.

"Congratulations, Brad," he says, a grin breaking across his face. "Second day on your first-ever research posting, and you've already turned up solid evidence of angels."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Night Vale is nowhere near done throwing surprises at them.

There's a spot in the town's new housing development where the Rusakov ratings plummet. Ichiro blames mechanical failure or human error, but Fleur takes some photos, and they corroborate the data in a startling way: one of the houses shows up as Dust-free. Which makes no sense. Even a wild stretch of desert would have some ambient Rusakov particles, and a house doesn't need to be occupied to attract more. There's plenty of Dust around the identical-looking homes on either side. It's as if this one, and the entire space it occupies, doesn't really exist in this world.

After talking it over with Isaña, Carlos decides to call the radio station. It seems like this is something the locals should be warned about.

It's Adriana and her iguana daemon who notice that the sun isn't setting at the expected time. They find timetables online, check and double-check where the GPS says they are, and sure enough, that night it's definitely ten minutes late.

This has nothing to do with their research. Carlos decides to call the station about it anyway. Then, on second thought, he decides to have Adriana call the station about it. Cecil hasn't hit on Carlos in person, but the infatuation gimmick is still happening on-air, and he doesn't want to seem like he's encouraging it.

Nobody's sure how to deal with the prospect of real live angels. Carlos tells the team he's open to ideas, but for the moment, he thinks their systemic data-gathering is the best way to pursue it. Find patterns in the places the Rusakov ratings spike, and you can predict where the angels are most likely to be.

They don't call the station about this. So it's probably a coincidence when Jordan and Jordan's tufted deer daemon, out picking up milk at the Raúl's, hear Cecil reminding listeners of the City Council's rules regarding angels. (Carlos is starting to realize that every place in town usually has the radio on, and usually tuned to Cecil's show, no matter what time of day it is.) Officially, angelic beings do not exist, and citizens are not supposed to acknowledge them, or, for some reason, know anything about their organizational hierarchy.

"Well," says Carlos, after Jordan has repeated Cecil's warnings. "Let's play it safe. No talking about the angel research in public, okay?" Shouldn't be hard. None of them want to jump the gun on something like this and end up sounding crazy, right?

"It sure is lucky you overheard that!" adds Gerald earnestly. "Maybe we should get a radio for the chapel. Try to keep up with this stuff on purpose."

"Not to mention, keep up with Carlos' love life," teases Henriette. Her marmot daemon snickers.

The next morning when they drive in to work, there's an old-fashioned radio sitting on the front steps. (None of them ordered it. Or at least, none of them will admit to ordering it.) It seems to work fine, so Carlos shrugs and says they might as well make use of the thing.

Of course, this means everybody gets to hear Cecil's continued references to "beautiful Carlos with his perfect hair and his perfectly adorable daemon." For the sake of helping everyone stay in line with Night Vale regulations, Carlos figures he can live with it.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's been a little more than a week when Carlos' first colleague goes MIA.

The team have started doing the readings in teams of two now, rotating who gets to stay at the chapel and work on other things. Carlos is out with Gerald, in the pickup truck because it's the only vehicle that can carry a musk ox, when he gets a frantic call from Emily. She's the grad student whose thesis Ichiro's been advising; Carlos doesn't know her very well yet, although the fact that her daemon is a black-tailed jackrabbit suggests she'll do well here in the desert. "Carlos, I can't find Ichiro! What do I do?"

Waving for Gerald to finish taking the readings on his own, Carlos sits on the curb next to their parking space, where Isaña can rest against his leg. "Back up, Emily. What do you mean, you can't find him?"

"I mean, we stopped at the Pinkberry because I had to go to the bathroom, and I was only in there for a minute, but now he's gone! He's not with the car, he's not in line, he's not anywhere. I asked some of the people getting froyo if they had seen him, but maybe I said it wrong, because they just shushed me."

Carlos hates to ask the obvious, but..."You're sure he's not in the men's room?"

"That's what I thought at first. Then after ten minutes of him not coming out, I checked. He's not there. And he isn't answering his phone...and I know he had it with him, because when I went in he was using it to show photos to some of the people in line, showing them the angels...."

The word gives Carlos a sinking feeling in his gut. "Stay with the car, all right?" he says, free hand spread across his daemon's armored back. "Stay with the equipment, and give Ichiro ten more minutes. Maybe he went next door, or something. I'll see if I can track him down, and if not, I'll call you back."

He hangs up, gets confirmation from Gerald that the readings are done and recorded, and they all climb back into the truck, Isaña on Carlos' lap. While they rumble down the road to the next observation point, Carlos phones the radio station.

The host picks up on the first ring. "Carlos~! It's so wonderful to hear from you!" he gushes in his normal enthusiastic Spanish. "How have you been? Are you settling in all right?"

"I'm not calling for personal reasons," blurts Carlos, trying to cut through the small talk. "I need some information. We have a team member that we've...lost track of. Is that something you could address on the show? Ask people to call in if they've seen him? He hasn't been gone long, so I assume we can't file a missing persons report yet...although if you can tell me anything about how to do that, it would also be a big help."

"Oh my." Cecil's voice has gone from chipper to solemn. "Well, I certainly wouldn't recommend a missing persons report. The Sheriff's office is so backed up on those, I think they're just starting to look into the ones from 1972. Who did you lose?"

Carlos gives a brief description of Ichiro, and explains that he was last seen at the Pinkberry talking about ángeles. Cecil informs him that angels do not exist. Gerald parks the truck.

"Well, the good news is, he's probably not too hurt," decides Cecil. His voice is warm, deep and soothing, and Carlos feels strangely reassured until Cecil continues, "What a relief! If one of you was dead already, I'd be out twenty dollars."

"Sorry, what?"

"Station management bet on one of you dying within two weeks of arrival!" explains Cecil, and wow, that does not make Carlos feel any better. "I had my money on you holding out for at least a month. Don't worry, I can help. You'd better come down to the station — I'll look everything up while you're on your way."