Eight times eight little squares makes a bigger square. That’s sixty-four squares in all, minus the one that’s missing – one has to be missing, or else there’s no point – in four far-too-bright colors. Too-damn-bright colors, he’d have said, except his mom had told him not to use that word. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t think it anyway. His mind, barring alien invasion or some freak accident straight out of the pages of a comic book, was still his own.
Albert sighed, studying the slide puzzle he held in his hands. Slide-slide-click, another square slipping neatly into place. Just two more to go, but the little thrill that imminent success usually brought him didn’t come. On a normal day, he could do this with his eyes closed – well, not really with his eyes closed, because he needed them to see the puzzle pieces, but almost. Except today wasn’t normal. It was a beautiful day, apparently, as the mailman had called to him earlier with a wink and a crooked grin. He supposed that could even be true. The spring sun was nice enough, filtering in through the trees in the front yard and leaving a dappled yellow pattern on the steps to the porch where he was sitting. It was a warm day too, the first one of the year, which was a good thing because the steps were stone and they were cold against his ass – another of those words he shouldn’t be saying out loud – but he didn’t feel like moving to another spot. Not right now.
He hadn’t cried when it happened. His parents, he knew, thought that was weird for a kid his age. Which he in turn thought was a weird idea to be having – why would anyone be expected to cry? – but parents were like that, his parents especially. More often than not, they didn’t make any sense at all.
A shadow fell across him, blotting out the patches of light at his feet. He sighed again and, after a second, looked up from his puzzle.
“Albert?” Long pause. His mother’s skirt was long and orange and it fluttered in the wind like so many falling leaves. She always wore different clothes at home than at work, which Albert failed to see the point of. In weekends, it was flowing dresses in vibrant colors; on weekdays, she’d switch to bland skirts and a neatly pressed blouse. He knew the aim was to blend in, not to give offense, which apparently meant trying to seem as colorless as possible. Why she had to make such an effort when other people didn’t, he couldn’t say. Because they were Jewish? Maybe. But his mom never gave him a reason, and something told him it wouldn’t make a difference if he asked.
“Please, honey,” she said, in that low, slightly raspy voice that meant she was fretting over something. Most likely, he speculated, that something was him. “Come in and have a sandwich, won’t you?” Not telling him to come but asking him, like he’d be doing her a favor. None of his friends’ parents ever asked about stuff like that, and it still bewildered him at times that his mom would even bother. Then again, there were a lot of things his mom bothered with that he didn’t understand: the shape of her nose, for instance; or prayer; or whether or not he made friends at school. He glanced up to find her tugging her hair behind one ear in what struck him as a vaguely nervous gesture. Probably, he guessed, because being out front in this dress made her feel exposed. Albert knew all about feeling exposed – being the smartest of your class also meant drawing unwanted attention to yourself – but at least he tried to fight it, not give in to it like his mother did.
“I’m not hungry.” He put an experimental finger on the puzzle, started to move one of the pieces, then slid it back. “I’m thinking,” he expanded, when the long silence made it feel like he should. Thinking was good, wasn’t it? She was always going on to him about that, about how important it was that he learned to think for himself. Then again, she also insisted he’d respect other peoples’ opinions, even if they were wrong. Another of those statements that made little sense to him.
The sigh that followed was infinitely weary, which Albert noticed but tried to ignore. “Oh, Allie… Albert,” she amended, when his only reply was a glare. “I’m really sorry about Joshua, but – he was just a cat, wasn’t he? And he was getting old anyway, so maybe it’s for the best.” She didn’t really mean that, he knew. She was just saying it to get through to him, to sound rational, like she knew he wanted her to be. She was always trying to get through to him. “Now please, stop brooding and come inside. Please.”
“A cat,” he corrected her solemnly. “Not ‘just’ a cat.” That much he knew: in real life, nothing was ever ‘just’ anything. For instance, he was used to taking his own intelligence for granted, as well as most other people’s lack of same. But that didn’t mean those people had less of a right to exist. If anything, they should be protected – from themselves, from each other. That went double for Josh, who, for all his silly quirks, had probably had more brains than all of those morons in his class put together. Not that ‘moron’ was a word he was allowed to say, but he liked the feel of the vowels in his mouth, and so he said it when no one could hear. Anyway, a loss of life was a loss of life, whether it was a cat or something – someone – else. Weren’t his parents the ones who’d taught him all life was precious, never mind whose life it was? About that, at least, they agreed, so he wasn’t buying this. At all. Besides, he was pretty sure his mom had cried about Joshua. You could still see it in her eyes, if you knew what to look for, and Albert always knew.
She must have taken his silence for sadness, because she knelt next to him, slipping an arm across his shoulders. “Really, Albert,” she said softly. “I thought you didn’t even like that cat. Are you even gonna miss him?”
That was another attempt to play to his rational side, and this one made a little more sense. Because the answer was no, of course, twice over. He’d never really liked Josh, and he sure as heck wouldn’t miss him. But that wasn’t the point, was it? The point was that Josh died, and not through natural causes. He got poisoned by one of the neighbors – at least, that’s what he’d heard his parents say, this morning in the kitchen when they thought Albert was still upstairs brushing his teeth. Josh had died by human hands, for no reason other than human pettiness. He wasn’t sure what to think about that, except that it was a damn waste.
“It doesn’t matter if we liked him.” His cheek brushed against his mother’s shoulder, the fabric clean and crisp and smelling faintly of oven-baked pie. He really couldn’t help it when his stomach growled, even though he wasn’t hungry, he wasn’t. “He was ours, Mom, and he depended on us. We should have protected him. Now he’s dead.” His voice sounded strange to his own ears, flat and just a little accusing. Only he wasn’t quite sure who he wanted to accuse, or be angry at: his parents, himself, the neighbor, the universe?
“Well, if it makes you feel better we’ll give him a nice funeral.” His mother gave him a last little squeeze, which he bore stiffly but didn’t return. He tried not to notice the way her lips pressed together as she stood, or how her eyes had clouded with what he knew was frustration. This was just the kind of pointless advice his parents always came up with: to make peace with the past, with himself, when instead all he wanted to do was be angry and stay that way. He didn’t see what inner peace had ever done for him that anger couldn’t, but of course he couldn’t tell his mom that. She meant well, even if she didn’t have a clue about what made him tick. But she wanted to understand him and felt helpless when she failed to, which at least was a feeling he could empathize with.
Anyway, she wasn’t the only one. Albert had never met someone who saw through him the way they ought to. He suspected that would be a problem one day, but for now he could handle it. It allowed him to think things through with little interference. In this case, it was a realization.
The dead didn’t matter in themselves. What mattered was to protect the living.
When someone asked – someone with more than a pretzel for a brain, that was – what he wanted to say is that he was cut out to be an ME from the start. If not that, then at least an instrument of justice, battling for and against the human condition or whatever overblown comparison the conversation warranted. But the truth was, that’s not how it had happened. At all. No, just like any other kid with more intelligence than common sense, he’d gone and tried to be a regular doctor first, the kind with living, breathing patients, and why? Just because everyone said it would be a waste for him not to.
Granted, they had a point. If there was anything he’d always resented, it was wasted potential: the planet was crowded with far too many idiots for the ones who weren’t to go around squandering what skills they had. That, and it was far easier for an idiot to do harm than for a person with any intelligence to fix it, so it made sense that he’d be on the fixing side. The question was only what he thought he could fix.
Or, more to the point, what he couldn’t.
She was six, her file said. Kendra Waters, six years and three months old. About a year older than his cousin’s kid who’d just had her birthday a few weeks back. With one difference: Kendra wasn’t gonna blow out any more candles. Ever again.
Albert shot a look at Dr. Price, county M.E. and his supervisor for this semester, who gave a curt nod as he picked up the scalpel. His hands were a sweaty mess under the gloves, and he was sure they’d waver when he made the incision. But to his surprise, they kept steady throughout. Kendra’s wasn’t the first case he assisted in, but she was by far the youngest, which he knew wasn’t supposed to make a difference. It still did, though. It was bad enough to lose kids in surgery, have them waste away from leukemia or break their necks in the local playground, but those deaths at least had an aura of the natural about them. Not that that made them any less painful or unfair. But if there was anything natural about a six-year-old being first raped, then stabbed repeatedly in the chest, then the God that his parents believed in was even a worse masochist than he’d thought.
“Keep going, Albert,” Dr. Price said, watching him intently from over her glasses. “You’re doing just fine.”
“Right,” Albert muttered, forcing himself to accept the compliment for what it was. His heart was fluttering in his chest, but the rest of him seemed strangely unaffected. His hands were nimbly slicing away, his mind clear as cut glass as he worked. It was a feeling he’d had before, but never as sharply as this; not with that same mixture of confidence, anger, and empathy. An empathy that, let’s be fair, he had a hard time mustering for patients who came in on their own feet instead of in a bodybag.
That realization wasn’t new, of course. Even now he still remembered the deep, booming voice of his first-year Diagnostics professor, proclaiming that being a doctor meant more than being a scientist. They had to be counselors too. It wasn’t the statement itself that had nagged him as much as his co-students’ slack-jawed approval of it. Ever since that moment, Albert had wondered if he didn’t lack that one vital component of a good doctor: a tolerance for human frailty. After three years in medical school, it was about time he started facing that. He wasn’t cut out to be a surgeon or even a diagnostician. Pathology, on the other hand, felt right for reasons he was still struggling to put his finger on. But two things he knew. He was a scientist, not a shrink; and what he wanted most to fix wasn’t the random cruelty of nature. It was the deliberate cruelty of human beings like himself.
That, and one other thing. Being a doctor in a clinic pretty much guaranteed his anonymity would go straight down the drain. Instead he’d be public property to be picked apart and gossiped about, from his taste in shoes to the bars he frequented, up to and including – well, yeah, his sexual preferences. He might be fairly at peace with those by now, but just because he’d quit feeling like he had to sleep around with women as a smokescreen didn’t mean he had to be naïve. Being less than straight in a public profession was still asking for trouble. No matter how discreet you tried to be.
He didn’t mention that bit to his parents when he told them, but he wondered if they knew anyway. It wasn’t too unlikely, because after he’d explained his new career plan – cut open the dead to safeguard the living – they didn’t even voice their disappointment. The only answer they gave him was as long as you’re happy, which he had no idea what in hell to do with. Happiness wasn’t the point. Skill was the point, and an obligation to use it, and maybe, in a small way, self-preservation.
Still, he never doubted those were reasons enough.
He moved to Pittsburgh in early autumn, on a cold, clear day that made him wish he hadn’t packed all of his winter clothes. Like every city he’d been in so far, he’d been prepared to hate the place with a passion, and for a while that’s exactly what he did. He wasn’t sure when it started to grow on him, or why. Maybe his work at the Bureau had something to do with it; or maybe the city, like him, just seemed worse above the surface than below it. Whatever the case, by the time he was making enough of a living to find himself a decent apartment, it felt like life in the suburbs had never been real at all.
What was real, and always would be, was the capacity human beings had to make a sorry mess of each other. When the call came in a little past ten he was wrist-deep in it, literally, just about to scoop his latest houseguest’s small intestine into a bowl. On other nights, he’d have had no choice but to let the phone go right on ringing. Except this case was Dale Cooper’s, and there wasn’t an autopsy Cooper missed if he could help it.
“Get that, will you?” he said, consciously omitting the please. Cooper might keep him on edge with his observations and his frequently bewildering questions, but he didn’t need pampering. That made him more tolerable than most.
Cooper picked up on the fifth or so ring. “Agent Cooper.” Pause. “Yes, he’s in. He’s a little busy right now, though. Can I pass him a message?” Albert caught a warbled explanation from the voice on the other side, then Cooper put his hand across the receiver. His look was just one-tenth curiosity and nine-tenths cool professionalism, which was another one of those traits Albert appreciated. “That was reception for you, Albert,” he announced. “They weren’t quite clear, but it seems they have your mother on the line. Do I say you’ll call her back?”
Albert cursed and scrambled to get rid of his gloves. To say he hadn’t been expecting the call would be a lie, but he had been trying to put it out of his mind. “Tell them ten seconds. I’ll take it.”
He wasn’t sure if Cooper would let that pass without comment, but all the response he got was a firm nod. “It’s all right, Katie,” Cooper said into the phone, “Albert says he’ll take the call. You can put her through.” Two seconds’ pause, then, brightly, “Hello, Mrs. Rosenfield! This is Agent Cooper. No, Albert will be right with you. One mom–”
Albert made a grab for the receiver, then stopped in his tracks when Cooper put up a silencing hand.
“I see,” Cooper said. He looked so sincere that Albert struggled not to tear the phone right out of his hands. “Yes, I am a colleague of his. But I assure you he’s right here, and quite ready to… Oh.” Another pause while Albert just stood there, frozen. “Well, if that’s what you prefer, I’ll be sure and tell him that. Yes.” Hint of a smile, then, “A good night to you, too, Ma’am.”
Cooper put down the receiver.
Albert pinched his eyes shut and counted to five. When he made it to the end and still hadn’t exploded, he could focus on getting the words out. “Cooper, what the –”
“Your mother sends her best,” Cooper said stoically. “She asked me to tell you that your cousin’s funeral will be tomorrow morning at ten, but they understand if you can’t make it there. She was sorry for having to call you at work, but she thought you needed to know.” Delivered in a perfectly neutral tone, but one that didn’t quite match the caution in his eyes. “And she said to take care of yourself.”
Of all the scathing replies that swirled through his head, the one he settled on was pretty weak. “Was that what you found so damn funny?”
“Not funny, Albert.” Cooper rocked a little on his toes, but his expression was free of amusement. “Just – telling, maybe. You’re a man of many skills, but I find it hard to count ‘taking care of oneself’ as one of them. No offense.”
Albert wasn’t planning on capitulating so easily, but somehow Cooper always knew how to take the fight out of him. He grimaced. “None taken.” Cooper was silent, but those keen eyes were boring little holes into Albert’s forehead, and he pulled his shoulders back with a sigh. “She died two days ago,” he muttered. “Jocelyn. Cousin on my mother’s side.” Why that had suddenly become Cooper’s business just for answering a lousy phone call, he didn’t have a clue, but it seemed that it had. “Car crash. Pulled her out of it alive, but they lost her in surgery.”
Cooper nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, so am I.” He turned to get himself a new set of gloves, which had the added advantage of getting him away from under Cooper’s stare. “I told them I can’t make the funeral. We still got a triple homicide on our hands, not to mention half a dozen other cases waiting to be looked into by someone who isn’t a total idiot. I’m the only one familiar enough with all of them to be of any use to you, so I’m staying.”
He hadn’t meant that to sound as apologetic as it did, but Cooper, to his credit, took it at face value. “Well, Albert, I assume that’s why your mother made a point of saying she understood.”
He snorted. “Oh, they understand, all right. That doesn’t mean they don’t blame me. That girl was the closest thing they had to a daughter; closest they had to a kid, you might say, seeing as the last time I went to visit was – oh, three years ago for New Year? Hell, I blame me.”
Cooper looked thoughtful. “I’ll concede the point of funerals as a part of the grieving process, Albert, but I’m not sure that should be a reason –”
“Not for missing the funeral,” he interrupted. Dammit, he hadn’t realized how cold it was in here just standing still – not that Cooper would ever have mentioned it. Fighting the temptation to stick his hands into his pockets, he turned back to the slab. “I was gonna be a surgeon once,” he said, addressing the corpse rather than Cooper. “Gave it up because I couldn’t stand the patients; went for pathology instead.” He picked up his report from the desk and mechanically flipped through the pages, without seeing much of anything. “Will you believe that when they called about Jocelyn, I actually had the ego to think that if I hadn’t quit –” He swallowed. “If it had been me in that O.R. and not some goddamn amateur –”
Cooper had circled the room and was watching him from across the autopsy table. “That may be true, Albert,” he said quietly, “but then again, it may not. We all make choices in life, and yours resulted in a significant number of criminals being apprehended before they could do any more damage.”
“I know that.” He put the flipchart down before he got tempted to chuck it to the floor. “And I don’t regret it. It’s the right choice; always has been. It’s just –”
“– you wish you could have had your cake and eaten it, too?” Cooper’s lips turned up fractionally, but it was a melancholy smile. “I’ll admit, Albert, I’m grateful we seldom have to make choices of that magnitude – not in an active way, at least. Retroactively it’s different, but… If I had to choose between the life of someone I felt fondly about and the life of an innocent outsider – I’m not sure I could make that call.”
“I could,” Albert said. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought that was true.
All he didn’t know was whether to feel proud of it, or ashamed.
The key clattered against the lock, his fingers stiff and too uncooperative to be any use at all.
“Here, just let me –”
Reluctant, Albert allowed the keychain to be pulled from his grip. He took an experimental breath, bracing a hand against the doorframe when his ribcage throbbed in protest. Under the reddish light that spilled in from the hallway, the profile of the woman beside him looked uncannily surreal.
“There we are,” she said, and gave the door a little push with her foot. Handing back his keys, she shot him a look he could only describe as scrutinizing. He’d have to assume he failed the test, because the next moment her hand had found his elbow and was trying to maneuver him inside. “Come on, let’s get you settled –”
“It’s fine, Diane.” His voice was rough to his own ears, which didn’t exactly help his point. “I’ll manage. I do live here, you know.” But she didn’t take the bait the way he’d hoped. She just pressed her lips into that thin, slightly puckered line that was her trademark don’t-give-me-crap expression, and redoubled her grip on his arm.
You had to give it to her, Albert thought wryly. Diane was a hell of a lot tougher than she looked. She was older than he was, but younger than his mother, which was probably why they got along in the first place. It wasn’t really a surprise when she’d showed up at his hospital bed and offered to drive him home – even though he’d half-expected Cooper instead. But Cooper was out of town on a case of his own, blissfully unaware of the mess Albert had gotten himself into. So he’d let Diane take him, over Gordon’s and everyone else’s objections. He’d be damned if he let them keep him in one of those drab little rooms for one night longer. He’d had enough forced sympathy to last him a lifetime. Something he thought Diane understood.
From the look on her face, he’d have sworn she was going to argue anyway. Then she sighed. “All right. All right, damn you.” She pulled back her hand to swipe a lock of hair off her forehead, and for a second looked almost fragile. “But I’m expecting you to be sensible, you hear me? Call me if you need anything. I’ll be at home tonight, and in the office tomorrow. You know where to find me.”
“I know,” he said, and then, because he felt like he owed her that, “Thank you.”
She smiled a knowing little smile back at him, turned and was gone.
That left Albert to pick his way – his cautious way, every step sending a little jolt of fire through his ribs – across a chilled and slightly damp apartment. An old building like this one did have its charms, but insulation wasn’t one of them: the window shades were still up from that morning, and the cold night air had already started to seep in. For a second he thought about lowering the shades, but by the time he’d peeled off his coat and shouldered out of his jacket, just making it to the sofa felt like a victory.
It took him a minute to remember the pills they’d given him at the hospital – to take the edge off, they said. He retrieved the bottle from his jacket pocket, fingering it for a few long seconds before he shook out two and weighed them in his hands. They were white and bland and looked, to be honest, perfectly useless.
Gritting his teeth, Albert pushed himself up from the couch and hobbled over to the living-room cabinet. He took out one glass, then, after a moment of hesitation, a second.
The pills went down easily, tossed back with a gulp of lukewarm water.
The Scotch he just sipped, barely even tasting it.
Which was a goddamn shame, because if there was one trap he never fell into it was buying cheap Scotch. Albert never went for quantity, just flavor. He hadn’t been drunk since college, and even back then he’d found the loss of self-control something to loathe, not to relish. One glass – two on a tough night – that was it these days. And never when he had company.
He didn’t have company now, and it wasn’t like self-control was doing much for him, so why not?
So much for pacifism, huh? So much for cool, and wit, and self-reliance, and being a sarcastic know-it-all bastard who didn’t take shit from anyone.
He’d panicked, plain and simple. Not once, but twice. He’d known how to handle a gun, of course – you didn’t make it through Quantico without at least that basic knowledge – but not what it meant having to use it. Understandable, they’d said, when they came in to question him; not uncommon for someone who lacked the training. Like that was supposed to be an excuse.
So he’d panicked. If that was supposed to make him feel better, they’d have to think again.
The Scotch sloshed in his glass when he made his way back to the couch, but somehow he managed not to spill anything. He drank slowly, taking sparing little sips that he rolled around in his mouth before each swallow. Even with the alcohol searing his throat, he was still freezing.
He’d just finished his glass and topped it back up by the time the doorbell chimed. Fuck. If this was another one of those Jehovah’s witnesses from last week, they could just go right on –
“Albert?” The call was muffled, but the voice unmistakable. Albert pinched his eyes shut, not sure if he ought to feel anger, or relief, or something different altogether. “Albert, it’s Cooper. I’m going to come in now, all right? Call out if you don’t want me to come in.”
Albert scowled. Last time he checked, Cooper’s admittedly questionable skills didn’t include lock-picking, so how the hell did he think he could –
Right. Cooper had the key, didn’t he? Ever since that sordid business with Caroline Earle, when he’d spent a few weeks recovering in this very apartment and Albert had him made a spare set of keys just in case. Seemed neither of them had even thought about returning it.
Long silence, filled by the familiar dragging sound of the front door opening. Albert put his shot glass back onto the table and tried to twist his expression into one that reflected less of what he felt. His resolve rumbled at the look on Cooper’s face.
Cooper trailed to a halt at the opposite end of the couch. “I heard,” he said simply. No euphemisms like I’m sorry, or, God forbid, Are you all right, because that had never been Cooper’s style. Just that one, terse statement and a look of understanding, which was just about all Albert could bear.
“Oh, you heard, did you?” he managed. “I thought you were out of town. So how did you hear, if I may ask? The wind in the willows? Gnomes? Visions? A little fairy told you?”
Cooper didn’t bat an eyelash. “Actually, Diane called me.”
Ah. Why didn’t that surprise him? “Any particular reason?” That was baiting, of course, but if it bothered Cooper, he didn’t show it.
Slight tilt of Cooper’s head. “She said she didn’t think you should be alone right now, but that you seemed – quite relieved to see the back of her.”
Damn. She’d noticed, hadn’t she? “You know Diane,” Albert growled. “She …” He trailed off. What he wanted to say was ‘she cares’, but that didn’t sound right. It wasn’t that Cooper cared less by any standards, just that he was less – pervasive in that modus. Sometimes.
As if to prove his point, Cooper’s gaze slid away from him and across the room, taking in his half-empty shot glass and the opened package of pain meds. He frowned, and Albert swore he could see the wheels turning in his head. Bending over the table, Cooper picked up the glass and took a cautious sniff. “How much have you had, Albert?” he asked, in a tone as innocent as the question was loaded.
Albert snorted, then winced when his cracked rib protested the maneuver. “Not nearly enough.” That wasn’t a lie, either. He hadn’t even finished his second glass before those painkillers kicked in. He wasn’t sure anymore what he’d hoped to get out of that combination, because so far all it was doing was turning his stomach, not settling it. Still, whatever distraction he got could only be a good thing.
Cooper met his gaze steadily. “Would you care to put that into numbers?”
“Two,” he said, figuring he’d better just get this over with. He wasn’t sure why his pulse was pounding in his ears like that, but it made it damned hard to think. “Glasses, not bottles.”
“All right,” Cooper said, slowly, as if weighing the evidence. Then, in a firmer voice, “All right, Albert.” The next moment, he’d crossed the remaining distance between them and sat himself down at the other end of the couch. Like he’d come to some kind of decision, Albert thought, and then he tried not to think about what that decision might be.
He cleared his throat and worked up a scowl. “Coop, I’ll say one thing. If you’re intending to play shrink, I can tell you exactly what I told that guy from the Bureau.” That came out more defensive than it had to, but it slid off Cooper like water from a Canada goose. In fact, Cooper didn’t react at all – not to chide him, or to ask any kind of question. He just sat, straight-faced, like revelations would come to him if he only waited long enough.
And then Albert didn’t even know what made him spill his guts right then, only that once he’d started he couldn’t make himself stop.
“It was a fucking milk run,” he blurted. “It should have been. Two men at the door, one inside with me to cover my ass while I checked out the crime scene. Pearson. Guess you know him. Knew him,” he corrected himself, and shivered. He could swear it was colder now than an hour ago. “They said the house was abandoned, but… Well, I saw him before Pearson did. Had my gun right there, but I – I hesitated. Froze for two damn seconds, then Pearson turned and the guy just – shot him between the eyes.” Albert coughed and rubbed his fingers together, cold, stiff fingers, like a corpse’s. He couldn’t bring himself to face Cooper straight on. “I panicked. Shouldn’t have shot to kill, but –”
Cooper’s head snapped up. “It was self-defense, Albert. As clear a case as I ever heard. If you hadn’t been wearing that bulletproof vest –”
He was going for a snort, but what came out sounded a lot less dignified. “Not too useful when they aim for the other guy’s head, is it?”
Soft, exasperated noise. “Albert, even with training, reflex is a hard thing to fight. What happened to Agent Pearson wasn’t your –”
“Bullshit,” he stopped Cooper from finishing that. “I screwed up and that’s all there is to it.” Angrily, he tried to push himself up, but his ribs disagreed, and God, if he could only breathe for five fucking seconds –
Cooper’s hand was a solid weight between his shoulder blades, anchoring him in place. Albert struggled for a second, then closed his eyes and tried to narrow his universe around that touch; just the pressure of Cooper’s fingers and the simple process of getting air into his lungs. Gradually, the tightness under his breastbone eased. In a flash, he thought back to those first weeks after Caroline Earle; weeks in which he’d feared that nothing he said got through to Cooper, and he’d found himself switching to touch by pure instinct. He’d never been sure if that had made a difference. He dared to venture a guess now that it had.
“Pearson’s funeral is tomorrow,” Cooper said softly, from closer by than he’d thought. “Gordon said you don’t need to be there.”
“Yeah,” he muttered, surprising himself just a little. “Yeah, I do.”
Cooper’s palm slid an inch or so lower across his back. “I have… taken lives in the line of duty, Albert.” Heavy pause. “I would be lying if I claimed it ever got any easier. But in time, it gets… bearable, at least.”
Albert shook his head and breathed out between his fingers. “What makes you think I want it to?”
He could see in Cooper’s face that he’d made his point.
He released Laura Palmer’s body at twelve, and not a second sooner.
Truman was there when they took her away, having the decency to at least look uncomfortable. Flanking him was Cooper, whose expression might as well have been carved in rock. Albert met his look with a scathing one of his own, wondering what had lit such a fire under Cooper’s ass about this case, and this town. For himself, he’d seen nothing special about either. There was your regular collection of professional incompetents, including the one who’d scribbled some random facts on a sheet of paper and had the gall to call it an autopsy report. Then there were the insults, the stares, the accusations of cold-heartedness. All of which he was used to.
What was new was being decked, literally, on his own territory. Not with words, which were the only weapons Albert allowed himself, but with fists. He knew Cooper thought he’d had it coming, and he respected Cooper’s opinion most of the time. Except when said opinion was a load of crap.
That he didn't care about the Palmer girl’s funeral didn’t mean he didn’t care at all. Albert was convinced he cared more than most; far more than he ought to. He just refused to voice it with paltry words or, God help him, displays of insincerity. He preferred to save those for the living. No matter what your regular harebrained hayseed invariably believed, defiling the dead was never the point of an autopsy; the point was illumination. He figured if these poor souls he cut open had a say, they’d rather know who killed them and have their death serve a purpose. Their chest hair, eyeballs and breasts were going into the ground anyway.
The simple fact was, once they were on his slab he had a responsibility to them. He couldn’t take the blame for their deaths, but he sure as hell could for not explaining them properly. If he screwed up, missed just a scrap of evidence that allowed a killer to strike again, there would be lives on his conscience. So yeah, maybe Albert did treat the dead with more courtesy than the living. Taught himself to laugh and ridicule and play the bastard, because that was his way, like others had theirs. Some prayed. Some took up football. Cooper obsessed about food. He’d once known a guy who, before every autopsy, spent five minutes in meditation right there on the cold morgue floor. And sure, every coping mechanism was really just a distraction, but distractions were all anyone had, weren’t they? It was why they use words like "stiff" and "John Doe", told raucous jokes across the autopsy table that he didn’t participate in, but hardly objected to. As for the living: if they wanted to think of him as an asshole, let them. Anger was more bearable than grief, after all. He might even be doing them a favor.
What galled him most was that Cooper knew all of that, knew it and accepted it as the way Albert handled his job. Or at least that’s how it had been for years. All sentimentality aside, Cooper was one of those few people who understood what drove him, and who saw his gruff exterior for what it was: a façade. That acceptance meant more to Albert than he tended to let on, and he’d be damned if he’d lose it, not over a hellhole like Twin Peaks that wore a façade just as thick as his own. The worst thing was Cooper still hadn’t realized that. He still believed the place was paradise.
That, Albert thought, could only spell trouble.
Harry Truman dragged down his hands from his face, and Albert said, “Huh?”
“Déjà vu,” Truman repeated, from where he was slumped against the windowsill. A feeble wave of his arm encompassed the hotel room with its washed-out red curtains and wood-paneling that might have been new back in the day when Roosevelt was still in office, but sure as hell wasn’t anymore. “This place. Sitting up through the night, chewing our fingernails, waiting for him to…” Sigh. “Well. Waiting.”
Albert dragged his own gaze to the oversized bed and the supine form under the covers. Cooper was sprawled on his back, wax-faced and unmoving, and for what felt like the hundredth time Albert fought the impulse to check if he was breathing. Of course he would be. Apart from shock and whatever else the whole ordeal had taken out of him, Cooper had to be doing just fine. Physically, that was. Albert didn’t even dare to venture a guess as to what else might still be wrong with him. If it even was Cooper they were dealing with now.
Harry was right. The waiting was the worst of it.
At least they knew what they were facing. They were prepared – with a dose of sedative strong enough to tranquillize a horse, and a loaded gun strapped to Truman’s waist. Albert hoped to God they wouldn’t need it.
“How you doing?” Truman asked, sounding noncommittal, which Albert supposed he should be grateful for. So different from Cooper, this man, asking all of the trite questions that Cooper never bothered with and that Albert loathed answering anyway. Except this time. Right now every distraction was a bonus, something to keep himself from replaying those same few seconds over and over against the back of his eyelids. The abandoned house; the jolt of recognizing Cooper’s profile, backlit against the tattered curtains. Cooper raising his gun, followed by the junior agent at Albert’s side, but too late, just a second too late. The blast of the gun; throwing himself at Cooper and tackling him; the struggle to get in the Haloperidol shot.
“Just dandy,” he growled, fingering his eyebrow where Cooper – where BOB – had shoved him against the hardwood floor. “You still got some of that, uh – ”
Truman pushed himself upright and dug two packages from a drawer. “Here.” He held them in front of Albert’s face. “Aspirin or Tylenol, take your pick.”
Albert rolled his eyes. “I need to pick?”
“Or you can stop the pig-headedness and take something stronger,” Truman said, with what might have been a smile, except it didn’t reach the rest of his face. Albert scowled, but he took the aspirin without comment. It had been a long time since he’d thought trite questions were the only kind Truman was capable of asking. For all his all-too-human weaknesses, there was a sharp mind there and a sense of justice as keen as Albert’s own. Which was a hell of a lot more than could be said for most people he met. Especially those with a career in law enforcement.
“Nah.” He swallowed the pills dry, then grimaced. “I need my brain in one piece when he wakes up.” He didn’t let himself think If he wakes up. If he let himself go there, he’d go insane.
“To make sure it’s him?” Truman sounded uneasy. “MIKE said with the drug you used, BOB couldn’t possibly –”
“I know what MIKE said,” Albert snapped. Then, more subdued, “Yeah. To make sure.”
Truman’s look wavered. “Hell, Albert. Would you even know?”
“I’ll know,” Albert said. He had no idea how he could be so confident about that, but he was. He had to be. With a sigh, he leaned over to relieve the tightening knot in his back, courtesy of the Great Northern’s still-abominable chairs. “Should’ve gone in alone,” he muttered, in a tone that made Truman’s head snap up, but for once he didn’t care. “When you called about the dead girl – it just sounded like BOB all over again. That’s why I went to see Gerard – well, MIKE – about the drugs. And God, I should have known by now that Coop –” He cut himself off. “Retiring from the Bureau, buying that property here… I know they said it was shock, but screw that. It didn’t make a bit of sense, except –”
“You couldn’t have known,” Truman said, voice rough. “BOB’s kept everyone in Twin Peaks fooled for years. And I was there when Coop – when he came out of that place. If anyone, I’m the one who should’ve realized.”
Albert didn’t think so, but he kept that to himself. “I could have known,” he repeated, stiffly. “I could have, but I was too chicken to face it. Because I didn’t know what to do about it if it turned out to be true. Arrest him? Put a gun to his head? Whatever else was in there with him, that’s still Cooper. And because I was so goddamn blind, people got killed who didn’t need to.”
“None of them ever need to, Albert.” Truman’s expression was one of perfect understanding. Then, quietly, “You still sticking with the story?”
“Yeah,” Albert said. “Whoever – whatever committed these murders, it wasn’t Coop. No decent human being should have to pay for someone else’s crimes.”
Truman gave a terse nod. “I’ll back you up. And Doc Hayward’s backing me up, so I guess we’re covered.” Sharp snort of something that clearly wasn’t laughter. “Ironic as it is, your – colleague – getting killed, may actually make this easier.”
“No witnesses,” Albert conceded darkly. How he was ever going to face the young man’s parents after this, tell them how he died, he didn’t have a clue. But the fact was, they could never have pulled this off if he’d still been alive. Cooper, the old Cooper, might have called it fate. Albert didn’t believe in fate, except for the one you made yourself.
He wasn’t sure what had drawn his attention: a movement maybe, or a hitch in Cooper’s breathing. Whatever it was, he turned just a second before Cooper gasped – a harsh, breathless gasp, then his eyes flew open and he was bolt upright before Albert could grab him.
“Coop? Hey, hey, easy.” He caught Cooper’s arms. Dimly, he was aware of Truman standing off to the side, the hard click that meant he’d drawn his gun and released the safety. Take no chances; they’d agreed on that.
Cooper blinked, once, twice, until his eyes focused. “Albert?” he said, and then, in a small voice, “Oh. God. I – I killed –”
His head lolled and Albert scrambled to prop him up, feeling a little dizzy himself. Across the room, Truman lowered his gun an inch or so. Albert forced himself to ignore the hope in his face.
“You let me take the shot,” Cooper murmured, dully. “Agent Davis – I killed him. You knew BOB was –”
“I knew,” he rasped. Cooper’s pulse was fast, way too fast under his fingers, but his eyes were his own and no one else’s. For a second, the relief that flooded in was almost overwhelming. Then a tremor racked Cooper’s frame, and Albert tightened his grip.
“Why did you, Albert?” Cracked whisper. “Why let me shoot a man –”
He couldn’t help it. “Because he was one damn second away from shooting you.”
Cooper flinched like he’d been punched in the gut, and Albert swore under his breath. He couldn’t quite pin down the emotion on Cooper’s face, but for now, for the sake of his own sanity, he refused to believe it was anything but shock. Not anger, not disappointment, least of all disgust. He refused to.
From somewhere, Truman stepped in and draped the blanket across Cooper’s back. He’d holstered his gun but hadn’t let go of it, Albert registered, with something like gratitude. It figured that Harry would be even worse at feeling helpless than he did.
“Coop, listen to me,” Albert said, keeping his voice low but firm. “I wish it could wait, but this is important. Harry and I have our story ready. You were never in that house, got that? I got hit in the head, the guy who shot Davis took off while I was out, we can’t track him. You had nothing to do with it. If they ask, which they won’t, you know nothing. Discussion closed.”
Cooper squeezed his eyes shut. “I killed two people, Albert.” Shakily.
“Not you,” Truman said, in that same mild tone he’d managed to sustain since this whole sorry mess began. “BOB.”
“Wearing my face.” Cooper’s head shook, vehemently, from side to side. “At least we’ll have to admit that.”
“We’re admitting to nothing,” Albert said. “BOB’s gone, and if his buddy MIKE did what he promised to do, he’s not coming back. Whatever happened had nothing to do with you, you hear me?”
“It had everything to do with me,” Cooper choked out. His breathing was erratic, and not for the first time Albert worried about shock, or worse. “It was my weakness that allowed BOB to –”
“Now, you hear me out,” Albert cut him off, not sure if the tightness in his chest was anger, or panic, or guilt, or some weird combination of the three. All he knew was he’d be damned if he let Cooper take the same route he’d taken after Caroline Earle. Not this time. “I had – what, one second? To react when you drew that gun. And I – froze. Not consciously, but long enough for BOB to make you pull that trigger before Davis pulled his.” He sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “Call me a selfish bastard if you want, but I don’t regret it, Cooper, and I won’t. I don’t handle young people dying pointless deaths any better than you do, but don’t you dare ask me to regret that you’re the one to live.”
Anguish warred with realization in Cooper’s face. Slowly, he straightened and ran a hand through his hair, a gesture mundane enough that Albert felt jarred by the transition. “I’m not asking, Albert.” He sounded bone-weary. “But I don’t know… To live with a lie like that, I can’t –”
“It’s not a lie,” Albert said, and this time he almost believed that. He had to believe it, even if a part of him, the part that had just watched a young officer bleed out and been helpless to act, still rebelled at the thought. But giving Cooper up out of some stiff-necked sense of justice wasn’t going to bring back the dead. It only meant another innocent life – and Cooper was innocent, in the purest sense of the word – would be destroyed. For a second, Albert had to fight the temptation to grab Cooper by the shoulders and shake him until he got the fucking point. But of course it didn’t work that way. “You were a victim of this as much as they were, Coop,” he pressed. “You just pulled the long straw, and they didn’t. It happens. Live with it.” He almost added please, but stopped himself at the last moment. Begging wasn’t going to help Cooper now. The only problem was Albert didn’t have a clue as to what would.
“You’re gonna get through this, Coop,” Truman muttered. It didn’t even sound trite when he said it, just sincere as all hell. “It’ll take time, but you are. And you’re not alone.”
Cooper let out an unsteady sigh. Then his jaw set.
“I know,” he said, and breathed in.