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The Prepared Mind

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Chance favors the prepared mind
--Louis Pasteur

J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., December 23, 2008

The pain wasn't bad, yet, but who knew what the day would bring.

Esther Falkner rummaged through her desk drawer and pulled out a bottle. She shook out several blue, diamond-shaped pills and swallowed them with a mouthful of cold green tea from the cup on her desk.

"Coming?" Reyes was in the doorway, head tilted to one side, squinting at her like she was a specimen under a microscope.

"Yep." Her voice was cheerful, a deliberate attempt to wipe the look of concern off his face. She tossed the bottle back into the drawer, slammed it shut, and followed Reyes into the conference room. Most of the team was seated, the only empty seat at Reyes's usual spot. Lau was the only one missing. Esther slid behind Hafidha's chair and settled herself against a wall where she could scan the team's faces. As the weight of staying upright eased, her back muscles unkinked with a sharp pain before settling into the accustomed ache. She focused on Hafidha's intricate cornrows and refused to let any sign of the pain cross her face.

Lau swung into the office, a stack of files in her arms, her black hair swinging. She almost had a smile on her face. "This one is close to home," she said. "Perfect for this close to the holidays." Excellent. It'd be a first to be home for all eight nights of Hanukkah.

"How close is close?" Todd asked. He sounded a bit too casual. Interesting. Did he actually have holiday plans?

"Bethesda," answered Lau.

"Bethesda is 9.4 miles away," Chaz announced. He leaned back in his chair, a sign of impending lecture mode. "Although that's pretty close, given the heavy traffic in the region, in terms of travel time--"

Brady leaned forward, a bit of a smirk on his face. "Well, if all we want is to save on travel time, a really convenient case would be if a gamma showed up here in this building. That would..." Please, no. Falkner felt every muscle in her body tense at the very thought.

Lau interrupted. "It's not in this building, no, but it is a fellow government agency that's been affected." What was in Bethesda?

Silence fell for just a second before Chaz spoke. "Tell me it's not the Navy base because that --that would be bad." He grimaced. Falkner was pretty sure it was a grimace, although it was sometimes hard to decipher his smile from a grimace.

"No, it's across the street from there, though."

"The National Institutes of Health?"

"NIH?"

Chaz and Worth spoke at the same time. They looked at each other.

"Yes. The National Cancer Institute, to be more specific." Lau flipped open a file.

"Four days ago Lukas Ocampo Lozada, an employee in the animal facility in the Clinical Center, was found dead. Both kneecaps were fractured horizontally. He had facial lacerations and multiple skull fractures. Immediate cause of death was loss of blood due to internal bleeding as a result of blunt force trauma to the abdominal cavity."

She glanced around the room, tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear, and looked back down at the folder. "Yesterday, Da-Xia Chen--" Lau spoke the name very slowly and precisely, pronouncing the X as a soft sh sound. "-- a postdoctoral fellow at NCI was found dead, with virtually identical injuries."

"Wait," interrupted Worth. "That sounds like they were hit by a car. How is this our case?"

"Both victims were found indoors, in narrow hallways where a vehicle wouldn't fit." Lau's voice was clipped. Falkner knew she hated having her choice of cases questioned. "The second death was even on an upper floor. In both cases, the pathologist was of the opinion that death was nearly instantaneous, and there was no chance the bodies had been moved."

The words 'Houdini effect' were muttered at several places around the table.

"Two deaths is pretty quick for something to get to us, even with obvious oddities in the crime. I mean, NIH is huge-- how did they even link the two deaths so quickly?" Worth asked.

Without looking up from the file in front of him, Chaz answered: "The same pathologist was involved in both autopsies so I imagine he saw the potential link pretty easily."

"In his own words, 'I knew there was a link from the moment that Chen hit his table.'" said Lau. "His first step was to contact the NCI director-- they're golfing buddies-- and, as it happens, Niederhuber had been peripherally involved in an investigation several years ago. He dug out Reyes's card and here we are, with a chance to be on scene nice and early."

And, hopefully, to prevent any more deaths.

"Do we even know if Lozada was the first?" asked Chaz. "If these deaths hadn't occurred indoors, no alarm bells would have gone off. What if there was an earlier crime but it happened outside?"

"Hafidha, check on that. Look for any hit and runs with serious injuries or fatalities in the DC Metro area." Reyes snapped the order out even though it was obvious to everyone that Hafidha had started on her search even before Chaz had finished voicing his speculation.

"Villette, Worth, you'll be on site with Lau and Falkner. Niederhuber has arranged with the campus police to give you full access and cooperation." He turned to Chaz, seated on his right, "Villette, start with victimology. What do these two people have in common besides working in the same building? Interview everyone who ever spoke to them."

He looked past Chaz at Worth, "You and Falkner will concentrate on tracing the moments of the victims in the days before the deaths."

Reyes stopped talking and everyone gathered up the files and coffee cups and headed off.

"Two deaths in only four days? There could be another one at any time." Worth said.

"All the more reason to get to Bethesda as quickly as possible," said Falkner. No need for a go bag this time.

"Well, as quickly as traffic will allow," said Chaz.

Falkner decided to let Chaz drive, although Worth, at least, would protest. The sooner they arrived on campus, the better the chance the death toll would stop at two.

----

National Institutes of Health, Bethesda Campus, December 23, 2008

Falkner shifted position in the front passenger seat as Chaz pulled the Crown Vic up to the gate and a security guard approached the vehicle.

"I'm going to need to see driver's licenses for everyone in the vehicle," said the guard.

Chaz handed over his badge. "We're all FBI officers. We're here on an investigation." Falkner was already reaching for her bag. She recognized an immovable object when she saw one.

"How nice for you." The guard handed back the badge. "I need to see driver's licenses for everyone in the vehicle." Exchanging puzzled glances, they all rummaged for their driver's licenses and handed them over. "Wait here, please."

The guard walked over to the hut and the team watched him typing on a computer. "He's running a computer check on us!" Chaz sounded incredulous. Falkner could see his thin body vibrating with frustration.

A second guard approached the car and asked Chaz to open the trunk so he could search it. He wouldn't find anything. The trunk was empty. A third guard, carrying a long metal stick with a mirror on one end, began using it to search underneath the vehicle. What a waste of time. Falkner gritted her teeth. The gamma could be killing someone while they sat here watching this farce.

"They're looking for bombs! We're FBI agents!" Despite everything, Chaz always expected to be welcomed as one of the good guys.

"I think we're probably looking at an inside job here," said Worth. Good one. Chaz and Lau chuckled and the tension in the car dissipated. Chaz relaxed back against the seat and started rapping out a pattern on the steering wheel while he waited.

Finally, they were issued visitor badges with their names on them and cleared to enter campus. They drove to the Clinical Center entrance.

"Hi," a short, blonde woman in a dark blue uniform approached them with her arm outstretched. Aside from the uniform, she looked like a hostess at an upscale restaurant. Perfectly styled hair, subtle makeup, and a pleasant, yet meaningless, expression on her face. "You must be the FBI agents. I'm Jamie Krull."

"I'm Special Agent Lau." Lau shook the woman's hand and introduced the team, "This is SSA Falkner and Special Agents Villette and Worth."

"Where do you want to start?" said Krull.

"First we'd like to see the crime scenes," Falkner said.

"Not much of anything to see in either location. Things got cleaned up pretty fast. No reason to think there was anything odd about those deaths. Still isn't, as far as I know." She paused and looked from team member to team member, but their faces remained impassive. You don't ever give away any information you don't have to give. And you couldn't trust people who weren't capable of being direct in their requests anyway. "But we'll start there, anyway."

Yes, they would.

----

There was nothing to see in the first location, but the team could confirm that there was no way a vehicle would fit through the hallway. "What about something like a motor scooter?" asked Chaz. Not consistent with the injuries. Falkner knew Worth would have it covered. She continued her examination of the place where the wall and floor met.

"Even assuming that it could get up enough speed in this rabbit warren of hallways to cause real damage, the pattern of injuries would be totally different. Just for starters, there wouldn't be symmetrical, horizontal fractures and displacements of both patellas." Out of the corner of her eye, Falkner saw Worth trace out the injuries she was describing on her own body.

"The other injuries are unlikely, too. With a scooter, you're more likely to be knocked down and run over rather than be flung into a windshield and tossed to the side and there were no tracks on the bodies."

Falkner stood up from her crouch, swallowing a gasp of pain, and turned to address Krull. "Do we know what Lozada was doing in this hallway?"

"The entrance to the animal facility where he worked is just down that corridor." Krull gestured to the left with one perfectly manicured nail. An FBI agent would never have nails like that. No time for the maintenance required. "His shift had just ended and we believe he was on his way to the parkade, which is down in that direction." She pivoted to the right and indicated another hallway.

"Time of death was estimated to be 3:15 pm. Was he leaving early?" Falkner asked. A change in habit could indicate all kinds of things.

"No, the workers in the animal facility start at 7 and their shift ends at 3."

"So his co-workers would have been getting off at about the same time. Did any of them see what happened?" Falkner took a step in the direction of the facility. They had to speak to the workers before they left for the day.

"No, they'd left ahead of him." Krull tapped her finger against her upper lip. "One woman, Rosalinda Lobo, waited for a couple of minutes but one of the researchers had stopped Lozada to ask him something about a room he'd worked in last week and so she went ahead and left."

"How about the researcher?" asked Worth. "Did he see anything?"

Krull shrugged. "She says she left the facility before Lozada and didn't see or hear anything." Falkner noticed the emphasis Krull placed on 'she'.

"What's her name? We're going to need to talk to her." Falkner had a notebook and pen ready to take down the information.

"Olivia Carey. Her office is on the 5th floor in the B wing. It's very near to the second crime scene."

Falkner looked around and saw that the team members had all finished their examination of the scene. "Let's head over to the second scene." She gestured for Krull to take the lead.

The team followed Krull down a short hallway to the elevator bank. She indicated a stairway. "Is this okay? It's only two floors and the elevators in this building take forever." They all nodded and headed for the stairs. Falkner fell into place at the end. She gripped the railing tightly, in part dragging herself up the stairs with her arm. They left the stairwell and walked down a maze of corridors behind Krull.

"This is it," she said, stopping next to a vending machine. "The victim worked one floor up. There was a bunch of change scattered around the body. Looks like she might have been down here getting a snack." How did the gamma know where to find her?

The second scene looked similar to the first. Dirty beige walls, grungy, scarred floor tiles. No sign at all that anything violent or bloody had happened less than 24 hours before. People could stand right on the site where someone died and deliberate between different types of candy bars.

Chaz's AOP rang. He glanced at the display and tapped the screen. "Hafidha, you're on speaker. What have you got?" Falkner, Lau, and Worth moved closer to Chaz, forming a circle with the phone in the center.

"Sweetness, I think I might have found another death. There's some differences in the details but the screen went all psychedelic on me when I looked at the report and the guy, Eric T. Brauer, is an editor at the Journal of Immunology. It's not NIH but it is all science-y." Damn. Another victim.

Worth leaned closer to the phone. "What's different besides the lack of a solid link to NIH? Cause of death?"

"No, hon, the cause of death is the same and so are the injuries. So exactly the same as the other victims that it's kind of freaky. It's just that this one actually involved a car. There was paint transfer on the victim, broken safety glass in some of the facial cuts, damage to the car and--"

"Damage to the car? They found the car?" Deep furrows formed in Lau's brow. That was quite a difference in the details.

"Found the car and arrested the driver for vehicular manslaughter, yeah."

"We'll have to check out the driver ourselves but if the cops managed to arrest him without incident, he's unlikely to be the gamma," Falkner said.

"There's no report of anything spooky happening during the arrest. Apparently the guy is claiming the car drove itself into the victim. He says he couldn't steer, shift gears, or brake. But the car checked out as being in perfect mechanical condition. Hence, the arrest." Poor guy. He sat at the wheel of that car, felt the impact of hitting the victim, and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. And now he was being blamed.

"When did this happen?" Chaz tilted the phone back in his direction.

"Friday December 12. About 7 pm, right outside the journal office on Rockville Pike." The fact that Brauer had been dead long before Falkner knew about the existence of the gamma alleviated some, but not all, of her sense of responsibility.

"That's eleven days ago now. That makes it the earliest death so far." Chaz was thinking out loud for them, as usual. It was such a habit with him that Falkner sometimes wondered if he did it even when he was alone.

"Could be that the gamma first caused a car to run down the first victim and since then he's been doing the killing sans car. Injuries all the same as the first victim but no pesky need for an actual vehicle." Worth's voice was loud, like a senior citizen on a long distance call, making sure their voice carried across the miles. Her theory fit the available facts.

"More than a week between the first death and the second, and then only 3 days between the second and third. He could be accelerating." And acceleration could mean another victim. Sooner rather than later. Falkner addressed the phone. "Hafidha, keep an eye out for new cases with the same cause of death. If you find something, let us know and make sure the body gets to Frost ASAP." Even as she gave the instructions, she hoped they wouldn't be needed.

"Will do. Watch out for this guy. I don't like the idea of any of you getting run down by an invisible car." Falkner couldn't agree more. "Over and out." The call disconnected.

"Okay, time to split up," Falkner said. "Lau, check in with Niederhuber. Let him know where things stand and ask him about links between the first victim and NIH. Worth, head over to the Journal of Immunology offices, check out that crime scene, and find out what you can about Brauer. Chaz, start talking to people who knew Lozada and get a start on the victimology. I'm going to talk to Dr. Carey, the last person to see Lozada alive, and whoever it is that last saw Chen."

If only she could be everywhere at once.

----

Falkner stopped outside the closed lab door. The roster of names beside the door listed not only Olivia Carey, the researcher she was here to speak to, but also the third victim, Da-Xia Chen. Interesting.

The window in the door was covered with notices: a poster noting that animals were inside and people with allergies should contact the investigator before proceeding, radioactivity warning signs, and labels identifying the lab as a biosafety level 2 lab. She wondered if it was safe to enter. Just in case, she knocked rather than trying the door.

The door was opened by a skinny man with dark hair. He was wearing black jeans and a blue shirt. "Can I help you?" He spoke with an accent Falkner couldn't quite place. Possibly French.

"I'm looking for Olivia Carey."

"She's down the hall in her office right now. Room 5B01." He smiled and moved to shut the door.

Falkner put out a hand and stopped it from closing. Pain radiated down her back at the movement. "Just a moment, please.' She took a step forward and the man backed up a step. "Were you acquainted with Da-Xia Chen?" She was sure she wasn't pronouncing the name as well as Lau had but it was the best approximation she could muster.

His eyes narrowed slightly. "Yes, of course. We worked together."

"I'm Supervisory Special Agent Falkner, FBI. Are you Stefan Dorn?" she said, recalling the third name on the posted list. He nodded. "I'd like to ask you a few questions, if you have some time." And, actually, even if you don't.

He looked down at something in his hand and held it out to her so she could read the display. "I have until this beeps and then I have some work that can't wait. But I don't understand what you need from me."

"We're looking into what happened to Ms. Chen--"

"Dr. Chen." Ah, researchers were as particular about appropriate titles as certain members of the Bureau were.

"Sorry. Dr. Chen. We're trying to reconstruct her movements leading up to her death." Dorn flinched at the word. "Did you see her yesterday?" Falkner walked past Dorn into the lab and leaned against a counter.

Dorn let the door shut and turned to face her before he answered. "Yes, yes, of course. We had our Monday morning lab meeting, which took up most of the morning, then we had lunch with some other people. After that, we were both working here all afternoon." He waved a hand around, indicating that 'here' meant the room they were currently standing in.

"When is the last time you saw her?" If they'd been together all afternoon, he was quite likely the last person to see her alive. At the very least, he was clearly the person to spend the most time with her on her last day alive. Falkner shifted her weight from her left foot to her right. Her back was throbbing.

"I left the lab at about 6 pm in the night. She was still finishing up some work." He glanced over at a messy desk nearby that Falkner assumed belonged to Chen. "That's the last I saw from her until this morning when I arrived and heard about what happened." His brow furrowed.

"Do you know if she expected to be here much later?"

"Yes, she thought she would be here until 8 or so to get everything finished." The timer in Dorn's hand started emitting a metallic sounding chirp. His hand clenched and the sound ceased.

Falkner pushed herself off the counter. "Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Dorn. I may have some more questions for you later."

Falkner left the lab, the door swinging shut behind her with a loud thud. She walked down the hall past the elevators and the Bomb Shelter sign. At a water cooler, she filled a paper cup with cold water, fished a couple of Aleve out of her pocket, and swallowed them before continuing on. The hallway narrowed and she walked through a cloud of hot air being pumped out by the large freezers that lined the walls.

At the very end of the hall, on the right, she found the room she was looking for. There were fewer ominous signs on this door so she tried the doorknob. Locked. She knocked.

The door was opened by a plump woman dressed all in orange. Her hair was cut asymetrically to multiple different lengths in a style that was probably quite trendy when done up but which was currently looking shaggy and limp. The expression on her face gave the indication that she'd just smelled something offensive.

"Dr. Carey?"

"Yes, that's me." The woman shifted her body to the left, blocking the opening more thoroughly. Interesting body language. What was she hiding?

"Hello, I'm Supervisory Special Agent Falkner of the FBI." Falkner extended a hand. "I believe Officer Krull let you know I would be coming by?"

"Yes, yes, of course. Come in." She stood back, holding the door open for Falkner to enter. "This is a dreadful, dreadful thing. Da-Xia was a member of the family. We're all just heartbroken. I can't even begin to tell you." She walked to an office set into the back of the room, cleared a stack of papers off the extra chair and gestured for Falkner to sit. Falkner settled in, gritting her teeth against the pain. "If there's any way I can help sort this out, I am more than happy to do it." She stared into Falkner's eyes. "Having said that, I don't quite see why the FBI is involved."

"With the threats that currently face this country, it's important that all deaths on government property be investigated thoroughly." Use any available excuse to obscure the true purpose of the unit. "I'm sure you understand." And even if you don't, you won't be able to admit it. Falkner gave Carey a cold smile.

Dr. Carey opened her mouth and then closed it. "Of course, of course. I understand. Go ahead. Whatever I can do to help."

"We're beginning by trying to put together a timeline for Dr. Chen's last day. Did you see her at all?" Falkner leaned back in the chair and tilted her head slightly.

"Yes, of course. We have a regular lab meeting on Monday mornings so I saw her at that. And she called me later that afternoon but I was in a senior staff meeting." Carey tapped the message light on her phone. "When I got the message, I called her but she didn't answer. I didn't see her again."

"What time did you leave yesterday?"

"Why does that matter?" If it didn't matter, she shouldn't have a problem answering the question.

"I was wondering if Dr. Chen was still here when you left. We're not sure what time she finished work." Falkner was matter-of-fact.

"I left at about 5:30, I think. I usually work later but I was meeting a friend at the symphony and I needed to leave early. As far as I know, both Da-Xia and Stefan were still in the lab at that time."

"Okay, thank you very much for your time." Falkner closed her notebook.

"No, no, no, thank you for looking into this for us." Dr. Carey started to stand up.

"Just one more question, if you don't mind."

Dr. Carey sat back down. "Of course not. Anything."

"We're actually looking into a second death, one Lukas Lozada. We understand that you spoke to Mr. Lozada the day of his death. Can I ask what that was about?"

"I'm not sure I remember that conversation. Is it important?" Carey's hands were twisting in her lap. Oh, she remembered. No question.

"No, not really. We're just wondering what his state of mind was that day. If he was overly upset about anything, if he seemed depressed. You know the type of thing." As if anyone could commit suicide by running themselves over with an invisible car.

"Oh! Yes, of course, I see. When was this?" Carey's hands stopped fidgeting.

Falkner referred to her notebook. "Thursday, December 15, at about 3 pm. In the animal facility where Mr. Lozada worked."

"Oh, you mean Luke! I didn't know his last name. Yes, I spoke to him that day. We have a mite infestation in our animal room and I was asking him what progress had been made in clearing it up. We can't do any of our animal work until the infestation is gone. Now that you mention it, he did seem--"

The sound of a cell phone ringing interrupted. Falkner stood up, ignoring the jolt of pain, pulled her phone out of her pocket, and glanced at the display. "I'm sorry, I have to take this." She answered the phone, turning her back on Dr. Carey. "Falkner here. Could you wait a moment, please." Turning back to Dr. Carey, she said, "Thank you very much for your time. If you think of anything else--" She fumbled for a card with the hand that wasn't holding the phone. "-- please call and let me know. I'm sorry for your loss."

Falkner walked out into the hallway, and started to speak into her phone, only to realize the call had been dropped and she had no cell signal. Damn. She walked down the hall, taking turns at random and watching the display on the cell phone, waiting for bars signaling she had service. She ended up in a glassed-in walkway and finally was able to call Hafidha back.

"Hafidha? It's me. Sorry, I lost you. Is Reyes there with you?" Falkner turned her back on a couple of lab coat-clad men who were walking towards her.

"Yes, we're both here. We've, uh, got kind of a problem." Oh dear. That was Hafidha's understatement voice. What was going on?

"Another death?" Obviously not ideal, but not a disaster, either.

"Yes. But not just any death." In the brief silence, Falkner could picture Hafidha biting her lip. "Joseph D. Hunter."

"Joseph D. Hunter," Falkner repeated. "As in, Congressman Joseph D. Hunter from Florida?" That could be a disaster. It was certainly going to make keeping this all quiet a lot more difficult.

"The one and only. I had my automated minions monitoring all fatalities with similar injury patterns to our victims but I actually found it when CNN's front page went all rainbowpalooza on me."

"What do we know?" Hopefully there were no eye witnesses. The last thing we need is some low-level staffer giving interviews on Fox News about the invisible car that ran his boss down.

"Not much," said Reyes. "I'm going to make some calls but I wanted to give you a heads up. I'll get back to you as soon as I have more concrete information. How are things on your end?"

"I just finished talking to Chen's co-worker and boss and getting a timeline of Chen's last hours. I'm about to meet up with Worth and Villette to compare notes on what they found out. I'll let you know where we're at after that."

Where they were at was double the deaths they had when we started. And a gamma who had now killed two people in less than twenty-four hours. Where they were at was no place Falkner wanted to be.

----

Falkner balanced six styrofoam take-out boxes in her arms. She was shifting her load, trying to reach for the doorknob when she heard Lau come up behind her. "I've got it." The two women entered the conference room where Worth and Villette were already sitting around the table.

"I smell grease!" said Chaz. "Tasty, tasty grease!" He came over, took the boxes from Falkner and set them on the table.

"Grease there is aplenty. Philly cheesesteaks from the cafeteria. Three with extra everything, including jalapenos, which I don't think are quite traditional, for Chaz, one veggie with cheese for Lau. The one without cheese and fries is mine. Daphne, I hope you're okay with traditional?"

"Mmmm, sounds good to me." Worth joined Chaz in opening boxes and poking around the contents. She passed a box over to Lau and took the next one for herself. Falkner passed around handfuls of napkins and then accepted her sandwich from Chaz and they settled in.

"First things first," said Falkner. "There's not much information yet, but it looks like there may be another victim. I don't see how this one fits in -- Congressman Joseph Hunter. We're waiting for Reyes to get back to us with more information, so in the meantime, what have you all found? Let's start with the first victim." She lifted her sandwich and took a bite. Mmmm, that was wonderful. Amazing for a hospital cafeteria.

Worth chewed for a moment, gesturing in front of her mouth, and finally swallowed. "Unlike the other two victims, there were multiple witnesses to Brauer's death. They all saw the same thing-- a late model silver sedan driving directly at the victim without slowing down. Several of the witnesses believe they saw the car speed up, in fact."

Worth picked up a fry and nibbled at the end of it. "Brauer was a nice guy, no known enemies. His co-workers all liked him. Everyone there is assuming it was a random accident because they can't imagine anyone wanting to deliberately hurt the guy."

She waved the fry in the air. "His last known movements were his standard work day activities-- meetings, emails, etc."

She sounded bored, her voice droning, but the words coming quickly to relay the lack of information right away so they could move on. "He didn't mention anything abnormal-- no nasty calls or emails, no fights with his neighbors, no nasty interactions on the Metro that morning. He left work later than usual because he was coming in late the next day. He had a dental appointment. Nothing else out of the ordinary."

"Hmmm." Falkner paused, her sandwich halfway to her mouth. "Chen had an ordinary day, too. Meeting in the morning, lunch, lab stuff in the afternoon. And she was working later than usual, too. Finishing up some stuff."

"Lozada was on his way home from work, too. And he was running a bit late." Chaz addressed the comment to one of his sandwiches.

Lau snorted. "Interesting coincidence, but I'm not sure the host is out killing people who work late." That was a safe bet.

"Was there anything else about Brauer that's relevant?" Falkner asked Worth.

"Nothing that stands out."

"Lau, what did Niederhuber have to say about Brauer? Is there an NIH connection?" They needed to figure out what connected the victims before anyone else died.

"Niederhuber didn't personally know Brauer, but Journal of Immunology does publish a lot of work that is done here. We should check and see if Brauer had any connection with either of the other victims."

Chaz raised his hand to get everyone's attention while he swallowed. "He could easily have known Chen. She did immunology research so they could have been at the same conferences, been in the same professional organizations." Trust Chaz to have checked out and understood what type of research Chen had done. "I'm not sure where Lozada and Hunter would fit in, though." He slumped in his chair a bit.

"Well, Lozada worked in the facility where Chen's mice are kept. Maybe Chen is what links all the deaths together," Worth said. She leaned forward, eyes wide and eyebrows raised.

"We need to check on links between Chen and Brauer. And also between Hunter and Chen. If she's the link, maybe that'll get us somewhere." Falkner picked up a piece of green pepper off the table and popped it into her mouth. "Chaz, what did you discover about Lozada?"

"The usual. Nice quiet guy, did his work, kept to himself. There had been some trouble recently. I guess there's a mite infestation in some of the rooms?"

Falkner nodded.

"It turned up in a routine check," Chaz continued. "and at first it was thought to be relatively limited in scope but it ended up being more widespread than anyone thought. Everyone in the facility was stressed out about it. It not only means that no new experiments can be done in the affected rooms, but because they don't know when the infestation started, it's cast some doubts on recent results." Chaz's hand tapped out an agitated pattern on the table. Falkner guessed he had more understanding of the impact this was having on the researchers than she did.

Chaz took a quick bite of sandwich before continuing. "There are some allegations that the facility didn't follow proper protocols and the employees down there are all kind of... defensive about it." That sounded like possible motive.

"Lozada was responsible for some of the affected rooms and the stress was getting to him. For a couple of weeks before his death, he was quite abrupt and angry with his co-workers. A couple of people also thought he had some sort of trouble at home with his family, although I don't know how relevant that is given the other victims. I asked about Chen and they knew she worked in a room he was responsible for but didn't know about any other connection. Nobody I spoke to knew about Brauer or had any idea if Lozada might have known him."

"We'll have to check with his family and see if they're aware of any relationships he might have had with the other victims. It seems unlikely but we should rule it out," said Worth.

"I met with Chen's boss, and a co-worker, Stefan Dorn. The co-worker appears to be the last person to have seen Chen alive. He saw her at about 6 pm and time of death was around 6:30." Falkner leaned forward. "One interesting point: Chen's boss is Dr. Carey, the last person to see Lozada alive. Which could fit with Chen being the center of things."

"It's also a little suspicious. Do we know where Dr. Carey was at 6:30?" Chaz asked. He packed up the two empty sandwich boxes and set them to one side. Falkner still wasn't used to how much food it took to keep Chaz operational.

"She said she'd left work about an hour before that. Symphony tickets. She was meeting a friend but the show started well after 6:30 so that's no proof of anything." And she was overly reluctant to share that information.

"What about this co-worker?" Worth asked. "Anything there? He would have shared space in the animal room with Chen and known Lozada, right? And he could just as easily have a connection to the editor as Chen could."

"There's also nobody who can confirm he left at 6. And, actually, given the time of Lozada's death, Chen might have been his only alibi for that. It was just the two of them working in that room." Falkner looked at the last half of her sandwich and decided against finishing it. She pushed it across the table to Chaz. "We really need to check on any connections Dorn might have with Brauer and Hunter." Victimology led to mythology led to gamma. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

"Is that all we've got so far?"

Nods all around the table.

"I'm going to head up to Baltimore and see Frost." So much for night three of Hanukkah. No way could she make it home before sundown. "She's going to do the post on Hunter. Worth, can you check and see if anyone at the journal office can connect Chen or Dorn to Brauer? And see if he knew Hunter at all."

Daphne looked at her watch and shook her head. "It's late enough that I doubt I'll catch anyone at the office."

"First thing tomorrow morning, then." Falkner turned to look at Chaz, who was cramming her discarded sandwich into his mouth. "Chaz, check with Lozada's family. See if he knew any of the other victims."

He nodded several times, his mouth working furiously. "Okay, and I'll see if anyone in particular had been giving him trouble at work about the mite problem."

"Lau, check in with Reyes and Hafidha on the Congressman. And if it's possible, talk to his staff and family and check on any connections he might have had to the other victims or to NIH." Falkner paused for a moment to see if anyone had anything else to add. "Let's meet back here tomorrow morning."

Falkner hoped there wouldn't be another victim between now and then.

----

Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, December 23, 2008

Falkner walked into the pathology lab and saw Frost sitting at a microscope. She paused just inside the door and waited for Frost to finish. Frost stood and nodded in acknowledgment of Falkner's presence.

Frost walked over to the phone, lifted the receiver and dialed. Falkner couldn't understand the name of the diagnosis Frost was pronouncing.

"Probably not more than two or three weeks left. It is highly unusual to see the disorder in an infant. If the parents have no objections, I would like to write it up and include photos of the slides. When you speak to them, get them to sign the release slip."

Falkner fought the automatic revulsion that came from facing Frost's utter inability to see other people as... human, and swallowed it. She didn't have to like the woman. She tuned out the rest of Frost's conversation.

"Agent Falkner. I have the results from the post on the victim. Did you want to see the body or..."

Falkner shook her head. "A summary of the results will be sufficient." Exposure to Frost always made her speak like this. Rebekah would tease her all night about it.

Frost picked up a file from the counter and handed it to Falkner. "This is your copy of the detailed results. I compared the X-rays to those of the first three victims. They are surprisingly similar, one might even say identical." Her voice revealed no sign of the surprise she mentioned.

"Even when looking at people struck with the same type of vehicle, the injuries are not generally this similar. There are differences in the height and position of the victims and how they land as well as in the randomness of how the fractures occur. In these cases you can overlay the X-rays and the fractures line up almost perfectly."

"That seems quite bizarre." Falkner opened the file and rifled through, looking for the X-rays.

"It is what it is. I am just reporting my observations."

"Quite." Falkner closed the file again. No need to prolong her stay here. She could look through the file at home.

"It is also worth noting that, although all of the internal injuries are what would be expected if a pedestrian were to be hit with a moving vehicle, some of the external injuries are not consistent with that scenario." Frost tapped the file. "For instance, where we would expect to see abrasions on the shins where the impact occurred, the flesh is unblemished. There is also no 'road rash' on exposed skin, no outward sign that the body hit the pavement at all, in fact. Everything is in the report. There is nothing else worth drawing your attention to." Frost turned and began walking away.

"Thank you."

Falkner left without waiting for a response she knew would not come.

----

NIH Clinical Center, December 24, 2008

Falkner entered the conference room and greeted Lau and Villette. "No Worth yet?"

"She's still at Brauer's office. She shouldn't be much longer." Chaz took a sip of the coffee in his hand.

"Well, let's see what we have." Falkner sat down. "Frost confirmed the cause of death for the Congressman is the same as the other victims-- blunt force trauma consistent with being hit by a moving vehicle. Apparently the internal injuries are too consistent victim-to-victim- definitely not something that would be seen if these were accidental deaths. Also, only the internal injuries match up. Externally, the more minor injuries that would be seen when a pedestrian is hit by a car, are not present."

Lau shrugged. "Mysterious deaths. We knew that." She was right. None of that was getting them any closer to stopping this.

Chaz swung back and forth in his chair. "I struck out with Lozada's family. As far as they knew, he didn't know Chen or Brauer. When I asked them about Hunter, they called me 'loco'."

Falkner could hear the amusement in Chaz's voice.

Chaz stopped moving his chair and reached for his coffee again. "They knew he was stressed about the situation with the mite infestation but they didn't know about anyone in particular being angry or upset. They'd also never heard of Dr. Dorn or Dr. Carey."

Falkner wondered how much Lozada talked about work at home. She rarely did, but, of course, she couldn't.

He took a long sip of coffee. "There were some researchers he mentioned at home as being particularly problematic or easygoing but none of them are connected with the case so far." He shook his head. "Nothing helpful." Even negative results were results. Everything that could be ruled out got them closer to the gamma. Falkner knew that even though she was still frustrated by the accumulation of negative result upon negative result.

"What about Hunter?" Faulkner turned to Lau. "If we could figure out how he fits in, maybe we could figure this out."

Lau flipped open her notebook. "No known connections to any of the other victims. The family didn't recognize the names, and none of them are in the database the staff keeps of supporters. The Secret Service eventually revealed that they have no record of threats that relate to NIH or are connected with any of the people associated with the case, blah blah blah."

More negative results. They had to find a link between the victims, a motive, anything that would help them identify the gamma. Falkner forced herself to take a deep breath and relaxed her tense muscles.

Lau looked up from the notebook. "I had the Congressman's staff check through constituent correspondence but Lozada isn't an uncommon name in his district so we're still trying to sort out if there's a connection there." Meanwhile there could be another death any minute.

"What about a connection to NIH?" Chaz asked. "It's a hospital, was he or a family member ever treated here? Maybe in one of the clinical trials?"

"No, nothing like that but there was one thing. When I asked if the Congressman had any connection to NIH, the staff asked if I was serious." She looked from Chaz to Falkner. "Apparently the Congressman was very vocal in his objections to NIH's sizable budget and was actively trying to get Congress to drastically cut the budget as part of a fiscal responsibility kick. The Congressman felt that medical research should be primarily left up to the private sector."

"Is that reason enough to kill him?" Falkner asked. She hoped the answer was yes.

Chaz laughed. "You don't know many researchers, do you?" His chair started swinging back and forth again. "They take their funding pretty seriously. The real question is, was he getting anywhere with his cuts?"

Lau leaned forward. "Well, he succeeded in making some drastic cuts in the most recent draft of the federal budget and all indications are that it was going to pass."

"In that case, maybe the real question is, did killing him make the passage of the cuts less likely?" Chaz raised his eyebrows at Lau.

Falkner watched the discussion between Chaz and Lau closely. This felt solid, like it was leading somewhere important.

"Not according to his staff. There's still a lot of room for changes to be made to the federal budget but it doesn't look like the cuts to the NIH budget are going to be reversed. So I think the real question is, did the killer think that killing Hunter would prevent the budget cuts?"

"Actually, that might not make a difference to the gamma, depending on what, exactly, their mythology is," Chaz said, leaning back in his chair. "They may not be reasoning this out as 'remove Hunter, reverse the cuts', it may be more along the lines of 'Hunter caused this, so he must be punished'." Either way, that does sound like something a man could get killed over.

The door behind Chaz opened and Worth stepped in. "I've got a connection between Brauer and NIH." Faulkner felt a surge of energy through her body. Things were beginning to come together.

Chaz swiveled his chair around until he faced Worth. "A link to Chen?"

"No, to her co-worker Dr. Dorn. Brauer just rejected his paper." Worth looked down at the piece of paper in her hand. "He said it 'wasn't suitable for publication in the journal.'" That could certainly set the gamma off.

Worth looked up, her eyes wide and her breath coming in little gasps. Her voice got loud and sharp. "He sent an email to that effect the morning of the day he died!" There was no way that timing was coincidental.

Chaz started counting off on his fingers. The thumb. "So we have Brauer, who rejected Dorn's paper." The index finger. "Lozada, who could be considered involved in the mite infestation in the animal facility, which could have hurt Dorn's experiments." The middle finger. "Chen who, we don't know, could have done something to hurt Dorn's work." The ring finger. "And Hunter, who could be considered responsible for cutting the budget Dorn's work depends on. And he was the last person to see Chen alive."

Chaz flung his hands in the air. "I think we found our guy." Falkner agreed. The seated agents started to get up.

"It's not so easy," said Worth. She held out her hands as if she could keep them in place that way. "It wasn't just Dorn's paper that was rejected. Dr. Carey's name was also on the paper. And all the motives apply equally to her. And she was the last person to see Lozada alive. And neither of them have confirmable alibis." She was right. It wasn't so easy.

Worth shrugged. "It's got to be one of them but damned if I know which one it is!" Two suspects. One gamma. They had to choose correctly, or Falkner could end up making an extremely unpleasant Christmas Eve phone call to a team member's family.

"We have to approach this carefully," Falkner said. "Let's go talk to them. Worth and Villette, you go to Carey's office and ask her how Dorn and Chen got along. If there was any friction or animosity there. Lau and I will ask Dorn about Carey and Chen. Also ask about stress or illness. Figuring out the crack might be the only thing that breaks this case."

The team left the room and strode down the hall, in perfect step with each other.

----

Outside the lab door, Lau hesitated in the face of all the ominous notices, but Falkner turned the doorknob and entered. A quick scan revealed that Dorn was alone in the room. Good.

"Hello, Dr. Dorn. It's Agent Falkner again." Falkner indicated Lau. "This is my colleague Special Agent Lau. We just have a couple of questions to ask."

"Sure, okay." He seemed to vibrate in his chair, one knee bouncing up and down.

"How did Dr. Chen get along with Dr. Carey?"

All of a sudden Dorn looked away from Falkner and stared off to one side. "Fine, fine," he said.

Falkner and Lau were quiet. They kept on looking at Dorn without speaking. As the silence dragged on, he glanced back at Falkner, looked over at Lau, and then looked at the floor between them. His leg jiggled more quickly but he still didn't say anything. Falkner and Lau exchanged a glance. This was it.

Lau spoke, "Really? That's not what we've heard." Dorn's head jerked up and he looked straight at Lau. Nice fabrication. If they already knew, there was no harm in telling them. "According to some of Chen's friends, there was some significant tension between her and your boss. It seems strange that you could work with both of them and not know about that." Code for we know you're lying.

Dorn looked at Lau for several moments, then craned his head to look past her at the lab door, then he looked back at Lau. "You won't tell her I said anything, will you? It would just make complications in my life if she thought I was speaking out of my turn about her." He looked pleadingly at Lau who, in turn, looked over at Falkner.

"No, we won't say anything at all to her," Falkner said. "But we need you to be honest with us. It's crucial." He had to talk now. If Carey was the gamma, Falkner had sent Chaz and Daphne right into danger. She tensed as burning pain rippled through her back.

Dorn eyes flicked between the two agents. He nodded. "There is definitely some tension between the two of them." He bit his lip. "Sometimes they seemed to get along fine but then the other times, everything Chen said or did would be wrong in some way. It was very uncomfortable to be in the middle of the two of them."

"I'm sure it was." Lau's voice was soft and low-pitched. "That does sound very difficult. Was the tension worse lately?"

Dorn thought for a moment. "Not worse, exactly. It was very bad in our meeting yesterday but no worse, I think, than it had been in past days."

"What happened in the meeting?" Falkner asked. Given the timing, it had probably led directly to Chen's death.

"The meeting on Monday mornings is for us to show our data. Da-Xia presented some data where she had been looking for--" He shook his head at himself. "It's too complicated to explain the details of what she was looking for."

He stopped talking. Falkner bit down on her impatience and waited for him to start again. "She was looking for something that Olivia was very sure was present but so far the data was not supporting that idea. Da-Xia had tried many different methods but always with the same result."

He sighed. "On Monday she showed the newest attempt and still none of the protein was present. Olivia was very angry. She accused Da-Xia of not doing the procedure correctly. Da-Xia had done a lit search -- a search of the journal articles on the topic -- and found that other people had already looked for the same thing and not found it."

Dorn slumped down in his chair. "She hoped this would convince Olivia that the protein was not present but it didn't help. If anything, it made her more angry."

"Did you see Dr. Carey at all after this?" Lau said.

"No, she was in a meeting or otherwise not in the lab the rest of the day."

"Just one more question. Has Dr. Carey been ill or under abnormal emotional strain recently?" Lau moved closer to Dorn, clearly intent on his answer.

Dorn nodded. "Yes, both these things are true. She was in the hospital with pneumonia and only came back to work a couple of weeks ago. And also things have not been going well here in the lab. The branch chief was unhappy with her about something-- I don't know what that was about but we heard that he was yelling at her in his office one day right after she came back."

Dorn rubbed his palms on his jeans. "Then the mite infestation in the animal room and my paper being rejected. All these things were going wrong. She was very much stressed." And that combination of factors made it possibly for the anomaly to take ahold. Instant gamma.

"Is Dr. Carey down in her office right now? asked Falkner. Away from vulnerable witnesses, which would be good, but with the vulnerable Chaz and Daphne, which was bad. She rolled her shoulders, trying to dislodge some of the tension.

"No, I don't believe so. Just before you came in, she was here on the phone. We have some samples running on the flow cytometer in the sorting facility and they called because there was a problem with the sample and we won't have enough cells to run the experiment. Olivia went down there to talk to Elaine, that's the technician in the facility." Damn.

Lau and Falkner glanced quickly at each other. "Where's the facility?" Falkner could feel her heart thudding.

Dorn stood up and gestured in the air. "It's in the new building, you have to go--"

"Just show us. Now!" Falkner shouted. There was no time to waste.

The three of them raced out of the room. Villette and Worth were standing right outside the door. "She's not--"

"She's with another possible victim!" Lau tossed over her shoulder as they raced past.

Dorn led them down the hall, took a right and then immediately turned left. They ran past the elevators into the glass walkway that Falkner had made her phone call from the day before.

As they entered the next building, Falkner spoke, "You need to get us close to the room but stay behind us and well out of the way once we're there. It's extremely important." If Carey knew he'd helped them, he'd be the next victim.

He nodded and kept running. He slammed into a stairwell and they followed him down two flights of stairs before he stopped. He took a deep breath. "Go that way," he said, pointing to the left. "Room 3125. It's on the right, not very far down."

"Stay here until we come back for you." Falkner took the lead. She had an idea how to handle this host. And she wanted her team behind her.

The team moved slowly down the hallway. They found the door, but there was no window.

Falkner stood to one side and reached out and slowly turned the doorknob. She inched the door open. "Dr. Carey? Are you in there?" There was the sound of movement from inside but no answer.

Falkner strained to hear if there was more than one person inside the room. More than one living person. "It's Special Agent Falkner. We met yesterday? We heard that someone here was upsetting you. Someone named Elaine." Falkner hoped this would work.

"Upsetting me? That's an understatement." There was an undercurrent of hysteria in Carey's voice. That was not a good sign. Falkner took a deep breath.

"Can I come in, Dr. Carey?" Falkner holstered her weapon. "I'd like to help you, if I can. We can't tolerate people interfering with science. When that happens at a government research facility, it's a federal crime." If she wanted to believe, this could work.

There was silence. Villette stepped closer to the door, lifting his gun higher, but Falkner waved him off.

"You'll arrest her?" Falkner relaxed slightly. The victim was still alive. She had a chance.

"If you're the injured party and you want me, too, of course I will. Can I come in?"

"Come, come." Carey sounded impatient.

Falkner walked through the door, letting it shut behind her. She looked at the terrified older woman sitting in an office chair. "Is that her? What exactly did she do?"

Carey was pacing back and forth like an animal in a cage. "She tampered with my samples. I don't know exactly what she did but there should have been twenty million cells and she only has twenty thousand for me." She stopped pacing and threw her hands up. "I can't do the experiment with that few cells! She's trying to stop me from winning the prize." She darted towards the seated woman. "They all are."

Bingo. There's the mythology. Falkner felt the knot in her stomach loosen slightly. She was on the right track.

Falkner walked between the two women. She approached Elaine where she sat on the chair, pulled out her handcuffs and cuffed her. Under her breath, as quietly as she could manage, she muttered "Stay quiet. It's okay."

Out loud she announced that Elaine was under arrest for the federal crime of hindering scientific research being performed by a top government scientist. A concrete demonstration that she was on Carey's side. Of course, if this didn't work, she'd have to find a way to explain why the victim was handcuffed before being hit by an invisible car. Unless she went on to be hit by the same car. Then she wouldn't have to do any explaining at all.

She turned and faced Carey again. "Are there others I need to arrest? Others who are interfering with your work?"

"The ones I found out about are all gone." A confession. "There are more who want to stop me from winning but I haven't found them yet." The pacing started up again. Falkner shifted to keep her body between the gamma and the victim. Her heart was pounding so quickly the beats seemed to run into one another.

"Are you talking about the Nobel Prize?" A guess, hopefully a good one.

"Yes, of course," Dr. Carey's anger was suddenly directed at Falkner. "It's my destiny!"

"Of course, you're right." Falkner kept her voice calm and placating. "It's just that I had to be sure you knew that."

"Why?" Carey sounded suspicious. As she should be.

"Well, clearly you can't continue your work here." Falkner's gesture encompassed the whole campus. "Who knows how far this... this..."

"Conspiracy!"

"--conspiracy has gone. We, the government, have a special research facility." A very special facility, where we'll be the ones doing the research. "Only select individuals are allowed to work there, of course. The screening is pretty intense but you're clearly the best candidate we've seen in quite some time." An excellent candidate for taking alive-- a gamma with a mythology we can exploit to capture it.

"Really?" Carey's eyes lit up. She looked hopeful.

"Oh, definitely." Falkner nodded. "Nobody worthy of the Nobel Prize in Medicine has been brought to the facility in quite some time." Ever, in fact. "We have a physicist, I believe, and two writers."

She took several steps towards Carey and took a deep breath. "My colleagues can transport Elaine here to federal prison while I take you to look over Idlewood. Only if you're interested in possibly working there, of course." There was a long pause. Falkner's hand were icy. She felt a trickle of sweat run into the small of her back. This had to work.

"I can't commit to anything until I've seen if the facilities are adequate." Carey sounded haughty, her words clipped and precise. A significant improvement over hysteria.

The tension left Falkner's body. "Oh, of course not. But you'll be able to arrange things to suit you. We really want you to be a part of the facility." Oh, we most certainly do. A live gamma makes the perfect Christmas present for Reyes.

"Of course you do."

Carey turned to walk toward the door. The release of tension from Falkner's body was so sudden that for a moment she thought she might melt into the floor. Quickly she signaled the team to back off and left to escort the gamma to Idlewood.

----

Rio Grande, Bethesda, MD, December 24, 2008

The team, except for Falkner, was seated around a restaurant table. Reyes, his drink menu dangling from one hand, stared at his cell phone without moving. Hafidha watched Reyes over the top of her menu.

They both jumped when the phone finally rang. Reyes fumbled it open and barked, "Reyes."

He didn't speak but Hafidha guessed from the slight sigh that escaped his mouth and the softening of the tension around his eyes that the news was good. "Okay." He hung up.

He lifted up the menu and started reading. The entire team stared at him. Without looking up, he said, "That was Falkner. We have something to celebrate. I'll make a toast once the first round arrives." Grins appeared on every face at the table.

"Trust Falkner to talk a gamma into voluntarily checking in to Idlewood by pretending to buy into her mythology," Brady sounded impressed. As well he should be.

Worth laughed. "You should have seen Chaz's face when Falkner and the gamma walked out of that room and Falkner oh-so-matter-of-factly announced they were headed to Idlewood. Priceless." Hafidha wished there was a picture.

"I'd like to be there when the gamma realizes she's the experimentee and not the experimenter in a state-of-the-art research facility," said Lau, laughing at the thought.

Chaz flinched. "No, no, I don't think you would like to be there." An awkward silence fell. Chaz stared fixedly at the table in front of him.

"Who picked this place for our holiday lunch?" asked Reyes. Hafidha could have kissed him.

"I did," said Hafidha. "I thought if we went someplace that specialized in margaritas, I wouldn't have to watch Brady drink that girly-piss lager that he's so fond of." Plus, there could never be enough sopapillas.

Brady glared at her. "Just for that, I'm going to order a Coors!"

"No, I don't believe you will," said Hafidha. "Not if you value your credit rating!" Everybody but Brady laughed. Brady just looked nervous. As well he should.

"I'm going to have The Swirl," said Worth. "Margarita and sangria, all in one!" Brady turned a horrified glance on her. "What? What?"

"One," Brady said, index finger pointed in the air. "A true margarita is always, always, always served on the rocks. You cannot call it a margarita if it comes out of a blender." A second finger joined the first. "Two. A true margarita is made with quality tequila and fresh lime juice. " A third finger. "Three. It is sacrilege to drink tequila that's been spit out of a slurpee machine."

"I don't think someone with your lack of taste in beer really gets to criticize other people's drinks of choice," said Lau. Good point. "Daph, I'll join you and have one of those Swirls." Ha! Excellent plan. Hafidha decided to change her order.

"Sounds good to me, too," said Hafidha.

"Make that four!" Chaz grinned. You could always count on Chaz to go along with torturing Brady.

Todd closed his menu. "Five." He leaned back in his chair and smirked at Brady.

There was a pause. Nobody looked directly at Reyes but Hafidha peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. Come on, Reyes! Just then, the server approached the table, "Can I start you off with anything to drink?"

"We'll have six Swirls. And one real margarita for the tequila snob."

Hafidha grinned. These were her people.