Chapter 1: Those Who Cried…
7 months, 15 days…
Creegan watched his fingers twitching across the knee of his jeans. Long murderous fingers, pinching folds of fabric, picking and twisting. Bing Crosby's smug voice came on the radio, singing something nauseating about what a wonderful time Bing and all his smug friends were having. Christmastime in California always bothered him. It didn't feel real, as if the whole state was locked in a little globe of springtime. Once, back in college, he'd skipped out on Christmas Eve dinner and dodged down to LA with some frat brothers, chugging beers and singing lewd versions of carols. Through the drunken haze he remembered looking up at a palm tree covered in multicolored lights. It seemed terribly wrong, somehow. Christmas lights should reflect off glistening snow, guiding a cold traveler home to warm fudge and too much wine. They should not hang limply off an apartment's balcony in sixty degree weather.
At least San Francisco had the decency to rain.
7 months, 15 days.
"Bing. Bing. Bing?" he asked.
Branca looked over at him, startled. "What?"
"Bing Crosby. Bing. That's the sound your computer makes just before it eats your work and makes you leap screaming out of your office window. Who would name their son Bing?"
She pushed her hair distractedly back from her eyes. She'd done that twice already since they'd left the OSC. "Bing is derived from Bingham. It's Germanic."
Creegan stared at her in disgust. "That," he said heavily, "was a rhetorical question. And shouldn't you be clogging your perfectly functional brain with more important things than obscure baby names?"
Lightning-fast darkness crossed over her features. He saw it and turned away instantly. Like all other faces, shadows came to hers, then sped away to unknown destinations beneath the skin. He'd learned to look elsewhere before they pulled his mind within her, to the secret places where criminals hid their sins.
If Susan Branca had sins living among her shadows, he did not want to know them.
"So what are your plans for Christmas?" she asked suddenly.
7 months, 15 days. "I'm surprised at you, Agent Branca. That's quite a culturally and politically insensitive question. First, it presupposes that I am one of the eighty-three percent of Americans who identify as Christian, a statistical probability, yes, but an unfortunate one. I might be a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or one of those people who drink their own urine. You might have just deeply insulted my religious beliefs. Second, it subtly indicates that I should have plans on Christmas, a truly cruel discrimination against individuals who might choose to spend their holidays in quiet, solitary reflection instead of inflicting upon themselves the gaudy trappings and heightened commercialism of a Christian birthday party gone mad. Very insensitive, Agent Branca, I am disappointed in you."
A pause. Then, she said in the same voice, "So what are your plans for Christmas?"
"Order pizza, get blindingly drunk, and sit around in my underwear crying," he replied instantly. "Care to join me? If you ask very nicely, I might even put on pants for the crying part."
He expected that to earn him a Look, but instead she pushed at her hair. There it was again: the Hair Push. It tugged at him just like the shadows. She was nervous about something, uneasy, she was asking him about Christmas plans, a mention of baby names troubled her…
Creegan yanked his gaze around to the windshield and took a mental baseball bat to his forehead. Stop that. Bing Crosby and his unbearably smug friends were launching into the final chorus, and he added his flat baritone howl to the mix. "Iiii'm drea-ming of a whiiite Chist-mas…"
Branca flipped the radio off with a grimace. It didn't matter; the moment was gone and her secrets were safe once more. The light in front of them turned yellow and she tapped the brakes courteously. A tacit agreement between them dictated she would always drive at night. The glare of stoplights in the darkness punctured Creegan's brain, whipping through the damaged fissures and spitting out incorrect instructions to his right foot. It had only happened a few times, without major casualties, but unfortunately she had been with him for the last one. Two tire-squealing blocks later, he had pulled over to the side of the road, hands gripping the steering wheel. She had seemed quite calm, however, as she reached across, took the keys out of the ignition, got out of the car, walked around to his side, and opened the door. No outbursts. No lectures. He had been grateful enough for the silence that he'd scrambled awkwardly – briefly taking a gear shift in the ass – over to the passenger seat without argument. He'd been there ever since.
"Reach under your seat."
It was his turn to give her a startled look. She nudged him along with a jerk of her chin, and a faint smile twitched about her mouth. The smile fascinated him, as it always had. On that first plane ride so long ago – Jesus, only nine months? – her lips had bent upward almost unwillingly, and mentally he could hear the creak of unused muscles. But she'd managed it somehow, and for a moment the obviously unfamiliar expression of mirth froze him, tipped him headlong into those quiet, sad little places of her mind where gravestones lived. Then he'd instinctively snatched her goldfish crackers – goldwhales – and started flinging them at his face.
She had smiled for him, when most other people (doctors, Enright, the OSC review board) were staunchly sober. And he doubted whether she smiled for anyone else.
He was not about to disturb the ghosts she carried within and drive her away with their reawakened pain.
"Creegan?" she queried. He was staring at the left corner of her mouth, where the Smiles started. Without raising his gaze to her puzzled eyes, he bent double and reached under the seat, banging his head on the dashboard in the process. "Ow," he said without any real conviction as his fingers closed around smooth plastic.
"You okay?" Branca asked quickly.
"Yeah, sure. After a bullet, all other head injuries seemed blasé." Sitting back, he examined his prize. It was a small gray thermos. "What's this?" he asked, waving it in her direction.
"Your Christmas present," she said, her eyes on the road. "It's not urine, but it's the best eggnog on the West Coast. Merry Christmas."
She pushed at her hair again.
There really was something quite wrong with this. She was nervous: it could be written off to holiday-related stress, but somehow he didn't think Susan Branca would tolerate the presence of such a pedestrian ailment. No, this was another matter entirely. She asked him about Christmas plans and produced this peculiar gift then she pushed at her hair. He knew enough of her ticks to hear alarm bells, and was opening his mouth to speak when he glanced through the windshield and saw them.
There were four of them altogether, a couple and their two young children, hurrying across the sidewalk directly in front of him. They were dressed elegantly, obviously having just emerged from a dinner with the relatives. The father had taken off his overcoat and was holding it above him awkwardly with one arm, trying to act as a living umbrella for his wife. Under the other arm was tucked a large box still covered in wrapping paper. The mother was carrying their newborn cradled against her chest, hunched slightly against the rain. Both their faces reflected the same intense concentration, the homeward battle against the elements on a drizzly Christmas Eve. The older child, probably four years old, outran his mother's reaching arm to the other side of the street and was looking back at them impatiently, oblivious to the light rain in his blue raincoat and hood. His only concern was the red package zipped into the front of his jacket whose oversized corners emerged at his collar and waistcoat, giving him the appearance of a tumor-ridden miniature Santa Claus.
Creegan ripped off the thermos' lid, flipped up the drinking tube, and chugged straight from the bottle. He kept his head tipped back until the car moved again, then dropped the container into his lap, swiping awkwardly at a bit of eggnog trickling down his jaw.
He closed his eyes again and bowed his head.
7 months, 16 days.
226 days total. He'd hugged them both, studying their open eyes with ferocity born of desperation, and then shut the SUV door.
His girls. Samantha and Lily. Two pairs of eyes, watching him step back and close the door.
God. God. God.
Sex, he thought desperately. Iraq. Those little sushi rolls with the fake crab meat. What the hell do they make that fake crab meat out of, anyway?
Two pairs of eyes.
Sex in a sushi bar… in Iraq with bombs dropping overhead and some strange woman in crotchless panties and the national anthem being sung in the background over loudspeakers.
No good. They were still there, pasted to the inside of his eyelids. He reached out blindly and turned the radio up. Good old Bing punched into the car, drawling about chestnuts. Creegan cursed him, cursed the holiday, the season, the perfect little family, everything. Then he realized that he was speaking out loud, and shut his mouth so tightly he bit his own tongue and tasted blood.
A few minutes later he reached out and carefully switched the radio off.
After Bing's ear-splitting rendition, the silence in the car felt claustrophobic. Creegan stretched it as long as he dared, feeling the drink curl into a warm ball in his stomach, patting his innards kindly. He took another swig, staring out the window.
"Good eggnog," he commented without looking.
"Best on the West Coast."
He turned, lips parted and eyes narrowed. But she only smiled slightly and continued driving. No Hair Push, nothing. Her nervousness had evaporated so completely, maybe he had imagined it. She'd seen the family too, obviously, but… His brain couldn't connect the two. A quick shake did not clear the fog. Small blonde heads danced before his vision and he swallowed more eggnog. It slithered cheerfully down his throat. Branca glanced quickly over at him, her brow delicately concerned instead of anxious, but she said nothing.
"So," he said after a few minutes. His voice seemed muffled, somehow. "So," he said, louder, "what are your plans for Christmas, Ms. White Anglo-Saxon Christian Ethnocentrist?"
Branca hesitated a moment before sighing. "I'm working on some plans. I'm not sure how exactly they're going to work out, but I think I'll do some traveling."
His lips were numb. He smacked them together loudly, in the same way a drunk stands on one foot to prove that he isn't drunk. How much rum was there in that eggnog? "Someplace with lots of snow. And Christmas lights. You can't have Christmas lights without snow, you know." He grinned suddenly. "Hey. That rhymed. I'm a genius."
Blurry movement at his left indicated another glance in his direction. "No, you can't."
"I was agreeing with you. You can't have Christmas lights without snow."
"Damn right." Creegan nodded righteously and immediately regretted it. The world seemed to dip low, pitched by the movement of his head. He straightened and blinked his eyes. Little tendrils of gray snaked onto the edges of his vision. He watched them coming with confusion, so distracted by their movement that he didn't notice the car had stopped moving until Branca reached over and gently took the thermos out of his hand, replacing the lid and stowing it under her own seat.
"Hey," he muttered blearily. "I wasn't done with that."
"Yes you were."
He frowned in her direction. She was sitting in an odd way, twisted in her seat so that her back was to the driver's side door and she was facing him fully. Her arms were folded in her lap and her face was utterly expressionless, except for pale blue eyes which watched him closely. Waiting. Beyond her dark blonde head, the street was empty. That made him blink, casting about in all directions. This wasn't his motel. Nor was it the parking lot of her apartment.
"I don't," he started to say, then stopped as a wave of dizziness hit him. I know this feeling! he thought fiercely. I've felt this before! "I don't feel very well," he managed to mutter, his eyes squeezed shut.
"Probably not," Branca responded quietly. "I put a roofie in the eggnog."
"A roofie. A knockout drug, Creegan. I put a roofie in the eggnog."
She sighed and shifted in her seat. "Don't worry. I'm told you'll wake up with a bit of a hangover, but the chances of any lasting effects are slim to none. Relax, Creegan. Don't try to fight it."
He was fighting it. He was struggling like Hell to keep his head up, swaying back and forth against sleep.
"Are you going to rape me?" he whimpered, slumping against the shoulder harness.
Distantly he heard her laughter and the tinkle of keys as she turned the ignition back on. "The thought had occurred to me. Go to sleep, Creegan."
And then the world went black.