/ / Language: English / Genre:sf_action / Series: Soledad O'Roark

Those Who Walk in Darkness

John Ridley

The Barnes & Noble Review When metanormals (humans with supernatural powers) first showed themselves in public, they were dressed like comic book icons and had names like Nightshift and Quadrupleman. They saved lives and stopped crimes and averted natural disasters. They were true superheroes. But there were also super villains. Like Thrill Kill and the Giggler and Hatchetman. They kidnapped the pope and held the U.N. General Assembly hostage. After a genetically mutated criminal mastermind destroyed most of San Francisco and killed more than 600,000 people, all metanormals were outlawed and given an ultimatum: Leave the United States or be killed. Soledad O'Roark is a rookie in the M-Tac (Metanormal Tactical) unit in Los Angeles, an elite group of law enforcers trained to hunt down and exterminate rogue metanormals. Soledad makes a name for herself on her very first call by killing a metanormal with a non-regulation gun she developed. The kill gets her a hero's praise, but when the police brass get wind of the non-reg weapon, Soledad is promptly stuck behind a desk, awaiting an internal investigation. But when she finally gets another chance in the field, she takes full advantage…. Although Those Who Walk in Darkness reads like a graphic novel — with larger-than-life characters, richly stylized urban landscapes, and breakneck pacing — it's so much more than an action-packed science fiction thriller. There are elements of hard-boiled mystery, horror, and even a little romance. And the character of Soledad O'Roark isn't just another run-of-the-mill antihero. Ridley creates a realistic, flawed character that readers will not only pull for but also will ultimately want to know much more about when the novel ends. Paul Goat Allen

JOHN RIDLEY

Those Who Walk in Darkness

Nightshift was the first. He showed up and overnight the world changed. I was young then. Younger. And all I cared about were rock bands and movie stars, and didn't give much thought to the significance of things like his arrival. Except that it was cool, he was cool. In time, that, like everything else, would change too.

In the first weeks after he hit the scene the papers and news shows were fat with rumors and half-truths and speculations by experts.

Experts?

How were there going to be any experts when there'd never been anything like him, it, before?

It was his physiology, they said. It suggested that he may not be of this… They said he was the by-product of government experiments which caused his body to become… Mental superiority allowed him to project an aura which resulted in…

On and on. All that anybody really knew was somewhere in San Francisco, night after night, he… it. It was out there. Stopping a bank robbery, a gang drive-by, keeping a kid from getting flattened by a runaway truck… whatever.

And then, just as quick as he appeared, Nightshift got mundane. Oh, he kept a jewelry store from getting ripped off again? Another car jacking busted up? Well, sure, I mean it's good, but…

I got used to it. I got used to them. We all did. And we all went back to being concerned with other things… rock bands and movie stars.

Like I said: That would change.

San Francisco. The dead. The EO that made them all outlaws.

We blame them. They deserve blame. But maybe it's our fault too. We never should've let them do our job for us. We never should've relied on them. We never should've slept while they stood guard; spectators at the foot of ML Olympus.

No.

Hell no. What happened was their fault and theirs alone. And for what they did they're all going to pay the price.

EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM.

Jesus Christ.

It was the thought pumping through Soledad's head. A phrase. A prayer. Something to chant over and over to keep her mind off what was coming.

What was coming was what she'd spent her whole life working toward. Her whole life: only twenty-six years, nine months. But most of that was spent at Northwestern studying, at the police academy and on the force training, working her way from beat cop through SPU up to MTac—prepping for this moment: her first call.

Jesus. F'n. Christ.

The others in the APC, the others riding with Soledad, they looked calm. Serene, kind of. Mostly they didn't look like cops racing through LA traffic, lights and sirens at full tilt. Except for their weapons and body armor—none of it worn to regulation. Bo and Soledad the only two who bothered with Fritz helmets, and Soledad was pretty sure Bo sported his just so she wouldn't come off like the only weak sister in the bunch—they looked like people out for a Sunday drive. Not one of them seemed to carry the thought odds were, end of the night, all of them would be dead. Maybe that was the key, Soledad considered, to getting through this: don't think, just do.

Soledad adjusted the strap of her breastplate where it cut into the flesh of her underarm. Probably designed by a man, it didn't particularly fit a woman.

"Don't bother." It was Yarborough—Yar—playing cocky, giving Soledad shit for concerning herself with things like body armor, things that might keep her alive. His bravado was his tender. He spent it easy: a lazy grin, a wink tossed for no reason. He spent it heavy in the body armor he didn't wear, same as if he were among the rare breed too cool to die. "Might as well take that shit off. Doesn't do any good."

Soledad looked to Reese. Didn't mean to. Had told herself no matter what, especially this first call, never in a moment of doubt look to Reese. Soledad thought it was a sign of weakness, like looking to your mom when the corner bully went calling you names. But the action was reflexive. Reese was the only other woman on the element, one of the few female MTacs. So Soledad looked to her, as if femininity equated fidelity.

Reese, deep in her own thoughts, just stared straight ahead paying no attention to Soledad or anyone else.

Bo, jumping into things: "Leave her." His voice had a drawl. Slight. Cowpoke slow. Soledad had seen Bo with a gun on the target range. His drawl was the only thing slow about him. "We're supposed to be wearing it."

"You're not wearing your armor," Yar tossed back.

The APC juked hard to one side to avoid a Toyota that cut across an intersection never-minding the lights and sirens of the MTac vehicle. Typical LA. Didn't matter what the emergency was, everybody thinks they've got someplace to be.

"I did first call. First call I would've driven a tank if I could've."

Yar laughed. Not like what Bo had said was funny, like what Bo had said was plain ridiculous; as if a tank would make any difference in the world when you were facing down a freak. Bo was senior lead officer of the element, the oldest. Soledad thought: hell of a career choice she'd made where forty was considered a long-timer. The same thought jerked her hand to the case resting next to her thigh.

"Whatcha got?" Yarborough asked, using his chin to point at the case. It was small, hardcover-book-sized, zippered, made from synthetics.

Soledad wondered to herself why Yar was paying her so much attention. She hadn't been on Central long, but they'd all trained together, put in hours together. All that time Yar hardly looked in her direction. Here they were rolling on an M-norm, and all he could do was razz her every couple of—

"Whatcha got in the case? Bring a couple of books so you won't get bored?"

The APC stopped. Not even. It slowed some, but that was signal enough: time to move. Bo was first out, the door barely open. Yar-borough, Reese just a step behind. Soledad, affixing the case to her back, was right with them hesitating not a second, not any amount of time anyone could say she froze, she was scared, she wasn't ready. Even if she was all that, no way she'd let anyone think it.

As she moved, Soledad's eyes worked the scene, took in information and processed it on the fly. Downtown LA. Rail yards. A warehouse, boarded windows showing fire. Police cordoning off the area, keeping a good distance back.

A safe distance.

Inside the perimeter: a couple of burned-out fire trucks and squads, the reek of their molten metal, plastic and fabric strong enough to choke on deep breaths.

Outside the perimeter: Lookie-lous gathered. The good citizens of Los Angeles. They stared. They pointed. A couple had camcorders ready to do some taping, hoping a cop got offed in some spectacular manner so they could sell the footage to CNN.

Bo wove his way to the officer in charge. Soledad got the name on the sergeant's badge: Yost.

Bo, direct: "Whatcha got?"

"Pyrokinetic." Yost was sweaty from more than the heat of the fires. He was wet with fear.

Soledad felt herself starting to share the dampness.

"Firestarter?" Bo's eyes swept the warehouse.

Yarborough swept it with IR goggles.

"If it was a firestarter, you think any of us would still be here?" Yost answered. "Flamethrower, but it can toss 'em about thirty or forty feet. That's what happened to the vehicles."

Reese worked the action of her piece. It was like she wasn't even listening to the back-and-forth between Bo and Yost. It was like all she cared about was putting a bullet in something.

Yost: "The freak won't let the bucket boys put out the fire."

Yarborough kept moving his goggles across the warehouse.

"Probably started it just to get them down here, work up a body count. Fucking freak."

"That's good," Bo said. "Keep calling it names. That'll get us home early."

Yost mumbled something audible about MTacs being arrogant motherfu—

Yarborough: "Got him. Third floor, southeast corner."

"One?" Reese asked.

"That's all I'm reading. Hard to be sure with the fire."

"Thank God it ain't one of those mind readers." Yost was getting sweatier by the second.

Soledad: "Maybe it is." She hoped she sounded like she was just voicing a consideration and not bitch scared.

"Couldn't pay me to go in there, I'll tell you that." Yost said it, then said it again. "You couldn't pay me nothing to go in there."

Bo said: "Throw some light up top, make a little noise for cover. You'd take pay for that, right?" To his element: "Mike check. One."

"Two."

"Three."

Soledad: "Four."

Bo started to move, started for the warehouse. Soledad was ready to move with him. Something on her arm. Fear made every sensation feel like fire, like maybe she'd caught a little of what slagged those vehicles. A quick look: Reese giving a squeeze; reassuring. Saying stay close without saying a word.

Soledad eyed Reese's shoulder, her tattoo; the words etched there. Tough words. Downright BAMF words that told it like it was, like it should be. Soledad kept close to Reese as the four went for the warehouse.

As they did, behind them, Yost managed to get his act together enough to put spotlights on the building. Third floor.

Bo had point. He carried a Colt. 45 government model: more stopping power than the 9mms beat cops carried. A precision kill weapon. Reese and Yarborough toted HK MP5s, excellent for chopping freaks. Light, fast, and at full auto it could spray, baby, spray. Soledad had the Benelli, a semiauto shotgun loaded with one-ounce slugs. She was the fail-safe. If nothing else could stop what they were going after, the Benelli could put a hole in anything. Usually. All the weapons were Synthtech series, manufactured—like everything else they carried and wore—from synthetics and composite materials.

Inside.

The first thing they got hit with was the smell, the odor of perpetually burning flesh. And something else. The hint of another aroma that Soledad could just barely distinguish. The stink of smoked crack.

Oh, that's good, she thought. Not just a flamethrower. A hopped-up flamethrower. And this was her first call.

Stairway. Narrow. Not a good place to get caught. All four MTacs could go up like kindling. But it was the only approach.

Up the stairs.

First landing… nothing.

Second landing… more nothing, except the smells were strong and there was a voice. Strange, distorted like it was trying to make itself heard through the roar of a blast furnace.

All four MTacs had their weapons gripped hard and ready to do work. All four did a crab walk, step by step, inching upward for the third floor.

Bo's voice whispered into their earpieces: "Hold."

The air was hotter, thinner, some of its O2 gone. The thing was burning it off. Her uniform was suffocating her. All that, anxiety; they didn't help Soledad's breathing any. Her chest rose and fell in a rapid pace. Her hand pushed sweat off her forehead. It was rolling from her now. Rolling in sheets. Chestplate crushing her. Felt like it was. Should've listened to Yar; ditched the body armor. Should've…

Jesus Christ.

In her mind her own voice repeating: This is it this is it this is it. Stay cool. This is it this is it…

More of the blast furnace rant. Clearer now.

"Muthafuckas! Ya want sum? Huh? C'mon, bitches! Come taste summa dis!"

All Soledad could think was that he… it sounded like a crazy waving a Saturday night special around a liquor store. Everything they can do, all their abilities, but get down to it, end of the day, they're just street punks. Nothing more. Nothing better.

Bo peeked up to the third floor. A lot of space broken up by vertical supports.

In Soledad's earpiece, Bo clipped and to the point: "Sixty feet. Back to us. Me, Yarborough left. Reese, Soledad right."

That was all the more instruction they got. All they needed. Bo moved out low and quick with Yarborough right behind him. Reese and Soledad moved opposite, Soledad's heart slamming away inside her chest. They eased across the floor using the vertical supports, thankfully many of them, for cover.

The smells were thicker: the never-ending stench of roasting carcass swallowed with every breath to form a nauseating mixture in the stomach.

From hiding, Soledad peeked around a vertical. She could see the freak engulfed in its own flames. She had never seen one this close—a pyrokinetic or any other kind of M-norm. Its body shimmered with heat and fire but refused to burn itself. The flames just crackled and danced continually, feeding on the flesh of its host: an endless human wick.

This is it this is it this…

Soledad couldn't take deep breaths, couldn't get her breathing to slow down.

"Muthafuckas!" it screamed at the cops down on the street. "Think you got sumthin'? Bitches, come up here an' show me sumthin'!" It thrust its arm out a window. It shot a tendril of flame, the fire howling as it scorched the air it rode on.

Outside, three stories down, Soledad heard the wail of men. Maybe burning. Maybe dying.

"Muthafuckas! Better recognize!"

Bo, in the earpieces: "Ready?"

Down the line:

"Ready."

"Ready."

This is…"Ready."

Bo twisted from behind the vertical.

Soledad's heart clutched, then double-pumped.

Bo spoke, yelled with pure authority. "This is the police! You are in violation of an Executive Ord—"

That was all Bo got out, all the thing would let him get out before it turned from the window and sent a finger of flame burning in Bo's direction.

Bo sprang back, tumbled. Moved on instinct. Thought would've taken too long. Thought would've left him standing where fire now cooked the floor. He would have been dead.

"Bitches come ta play?" the pyro shrieked over the crackle of the burning wood. The thing shot fire again. From its skin, from its flesh, from itself it generated fire.

Instinct wasn't fast enough. Not this time. This time Bo got sent sailing, ridden into the dark of the warehouse along a river of flame. "Show me sumthin', bitch! Whatcha got ta show me?"

Yarborough, Reese and Soledad up and out and shooting. A continual chant of 9 mm fire interrupted by the low boom of Soledad's shells.

Why didn't, she wondered as her finger jerked the trigger, they just do this first off? You got a thing that can spit fire from its body, fuck warnings and police procedure. Kill 'em! They all deserved to die anywa—

Bullets no good. Lead turned to slag from the aura of heat around the freak before the shells could even touch it.

"What da fuck?" the thing snapped. "Was you 'bout ta shoot my ass?" A hand arched before it. Just like that, empty space burned hot. A wave of flame ran for Yarborough, Reese and Soledad in a violent ripple.

Soledad moved, tried to dodge the flames. Too slow. They picked her up, kicked her back. They slammed her down hard on the wood floor. She had sense enough to roll with the landing. Kept her from getting hurt. Badly hurt. The bits of pain that came with lightly singed flesh let her know she'd survived the assault.

She came up looking around: Yarborough down. Leg engulfed. He rolled, snuffed it out. He didn't scream. Bad as the burn was, bad as it looked even at a distance, he didn't scream.

Reese was clear. At least, Soledad didn't see her. So she was clear. Maybe. Maybe Reese'd just been turned to ash and there was nothing of her left to see.

The thing, the monster, stepped up, stretched a hand for Yarborough.

Soledad: "Yar!" She took aim. Fired. The shells, useless as ever, turning to molten lead as they sped for the burning man.

The thing's arm twisted away from Yar, gave its full attention to Soledad. Through the heat-distorted air, on the creature's face, Soledad could make out a jacked smile. It was there for just a second before being washed away by the flames the thing sent for her.

"How's dis, bitch? I'ma 'bout ta break me off my burnin' foot in yo ass!"

Soledad turned and curled and took the flames like a fist to the back. They batted her against a vertical, forcing the air from her body. Good thing. A breath in, and she would have sucked fire; she would have fried herself from the inside out. Bad as the hit hurt, it saved her life.

Vision blurred, head throbbing. Soledad sank to the floor, couldn't help herself from going down. She tried to lift herself, then sank again. Pain was the motivator to stay where she was. Brilliant pain. Arm burning. The Nomex uniforms were fire-retardant, not fireproof, and not fire-anything against muties. She slapped the flames dead, then stared at charred fabric. Except it wasn't charred fabric. It was burned flesh beginning to boil and blister.

Soledad felt like she was swimming: light, buoyant, moving through a viscid fluid. She felt all that, and her burnt arm felt cool.

Shock. Coming on fast.

Soledad's empty hand groped for the Benelli but stayed empty.

Yarborough, still down. Still immobile.

Where was Bo? Where was Reese?

Soledad managed to get her head up. Coming toward her through dutch-angled vision was the thing. The floor sizzled where it stepped.

Soledad's long-standing fear, her cop nightmare: to be incapacitated by a perp, unable to run, unable to hide… a weapon touching-close but too far away to be of any use, she'd be unable to do anything but lie and watch Death take a stroll for her. It was a weak and helpless and frightening scenario, and she was staring right at it.

"What's da matter, ya bitchass skeez?" Slow burn to its voice. All of it burned slow. "Ain't got nothin' more ta show me?"

A hard struggle got Soledad nowhere near up to her feet.

"I'll show ya, sumthin'. Ya wanna see sum shit?"

The thing stopped moving. It stood over Yarborough. Its hand glowed, gathering heat and flame, ready to send it pouring over the cop. Ready to kill him.

"Too easy!" Soledad screaming, swooning with disorientation. "Kill a guy who can't fight?" Felt like she wanted to fall. Still on the floor, and she felt like… "You're the goddamn bitch, you two-dollar whore!" Burned, weaponless, weak; big talk, that's all she had.

Nothing. For a second, nothing.

Then the glow from the thing's hand spread over his body. He went hot with excitement as much as fire.

"Skeez got sumthin' after all. I'm gonna light you up. I'm gonna light up yo pussy!"

The man of fire stalked for Soledad, but took its time about it, each step prolonged for its max pleasure: the anticipation of the kill. Foreplay, then death.

Soledad felt the thing approaching, felt the heat of it pressing toward her more than she could see it. One eye was swelling shut, the other collecting the blood that ran from her head. A weak arm feebled for her back, for the pack she had attached there. Didn't have the strength to pull it free.

"How you want it, girl? Which hole you want it in?"

The heat, oppressive, burning oxygen and passing Soledad out. At least, she thought, she wouldn't be conscious for her own end. Through a curtain of blood she saw the thing's fiery hand reaching for her. It was an unnatural wonder. It was the last thing she'd ever see.

Blue, moving fast. Reese, throwing herself at the mutie, knocking it from Soledad's path.

Soledad rolled, scrambled for the cover of one of the verticals. The stay of execution injecting her with enough fight to keep alive.

Reese, on the floor; wounded animal sounds. The side of her body she'd slammed against the thing was black with burns.

Reese down. Yar down. Bo gone.

Time. It was only a matter of how much—a minute, a few seconds—before that thing killed them all.

Hand alive with desperation, Soledad pulled the pack from her back, worked the zipper. Inside: a gun.

The freak, only dazed by the open-field tackle, got its bearings, moved for Reese. "Bitch, I wasn't tryin' ta fuck wit you. Ain't nobody told you ta come in here an' git wit my shit. You better axe sumbody!"

No hesitation this time. The thing's hand to the chestplate of

Reese's body armor. A second later: a horrible sizzle, the smell of burnt meat.

From Reese, screams. Spastic jerking and twitching against the pain, and screams.

Shaky hands, Soledad fumbled for the clips in the pack. Which color, her mind unable to lock thoughts. Which color? Which— Red, the red clip. Grabbed it, she slid it into the back of the gun.

One deep breath.

Soledad stood, came into the open.

The thing rose to meet her.

Reese's body kept flopping around over the wood.

"Oh, now bitch wants sumthin'. You gonna play me like dat wit yo little bitchass gat. Let's get it on, girl. Bring it da fuck on!"

Yeah. Let's bring it on.

Soledad took aim with her piece. The DTT raced up, then locked.

The thing burned bright, ready to spatter fire. Ready to kill.

How do you shoot something like that? How do you use a bullet against a thing that can melt lead?

Soledad squeezed the trigger. No hammer fell. Just the same, her weapon spat. The slugs—four fired in instantaneous succession— touched air, then went white hot. They stayed white-hot as they cut through the freak's flames, hit it in the chest, tore it open. They were white-hot as they ripped and shredded flesh and muscle, broke bone and turned it into shrapnel, wounding from the inside outward. The slugs were just as hot when they opened four jagged defects in the freak's back and kept on going.

Phosphorous bullets. Soledad had answered a question with a question: How do you melt what's already on fire?

The thing stood unbelieving. Blood, like streams of lava, leaking from the tunnels Soledad had laced through its chest. It stood for a moment… stood… its light and fire dimmed. Then the thing went down felled-timber hard.

Quiet.

Soledad limped for the body, not having known until that moment she'd done damage to her leg. The pain of a twisted knee subordinate to that of smoldering flesh.

Step, drag. Step, drag.

Soledad stood over the pyro. She venom-dripped words down at its empty eyes. "Who's the bitch now? You bleed. Fucked-up-looking and hot, but you bleed."

Eulogy over.

Soledad turned for Reese. Reese's body. In the center of her chest, where her armor was melted away, was a burned-out crater. Cooked meat hanging off the bone.

"God…" Soledad lowered herself, repulsed by Reese's wound but unable to look away from it. Her hand out toward it to… to what? To touch it? Tend to it? What was the point? Nothing she could do. Not one—

A gurgle. A spasm from the body.

Soledad sprang back.

Reese in a death prattle… and then something else. A breath. Short, shallow, but a breath.

"Ten-thirty-three!" Soledad yelled, not knowing she was yelling. Not even sure if there was anyone to hear her. "Officer down! I need a rush on a bus at this loca—"

Real quick her words got choked out. Her throat was on fire. A painful jerk of her head to the side, through the corner of her eye: It was alive; the thing, the human flame. Alive just enough to ignite its hand, take Soledad by the neck and sear her skin.

"… Youse sumthin', girl. " Slurred words of the dying, but dying slow enough to drag Soledad with it. "Truth: youse the only bitch man enough ta be wit all da shit. Truth. It's da truth dat sets ya free, an' revelation is comin'. Come here, bitch, an' kiss me good-bye."

The thing worked up half a smile and got ready to end Soledad's life—choke it from her, squeeze it, burn it from her. One way or the other, kill her.

Three loud pops. Three large holes bust open in the thing's body just before it tipped and thudded against the floor.

Hand to her throat. Soledad could feel the dead flesh peel beneath her touch.

Across the warehouse: Bo, blood leaking from his skull, held his smoking .45.

Soledad saw that, then promptly passed out.

Expense equaling excellence, Cedars-Sinai was the best hospital in the world. Parked on prime real estate in Beverly Hills, Spielberg had a wing there. So did Max Factor, the long-gone Hollywood cosmetics king. Cedars-Sinai is where the rich went for plastic surgery, movie stars went to die and MTacs got sent to recuperate. Usually MTacs didn't get to die in a hospital. Usually MTacs died on the spot courtesy of some kind of superpowered metanormal.

Soledad woke up floating above her hospital bed. Above her body. Felt like she was. The sensation coming from the painkillers that doped her up. From her vantage point, looking down at herself—her black skin counterpoint to the white sheets and gown she was wrapped in—Soledad's physical self looked like it needed all the painkillers the docs could legally feed her. Her neck was wrapped with gauze and netting. Same with her left arm. A brace on her right leg. Bruises, cuts, welts all over.

But she was alive.

Were the rest of them?

Bo, yeah. And Yarborough, probably. He got jacked up, bad, but he must've made it.

Reese?

Reese was alive. Had to be alive. It'd take more than a crack-high freak to put Reese down.

Then Soledad remembered the smoldering cavity the freak had burned into Reese's chest and wasn't so sure of things.

And that had been Soledad's first call. Four cops injured, one critically.

And the screams: the screams that came when the thing shot flame to the street below the warehouse. Had those cops lived or fried?

All that pain and suffering and death just to bring down one of them. One out of how many who lived hidden in the city? In the country?

But they had put it down. They, she, had chopped it cold. Except for being badly burned and getting her leg messed up and almost having the life choked and smoked out of her, Soledad had stopped it. Well… she had slowed it some until Bo could kill it.

Still, not bad. First call and all. This was a…

Soledad had started to think to herself that this was a learning experience; there'd be time to pick skills up and get things right. From her corner of the ceiling she looked down at her broken self. A busted, charred body is what using reality for a classroom had gotten her.

The door.

Bo came in. Flowers in hand, plastic-wrapped. Picked up, probably, from Ralphs or Sav-On. Bandage on his head.

From way up high Soledad saw herself turn, try to focus. Bo looked… he looked downright quaint. The good cop visiting the wounded partner. He looked healthy too. Broad in shoulder and barrel-chested. His hair was prematurely white and just under it, where his hairline met his forehead, was the bandage that covered some stitches. Other than that you wouldn't much know he'd just gone up against a pyrokinetic. He was a helluva cop, one Soledad wished she could be.

Flowers on the nightstand. Bo pulled up a chair and sat himself down.

"Well, now," drawl in full effect,"how you doing?" he asked. Then, quickly: "No, don't try and say anything. Doctor said your throat would be fu— messed up for some."

Soledad smiled. Her physical body smiled. It was cute to her: Bo, the BAMF cop she'd almost died with, worried about his language around her. She wanted to tell him it was cool to talk free, but the thought of speaking was enough to send a phantom of pain howling through her throat.

"But nothing too bad," Bo went on. "They said you'd heal up pretty good. Your leg too. Maybe just some… a little scarring. On your neck, I mean. Your neck and arm. Just a little."

Soledad found herself trying to lift her hand to her neck, feel the wound. She was too hopped-up to get her limb off the bed.

"Yar? He's okay." Bo dialogued with himself. "Don't think he's going to ever wear shorts at the beach again, but…"

The hint of a laugh escaped from Soledad. The hurt that came with it was monumental.

Bo caught her wincing. "Sorry. Shouldn't be making jokes."

The pain passed. Soledad knew what Bo was building to, and with sheer force of will silently asked the question. Reese?

"She's still alive," Bo answered. "You can call it that. She's got… there's… it's a hole. That thing put a goddamn hole in her chest. Had to… they, uh, had to take out one of her lungs."

Bo's voice cracked. He had to tilt back his head to keep water from filling his eyes. Something about that; something so painful about a cop, a tough cop, breaking down over one of their own… For Soledad it hurt just to watch.

"That mutie, its hand was so hot it cauterized the wound. Only thing that saved her. Even at that, a little to the left, an inch, and it would have cooked her heart."

Yeah, but the thing's hand wasn't that inch to the left. Reese was alive.

A version of it.

Virtually alive.

Soledad wanted to tell Bo that everything would be cool, that Reese would make it through okay. Maybe with just one lung, and a big fat divot where her sternum used to be, but she would make it. And then, after a long while 'cause everybody had a lot of recovering to do, he and Reese and Yar and herself would all be back together: an element again. Even though they'd only been on one call together—one that had nearly gotten them all dead—they'd be back together and better than ever. Except for the burns on Yar's body, and Bo's cracked skull and Soledad's seared flesh and Reese's missing lung, better than ever.

Soledad wanted to tell Bo all that, but her broiled throat turned her reassuring words into a sickly gurgle that meant nothing.

"She's in a coma," Bo continued, not having been able to decipher Soledad's new language. "Good thing, I guess. She can't feel anything that way. Thirty-three, you know that? Reese was thirty-three." Something in his voice. A quiver. He was breaking again."You don't think how young that is until someone dies at that age."

But she wasn't dead, Soledad thought. Thought hard, trying to make Bo hear her. Reese wasn't dead, so why would he say something as foolish as that when he knew she wasn't—

"You did a job out there." Bo looked back to Soledad. He worked up a smile, forced some dull light behind his eyes."For a probee, and against a pyro? You were really something. Really…"

Bo hesitated. A second. Hardly that. Time enough for Soledad to know what was coming wasn't good.

Bo said: "There's going to be trouble. About the gun. The one you used. I shouldn't be going on about that now. You've got other concerns. I don't want you to worry, but you should know. I think… I'm pretty sure there's going to be trouble, and you should at least know."

Soledad wasn't sure what to say to that. Couldn't say anything if she did know how to respond. So she did nothing, didn't want to do anything. The drugs that killed her pain dulled her ability to care about possible future troubles she might have. She just wanted to float. Floating was fine.

For a while longer, a good while, Bo sat with Soledad. Saying nothing. Just sitting. Just being there for her. After he'd sat for what seemed like a good amount of time, he got up and patted Soledad twice on the shoulder and left.

Soledad kept on floating over her body. She thought—or at least all the dope working in her made her think—as long as she had freedom from solid form, she should float to Reese's room, see how she was doing.

And maybe Reese was having a fake out-of-body experience too. Maybe the both of them could float and talk, get to know each other like they'd never previously done, or maybe take a sail around the hospital, because how many times in life do you get to fly?

So Soledad did that; tried to float to Reese.

She couldn't.

She went to sleep instead.

Reese made for a queer sight. Lying on her hospital bed, she looked tranquil; face placid. Body relaxed. The angel at rest.

In high contrast were blood-soaked bandages that covered her ugly red/black wounds, tubes and catheters and wires that ran from orifice to sustaining contraption—commingled in a complex matrix until it was pretty much impossible to tell where humanity ended and appliance began. If the devices sustained the body, or if the body justified the devices' existence.

And with the hybrid biomechanical form came the sounds of life: the slurping of the pumps and the suction of the tubes that replaced the inhale/exhale of lungs and the quiet, regular beat of a human heart. The beeps and clicks of monitors as they read cardio rate and pulse and respiration and alpha waves and tabulated their minute variances over a period of time, then printed this information so that the well-trained, highly skilled, overly expensive C-S medical staff could analyze the data and pronounce their prognosis: no change. The patient was, still, not dead, not alive.

All that science, all those electronics and gears and dials just to maintain the approximation of life.

Nearly two weeks. Ten days it'd taken Soledad to nerve herself for the event of crutching it from her room, down the hospital corridor to the elevator to the ICU to where what remained of Reese was kept. Ten days, not counting the five Soledad had no choice but to sit in her room, recovering, with nothing more to do than prepare for visiting Reese.

Yarborough she'd seen already. Visiting Yarborough had been easy. Even banged up and in the hospital, Yar was in good spirits.

Not that he'd been looking to get himself all fried, but he didn't much seem to care. Yarborough was the original BAMF. An MTac with an exponent. He didn't do what he did so much because he believed in the cause; because he wanted to protect and defend ordinary humans from the hegemony of the muties. He did what he did because how many times in life do you get to serve warrants on people who can throw flames from their bodies or make metal come alive? Not enough where Yarborough was concerned. Not hardly. It was like he was bred for the job. Five-ten, just over one-sixty, Yar was trim and light and moved fast, and that helped him get through a bunch of years of hunting freaks well battered but still alive. His scar tissue got worn like medals, were displayed just as proudly.

Soledad, hand to her throat. Absentminded.

Yarborough had pointed out his wounds to Soledad in a morbid show-and-tell. A puncture in his chest where a telekinetic had sent a sharp piece of something or other. Teeth marks where a shape-shifter tried to bite out part of his leg.

"And you see this?" A scar on his temple Yarborough stuck a finger at with glee."Know who gave me this?"

Soledad didn't.

"Gave it to myself. Shot myself in the head. Or a telepath tried to shoot myself for me."

"You went up against a telepath?" Soledad, impressed. There were only a very few MTacs, anywhere, who'd ever mixed it up with a telepath and lived to tell. And that was the thing: Out of all the boasts Yar'd made to Soledad since she'd arrived at Central MTac, going against a telepath wasn't one of them.

"Hell yeah." Big smile."When I was working Valley."

"What happened?"

Yarborough's smile got doused."You're looking at all that's left of that Valley MTac. Nothing you can do about telepaths. Not a goddamn thing."

Guilt. Heavy, hurtful, ugly. Yar had lived while others had died, and now he had guilt for doing nothing more wrong than somehow keeping alive. And Soledad got exactly why he didn't talk about going against a telepath; the guilt he felt, she knew very well.

Yarborough took a beat, recovered a little, got back to being a BAMF. Telepath couldn't put him down, he boasted. He hadn't met the freak that could.

Then he asked Soledad about her gun, about how she was able to take out the pyro.

She explained things to him, the tech that went into her piece: a modified O'Dwyer VLe. The first all-electronic handgun. No moving parts. Nothing to wear down. Nothing to ever get jammed in the middle of a shoot-out. Not even a magazine. Not a regular one. The bullets were stacked in-line in the barrels—yeah. Barrels. Soledad's piece had four—and fired electronically. Four shots in less than 1/500 of a second. A recoiling barrel meant the rounds would fire at one aim point before there was any recoil effect. Audio/visual settings confirmation. Distance-to-target meter. Electronic lockout. Digital download and upgrade capacity…

On and on and Yar got all juiced just listening. It was the future Soledad was carrying. And once they got healed up, with the new side arms Soledad had, they were going to kick some serious freak ass.

Except, Soledad thought, for what Bo had told her. There might be, there probably was going to be, trouble about her gun. Soledad wasn't on so many drugs anymore. The thought of trouble started to worry her. She didn't share the worry with Yar. Yar was happy with his new wounds. Why spoil things?

They talked on a while more. Yarborough talked on, told stories. Every one an adventure, and every adventure ending with a mutie down and him victorious. Soledad couldn't be sure of the ratio of truth to fiction, but for the minute that was unimportant. The stories were spun well, exciting, and they made her think at least for a second that normal humans had a chance in their war against the metanormals.

When she left Yarborough's room, when he was worn out from recanting and the sedatives a nurse had given him, Soledad felt invigorated. Felt almost good. Except for her limp and throb from her burns. Except for those.

Easy. Visiting Yarborough had been easy. Almost fun.

Visiting Reese…

Soledad stood looking at the body, wondering how many more seconds of searing heat would've left her in Reese's place. She wondered, too, if it would've been better for that thing to have fused the arteries that ran up and down her throat, to have out and out killed her rather than put her in the phantom zone between life and death where it put Reese.

Down the hall: A nurse walked. A door opened. A draft swirled through the corridor, finding Soledad. It lifted her flimsy gown and played with her flesh before dissipating to still air.

Did Reese even dream? Soledad thought she remembered hearing that people in comas don't dream. But she only thought she remembered that.

And weren't you supposed to talk to them, the comatose? Couldn't they hear you, and if you talked to them, wasn't that supposed to help make them better? Help them heal? Soledad thought she remembered hearing that too.

But if they— Soledad checked herself. Reese she was thinking about. Not they. They had no name, and they was faceless. Reese had a name and a face, and Reese was alive. Forget the machines and apparatus and contraptions, Reese was still alive.

So if Reese couldn't dream, if she couldn't hear herself in her own mind, how could she hear anyone else?

And what do you say to the comatose? Come on, you can do it. You can get healthy. You can exist again if you want.

Soledad thought about that, and thought it was like talking to a plant; like coaxing it from brown leaves to a bright green. Couldn't do it. She couldn't talk to Reese like she was some other form of life: alive but without expression. She couldn't talk to Reese like… as if she were the way she was: a thoughtless, senseless husk.

All Soledad could do was mumble something the content of which even she wasn't sure of. The voice she heard, her voice, was new and different. The burns on her throat had deformed her vocal cords. She liked to think she sounded raspy. Adult and mature. She figured she just sounded like she had throat cancer.

Soledad had been standing in ICU so long the drone of life support had faded down to Muzak. It was time to go. But how do you leave someone who may or may not even know you're there? How do you leave someone who may be serene on the outside but screaming like the buried undead within?

Soledad slid fingers, gently, along Reese's shoulder—skin soft, body warm. There was still life there. There was still hope—along Reese's tattoo of the bold words.

And then Soledad left.

What is this? You want to tell me what this is?"

"It's my gun."

Soledad tried to read Rysher. Rysher was hard to read. He looked weary. Sort of. Not quite angry. Mostly he looked pained. But it was just hard to tell. Rysher'd spent a lot of years navigating the politics of the LAPD. He'd floated their currents all the way to lieutenant of G Platoon, the Metanormal Tactical Unit. Big title. Lot of responsibility. You're in charge of the people who keep superhumans in check in the second largest city in America. You don't get to a spot like that by having a weak poker face, letting everybody know exactly what you're thinking and how you're feeling. At the moment, consciously or unconsciously, he betrayed nothing. Soledad couldn't tell for sure if Rysher's look was pained or quietly furious.

"I know it's your gun, Officer. Specifically what is this?"

On his desk, where the lieutenant's finger pointed, was Soledad's case: her side arm and its clips. Six of them. Color-coded. Blue, green, yellow, orange, black and red. The red clip—phosphorus-tipped bullets—she'd used to chop the pyro. Effective but obviously not enough killing power. Maybe she needed to hollow the points, up the damage quotient to compensate for the speed lost by the friction of the burning slug against the air as it…

Soledad realized she'd been thinking when she should have been listening.

"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't—"

"I asked you to tell me what this is."

Soledad glanced at Bo. Bo, arms folded, leaning against the wall, didn't look ready to involve himself in things. For the minute he wasn't Soledad's sergeant, element member. He was a spectator. Nothing more, nothing else.

"It's an O'Dwyer VLe."

That got a laugh from Rysher. Part bemused. Part dismissive."You're kidding, right? Metalstorm can't get DARPA to approve this thing past the experimental stage. HIT has written it off, and you take it out on a call? How did you even get one?"

"They sent it to me. Metalstorm granted me permission to make modifications provided I gave them the rights to all patents that resulted from my work."

Rysher, walking through things slowly: "On your own. You go out, get permission from an experimental contractor. Then, spare time, you modify a weapon?"

Rysher turned to Bo, looked to him. As always, Rysher gave nothing. Bo, maintaining his disinterested-observer status, returned nothing.

"My undergraduate work was in emerging technologies at Northwestern. I staffed A Platoon in the armory for more than a year, where I was trained in modifying both SWAT and MTac weaponry. This is not a hobby, sir. I'm fully qualified."

Under her clothes, from under her arm, along the side of her body, Soledad felt a single drop of sweat crawl down her flesh.

Light eked through the window, past drapes faded dull from years of collecting sunlight. It lit the walls, fake wood paneling, and reflected off of plaques to Lieutenant Rysher and awards to Lieutenant Rysher and honors to Lieutenant Rysher and photographs of suits and brass giving Rysher those plaques and awards and certificates. Soledad was featured in one of the pictures. Her and Rysher, him shaking her hand, the day she was accepted to G Platoon. Soledad still had sense memory of his strong grip that transferred respect. Rysher'd welcomed a lot of cops to his command over years of service. Out of all of them, that he should choose to hang a shot of him and Soledad in his office… Rysher was proud of Soledad. Had told her that on many occasions, and not just when he was handing her wall dressing. A lot of times, just passing her in the hall, he'd take a minute to stop, talk, catch up with her, then having done so end things with" I'm proud of you, Soledad." That's what made sitting in his office breaking things down for him hard. Whatever the situation, if Rysher was pissed at her… that wasn't good, but she'd deal. But, decent as he'd always been, what Soledad couldn't deal with was letting Rysher down.

Rysher, holding up one of the clips, the red one: "This is what you used on the pyro. Phosphorus, right?"

Soledad gave a nod.

Rysher held up the yellow clip.

"Synthetic slugs. For metal morphers."

"Synthetic slugs don't give you enough velocity." Rysher put that square. He wasn't just some brass behind a desk. He'd spent a long time, a lot of years, going after freaks. He knew what he was talking about.

So did Soledad."The gun has DTT auto targeting for distance modulation. Because the weapon is electronic, it can modulate the discharge with the synthetic slugs, fire them at a higher velocity relative to distance from target." That was technical mumbo jumbo. The point: "It moves the slugs fast enough to put down its target."

The green clip.

"High-density muties: invulnerables, impenetrables."

"What good is a bullet if it can't penetrate?"

"The slug is a gelcap. Contact poison. Exposed to the flesh, it arrests the nervous system in less than twelve seconds."

That one, the green clip, Rysher set down carefully."Little something for everybody."

A shrug."Nothing for intangibles, sir. I've been working on it, but freaks that can shift planes, manipulate density…? I haven't figured out anything for them yet. Or for telepaths."

Bo made a move. Slight. But he'd been so still, quiet, his slightest action was magnified by expectation. Soledad, Rysher, they both looked to Bo. He did nothing more than adjust his stance. Make himself comfortable.

Soledad tugged at the collar of her turtleneck, self-conscious.

Rysher said: "What were you thinking? How could you… Why would you do this?" He was so full of lament you'd think he was asking Soledad why she shot his dog.

"How could I do what, sir?"

"First time I heard about you, everybody was saying you were good cop."

"I am a good—"

"You worked hard, you angled for MTac. I had hopes for you. High hopes, O'Roark."

O'Roark. Her last name. Soledad couldn't recall a time, in private, Rysher didn't use her first name. Now O'Roark. No" Officer" in front of it. Just O'Roark. Distant. Cold.

Soledad said: "And I haven't done anything that—"

"The hell you haven't." Distant. Cold. Getting more so by the second."You used ordnance that aren't approved, aren't certified."

"The weapon works, sir."

"It's not even out of the experimental stage of development."

"It's… no, sir, it's not. But I have tried for two years to get the weapon certified."

"Tried how?"

"I submitted schematics, proposals, test results to A Platoon."

"And when you didn't get the response you wanted, when you wanted it, you decided to field-test your piece on your first call."

"No, sir."

"You packed that thing by accident? Sure wasn't an accident you had it hidden in this case. If you'd carried it in the open—"

Soledad began an answer, got tripped up at the starting line. Then: "It was meant to be a backup. If our element had no other option—"

"And you decide that? A probee on MTac, and you decide how to handle a call."

"What was the alternative? Do nothing while that freak put four people in a coma instead of one? At least that. I did my job. Sir."

No matter the respect she had for Rysher, in the moment, Soledad almost forgot to tack on the honorific.

Made no difference. Rysher wasn't listening. He was sitting, thinking. His fingers working at the spot where his temple met his brow.

Bo: "Sir, what's Officer O'Roark's status."

Rysher took a few seconds. His fingers kept up their work."I'm taking her off active duty."

… No…

"For now she's going to be riding a desk."

"No!"

"You're no good until the doctors give your leg a clean bill anyway. Beyond that—"

"I… sir, I don't… I didn't do anything that I deserve to be—"

"You yanked open the furnace door. Made it hot for all of us."

"I did my job."

Rysher gave a long study to Soledad. For the first time his expression revealed his feelings. He looked like he pitied the girl.

Rysher said: "You really don't see it, do you?"

"I didn't empty my clip into a kid with a shank. I chalk a righteous shooting, shot one of them, and I get sat down?"

"Your piece wasn't certified. Nobody told you to carry that thing. Technically… nothing technical about it. Your piece is illegal. No matter what kind of work it did, it's illegal and you used it anyway. You did things the way you saw fit."

"As a last resort. Better that than let cops die."

"Just trying to save lives?"

"Yes, sir. I was just trying to—"

"Freaks used to save lives, O'Roark. Freaks used to do what they wanted no matter what the law said. Do you see?"

She saw.

Soledad just then saw the total picture. Clarity of vision had come late to her. Really it was just denial falling away, some truth getting through.

Rysher: "After May Day, after the freaks wiped out San Francisco, the president issued an Executive Order. Muties are enemies of the state."

"I know."

"MTac platoons were formed with one job: enforce the letter of the law. Protect normal humans."

A little anger. At herself."You're telling me what I know!"

"You know, yes, but do you understand? Do you understand why things are the way they are? There's order, and there is chaos. The freaks are chaos. MTac is order. When we fall apart, there is nothing left."

And Rysher just lets that hang.

And Rysher said, said to Bo: "Take her, get her set up."

Bo took Soledad by the arm. Minding her limp and her cane, started to guide her from the office.

She moved like she was sleepwalking.

"O'Roark."

Soledad turned back to Rysher.

"I know you were just trying to do right. I have to be… I'm going to be straight with you."

"Yes, sir."

"The situation is problematic."

"Yes, sir."

"It's problematic, but don't worry. Not too much. We've got some good boys in this department. We'll try to fix things for you."

Bo got Soledad a desk—a standard-issue municipal desk among a field of desks in Parker Center—and the duty-bug pencil pushing that went with it, the boring core of police procedure.

Forms and requisitions and 66s and want cards.

No matter she'd just been reassigned, forms and requisitions and

66s and want cards waited for Soledad when she arrived at her new position. They were waiting for her like from day one, whatever else Soledad had planned for herself, they were what she would eventually be coming around to. They slothed on her desk, a drowning pool of the mundane. Looking at them, at a distance, she felt their wasting. This is what trying to make a difference had bought. Wasn't supposed to be this way. The way it was supposed to be…

"Bo… I meant what I told the lou. I only took the gun along as a last resort. I'm tired of seeing people get killed, cops get killed. I just wanted to do something about it."

Honest with the facts: "Well, you sure pissed your chance away."

Bo started off, left Soledad to the rug she'd been swept under. He stopped, turned back. Trying to paint a decent picture of the situation: "It'll work out." Not much conviction there. Bo headed off.

Forms and requisitions and 66s and want cards. Been a long time since Soledad had been near the basics of cop work.

Soledad looked around, looked at everybody else working a desk: Too young to have climbed off of one. Too old to do anything else. A couple who were too much trouble to be let out onto the streets. It was a funky little zoo of cops too-something to do anything but what they were doing: shuffling papers.

Welcome, Soledad.

Forms and requisitions and 66s and want cards.

She roboted her way through them for what seemed like all day.

A glance at her watch. It was only midmorning.

A couple of hours since she'd taken a tumble from MTac to working a desk. She sucked a breath. A couple of hours, just a couple and things had changed that much, that bad, that quick?

A couple of…

And from a desk where was there to go? Down? Out?

Jesus had she screwed things. Jesus.

Screwed, yeah, but they could be fixed. Rysher said he could fix them. Soledad would do everything she could to help. She promised herself this: She did not survive an encounter with a pyro just to get taken out by some technicality. Her and her gun had put down a flamethrower. Her and her gun had saved a whole element… except for Reese, her and her gun had. So to hell with the rules and regulations and dotted i's and crossed t's and…

And Rysher was right.

And Bo was right.

She'd fucked up. No other way, no gentle way to put it. Soledad had fucked up. She hadn't tried to skirt regs. Not on purpose. Not really. She'd only tried to fulfill a simple mandate given to herself years ago: get rid of every single metanormal freak of nature that existed.

But judgment on her actions wasn't about saving a few lives. It was about law and order, and the bold words tattooed across Reese's shoulder.

First call, and Soledad had come out no better than the mutie they'd gone after. She was no better than the things that she hated.

There was another before she came, but him I barely remember, or remember what happened to. He might've been killed fighting the Void. I can't recall.

But her… I remember the Princess. See her in action once, you'd never forget her. She could kick ass, yeah, but they all could. She could kick ass and she was beautiful. And graceful. The way she would sail above the city. Not fly, sail. It was the same difference in motion between a motor-boat and a tall ship.

She made me proud, Nubian Princess.

How many times I'd heard that, Nubian Princess, from guys who just wanted to get with me, who just wanted to break off some of what I had. Enough times that the words didn't mean anything anymore. Not until I saw her. Strength and grace and beauty embodied.

For a while, just after she first appeared, they started showing up one after the other. Quadrupleman, the Texan, Tavor, Blue Knight, Red Dawn and the rest of the Color Guard… It was getting so you needed a score-card. Incredible abilities. Unbelievable powers. Were they always among us and just then decided to show their faces? Was this some kind of sudden, incredible leap in human evolution? Aliens? Heavenly agents? Questions got asked, but there was no one to answer them. All any of us normal people knew was that we were on a schedule. Every month or so we could expect new hero, new costume, new power. Most were guys (white guys), most were brutish, most didn't get my attention beyond a" Oh, isn't that interesting. It's the hero dujour."

Most. But not the Princess.

Tough, proud, and as costumes go she actually had fashion sense. To me

she was a symbol and an inspiration, and I wanted nothing more in the world than to be like her.

And she let me down. Just like the rest of them let all of us down. Worse than that. The baseball player everyone loves who turns out to be an afternoon boozer lets you down. Same with the corporate CEO who shovels employees' 401 (k) money into his beach house in Maui. What the so-called heroes, what the freaks did: They deceived us, lied to us.

They killed us. Our spirit and then our bodies.

Be like Nubian Princess? I want nothing to do with her except to throw flowers on her grave.

La Brea and Sunset. The busiest intersection in a city full of nothing but cars and traffic.

Head to her steering wheel. Had to be this intersection?

A deep, deep breath. Relaxing for just a second. Getting calm, because this Soledad did not need. On a Saturday? On a day off and away from the department and the desk that had become a prison she commuted to daily? At least, she thought, the air bag hadn't deployed. It was, what? Three hundred dollars to replace those? That's if it didn't kill you first. But she was moving too slowly when she rear-ended the other car to set it off, the car she now sat tangled with at the intersection of La Brea and Sunset. Maybe, God willing, too slowly to have done any real damage.

Horns honked: other drivers trying to make their way around the two bumper-smacked vehicles that were slowing up traffic. They didn't care there was an accident. They didn't care somebody might've been hurt. This was Los Angeles. Slow up traffic in LA you better hope the crash kills you before some pissed, late-to-be-somewhere-that's-nowhere-important nut job with a gun does.

Soledad got out of her car. The other driver got out of his, met her halfway and hot.

"Look at this. Would you look at this?"

Soledad looked. The other car, the one she'd hit, was a Jaguar. Not a new one, an old one. She didn't know how old; what year, what model. Soledad wasn't into cars like that. But it was beautiful. British racing green with a mirror polish. Mint condition. Mint right up until Soledad took out the Jag's rear fender with the front one of her few-years-old Prelude.

"Look at this," the driver ordered again."Do you believe this?" he asked.

"I'm sorry."

"I'm stopped, I'm sitting here. You didn't see me sitting here?"

"I didn't."

"I'm sitting here at the light, at a red light, and you didn't see me? Didn't you see the light? You didn't see that? How are you not going to see a red light with a green Jaguar sitting in front of it?"

Her nonreg gun. Her desk assignment. Reese.

Soledad said: "Had things on my mind."

"Didn't see me? How the hell are you not—"

She'd caught that part before."I said I was sorry."

"Insured is what you better be."

Yeah. Fine.

Back to her car, a bit of a limp still, but she didn't use the cane anymore. No crutches for Soledad. She leaned to her glove box. Her fingers ran over Kleenex, a coupon for In 'n Out… that watch she thought she'd lost six weeks ago…

Something caught her attention. A lack of something. The other driver wasn't complaining anymore. He wasn't telling Soledad what to look at, or how she'd better be covered. What he was doing was throwing a slack-jawed stare at Soledad, at her hip, at the gun that was holstered there and revealed beneath her coat as she leaned into her car.

Simple explanation: I'm a cop. It's my off-duty piece. Soledad didn't bother. Let the guy sweat a little. Let him worry about opening his mouth and wise-talking one more time and getting a bullet for his trouble.

Insurance card.

Soledad came up out of the glove box, went back to the guy, his rant now fully replaced with awkward gawk.

"You know," he started,"if… if you're not insured, we can work something out."

Literally Soledad bit back a smile.

"It's just, you know, a classic… I got a little upset, but we can work somethi—"

"Here." The guy got Soledad's insurance card shoved his way.

With a pen he quivered down her information.

"I'll just… I'll h-have my insurance company call and—"

"Yeah."

Card back, Soledad slid into her car. She started up. She pulled around the Jaguar and took off. In her rearview mirror the guy bent over and sucked air.

Sunday. Sunday afternoon ritual. Soledad dialed the phone. It rang a couple of times, picked up.

On the other end a woman said: "Hello?"

Soledad forced a little lightness into her voice: "Hey, Mom."

Soledad loved her parents.

"Soledad! How are you, baby?"

"Good. Good."

"Soooo, what's going on?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing new. Just, you know, same old."

The conversation was no different this Sunday than it'd been last Sunday. Maybe a little more vague on Soledad's end, a little less information on every single thing in her life than she usually conveyed to her mother. But not as vague as the conversation would be next Sunday. The level of communication she had with her parents, the world, was in a slow state of decay. Later Soledad's father would jump on the phone after coming in from doing yard work. Same as last Sunday, the Sunday previous. Same as next Sunday. For now it was just her and her mother. Soledad asked how her father was doing, her mother answered, then asked Soledad how work was, which Soledad dodged with more vagary, then went into:

"The weather's been kind of nice. A little hot, but nothing too much. Just… nice."

Soledad loved her parents.

But the weather, talk about a movie she'd seen, something good that she was reading: Any of that was all the infiltration Soledad allowed her parents to her life. Allowed anyone, really. Soledad was not a people person as much as somebody could not be one. She didn't like sitting around chitchatting about herself, listening to other people like she cared about them. Cold is what people would call her. Would if they ever got to know her. Few did. That was fine. If she didn't bother with most people, she didn't have to break down a week's worth of her life for most people. She did for her parents. But she avoided specifics. Soledad rationalized it was for their own good: not getting details on a cop's life. Wasn't really. Largely it was good for Soledad's sanity.

She remembered the time she was out running in West Hollywood and got clipped by a car. Nothing serious. Her thigh was deep purple and tender for a week. Her wrist badly sprained. A day after the accident Soledad's mother had made the flight from Milwaukee to Los Angeles with her dad in tow. She cared, that's all. She just cared a little too much for Soledad's taste.

And she worried. Soledad's mother worried constantly about her daughter. Bad enough when she was just a regular cop, her fretting kicked into overdrive when Soledad made MTac. Every time there was a report of an MTac element serving a warrant on a freak, Soledad's mother was on the phone wanting to know if Soledad was all right, still alive.

No big deal.

It's what moms do.

Except Soledad's mom would make the call even if the warrant had been served in Dallas or Miami or some other city miles from where Soledad lived, and even though Soledad had yet to go on a first call herself.

It was by the grace of God or just good fortune that when Soledad got battered around by the pyro her parents happened to be on a cruise in the Caribbean and didn't hear about it until a week after the fact. By then Soledad was recovered enough to tell them, to lie to them as she lay in a hospital bed, that the incident was nowhere near as bad as the news reported. Soledad's new voice was passed off as a bad cold. Her mom didn't fly out. One day Soledad would have some explaining to do about why her voice never changed back, why her throat was laureled with scars.

Her father came in from outside, picked up on an extension. Soledad again recounted the weather, gave an update on the book she was halfway through. While she droned on she thought maybe today was the day to end the dodging; quit lying and start including her parents in on her life. Tell them about her first call and the pyro, her short stay in the hospital and Reese's continued one. And then, Soledad thought, she should cap all that off by telling her parents she was facing an uncertain future regarding a gun she'd put together hoping to balance the normal vs. metanormal struggle in favor of the normals.

Sure.

Soledad loved her parents.

And Soledad wanted to include her parents in her life and her work and her aspirations. She wanted to be able to turn to them with her problems and fears. But she also knew what would be best for them and for her—what would keep them all happy and healthy—was to keep them blissfully ignorant. So she kept on talking about the weather and books and anything else that wasn't Soledad-specific.

At the end of forty-five minutes I-love-yous were passed around. Soledad hung up. She thought about what she'd have to do at work the following day, and how she would fill her week, the seven days, until she made the phone call home again.

It's a miracle," the reporter was saying on the television in the background on one of the morning breakfast news/weather/yak/ helpful-hint shows.

Soledad was more interested in how come she didn't get more raisins in her Raisin Nut Bran—might as well call it Not Raisin Nut Bran—but caught enough of the dry details broadcast at her to be able to piece the story together: a gas explosion at an apartment complex in Studio City. The whole thing blown up and burned down. Plenty of footage—the smoldering shell of the building, the gawking onlookers—to go with the description. But, and here's the miracle part, no casualties. No injuries even. A thoroughly decimated structure, and everyone got out alive and unharmed.

"It's a miracle," the reporter again reminded the audience.

How about that? A little good news.

That story got followed up by what went down in Indianapolis. The Indy MTac—what passed for MTac in Indianapolis—had served an EO on a metanormal.

Euphemism.

They'd killed a mutie. Not much of a mutie. It had geomagnetic abilities; could move earth and rock, do low-grade terraforming. None of that was much good against the Indianapolis MTac's bullets, and the Indianapolis MTac was all giddy 'cause in the years since the EO'd been enacted they'd finally had a shot at a freak and came out victorious.

A geomagnetic. BFD.

Soledad wondered, she wondered how they would've rated against a real freak; a pyrokinetic? Would they have survived their encounter like she had? What about a shape-shifter or metal morpher?

A telepath?

She knew how they, how any MTac, would do against that.

Hand to her neck.

She thought: She should go see Reese. View her. That was the only way to describe sitting with the comatose. Soledad hadn't done that in a while, hadn't been able to stomach it. Yeah, she should do that; visit Reese. Maybe tomorrow. No, tomorrow or the next day she really needed to spend her free time getting the front bumper of her car fixed where it hung limp from her accident. Thursday was physical therapy with her leg. And she wanted to see a doc about her throat. Was there any kind of surgery, anything to be done about the scars? But soon, real soon she was going to go and view Reese.

Raisins gone and bran soggy, she tossed out the remains of her breakfast.

Middle of the hallway. Soledad stopped, her head sprang up. The words of the cop who'd passed her just then seeping in.

"What'd you say?" she snapped at his back.

The cop turned, his face puzzled in expression."I said, 'Hey. '"

"What did you call me?"

"… I… What did I—"

"Call me. What did you—"

"Bullet. I said, 'Hey, Bullet. '"

"Bullet?"

"Cops, they've been talking about you; about what you did to that mutie. About all those bullets you got. Cops were talking, and they started calling you—"

"That's not my name."

"It's just a nick—"

"Bullet is not my name." Reacting like she was allergic to the whole concept."Soledad."

"I know. I know that. It's just a—"

"Soledad, or O'Roark, or if you're desperate for something, Officer O'Roark's—"

"Look," the cop cut her off, tired of just standing there taking what Soledad was handing out,"it was meant as a compliment. Learn to take it."

The cop turned. The cop walked away.

Soledad gave thought to yelling after the cop, telling him two or three or ten places he could put his compliment. There was no point in sharing any of them. She kept on for her desk, for the full shift of the insipidness that waited for her.

Up the hallway: Bo and Yarborough. Yar's left wrist was in a splint, a sprain mending, acquired when the element responded to a call on an invulnerable. The invulnerable got away, and Yar got a sprain that was probably not a sprain, but a break. But if his wrist was busted, regs were, Yar would have to take a seat until it was healed. So, probably, it was a break he called a sprain.

The green clip. The slugs with the contact poison. If they could've used that, Yar's wrist wouldn't've been broken or sprained or whatever, Soledad thought. The invulnerable'd be dead.

No freaks today. No calls. No warrants to serve. Like most days, for most of the MTac elements, there'd be some training, maybe some refresher course of some kind, a lot of waiting for DMI, the Division of Metanormal Investigations, to hand them a warrant, or for someone in the city—someone who walked around like they were normal—to reveal themselves for the freak they really were. Estimates, estimates by DMI, the guys and girls who kept quiet surveillance of suspected freaks, figured there were about forty or fifty creeping around LA alone. Most had fled during the thirty days the prez had given them to get the F out of the country. Most went to Europe, where they still wore their costumes, did their superhero shtick: avert a natural disaster, bag a terrorist. But the heroes weren't the only ones forced out of the country. The bad guys, the superperps, had gotten the F out too. And they kept doing their thing, trying to perpetrate evil at the highest level. And way too regularly a couple of superheroes and supervillains would mix it up in Berlin or Madrid or Prague, take out a few buildings, get a few dozen people killed, and it was real obvious our government had made the right decision: freaks stay, freaks get dealt with by any means necessary. So MTacs all over the city, in cities all over America, trained and stayed in practice, but mostly waited for a mutie somewhere to raise its head for just a split second so they could go and take it off.

Bo waved Soledad over. Two other guys talking with him and Yarborough.

"Jim Whitaker," Bo started the introductions,"and Vin Cana-velli."

Whitaker had been transferred from Pacific MTac, and Vin was reactivated from Central MTac, having just recently been clean-billed from injuries he'd collected going after a thing that could generate and discharge electricity. Soledad had met Whitaker once before. Decent guy. Good cop. Except that he was eager to please. Always seemed to be working hard to be everybody's friend. Made him come off a little jittery, a little jumpy, like a dog that couldn't wait to do tricks for its master. Standing still, Whitaker always looked like he was doing a salsa. To Soledad's thinking anyway. Red hair, pinkish skin, he was the kind of guy who should've had a nickname like Rusty. Vin was new to her. Dark in complexion and smooth in feature, he looked like maybe he had originally come to LA to get into the business of show, but by some twist of circumstances had ended up in MTac.

"Good to meet you, Soledad." Vin was following up an enthusiastic hello from Whitaker."Heard you did a hell of a job on that fire freak."

Soledad nodded her head some. Kind of said something, snide, about getting put on a desk for her efforts.

Vin, picking up on that: "Can't imagine Whitaker and me replacing you and Reese for long."

"I can't imagine you replacing us at all."

Vin took a verbal step back."Don't take that wrong. I didn't mean anything."

"You don't mean anything, why are you saying anything?"

"Just making conversation."

"Well, you're doing a shitty job of it."

"I think you and me are starting off wrong. Want to try this again?"

"Why bother? You're just around temporary, right?"

Amused, not fazed, Vin smiled."Sure. Just keeping it warm for you."

Ever the appeaser, Whitaker started in with: "Hey, after shift, we all oughta head up to Los Feliz and grab—"

"See you, Bo, Yar." Soledad meant to get the last word in.

Vin beat her with, all sugary: "You be careful working that desk."

He was a most nondescript kind of guy. A little too tall to be short. Somewhere between fat and thin. His hair wasn't quite blond, not really brown either. Nothing about him stood out. A glass of warm water. Eggshell wallpaper. He was like that. You could stare right at the guy without even noticing him. Except Soledad couldn't help but notice him as he worked his way through the drawers of her desk.

Soledad stood, stared at him.

The guy kept up his search oblivious to, or unconcerned with, Soledad.

"Help you?" she asked in a tone that wasn't really asking much of anything, but more like saying: What are you doing?

The guy, the eggshell guy, remained oblivious. Or unconcerned.

Soledad cut straight to the subtext."What are you doing?"

No longer oblivious but still unconcerned, the guy held up identification.

"IA," Soledad muttered."So it's like that."

"It is like that." The guy closed a drawer and opened another. Had himself a look around. Finished, he raised his head. His eyes weren't blue, or green or hazel. They were some other dull color."Let's you and I talk."

Interrogation room. Morbid gray. Two-way mirror. A table bolted to the floor and a couple of chairs. Same room Soledad had used how many times, early days in SPU, to sweat perps who sat across the table, to wear confessions out of them? She sat, this time, on the other side of the table. The get— sweated side. The get-worn-away side.

The eggshell guy, his name was Tashjian—only distinct thing about him—sat where Soledad would have in times past and made a show taking a casual stroll through a jacket, her jacket. But all he was doing was looking at it, not reading it. No doubt he'd dug through Soledad's records like they were a boneyard long before he ever pulled up a chair with her. The performance was for Soledad so she could watch him fake-read, and he could watch her watching him to see how she took it.

She took it no different than if he was looking through an L. L. Bean catalog. She didn't care.

When Tashjian got through with his one-man show, he said: "O'Roark."

"What?"

"Nothing, I was just reading. Your name; I was just reading it here. Soledad O'Roark. Odd."

"My name?"

"Yes. Odd."

He couldn't get past her name without throwing darts? This was going to be fun."My name is odd?"

"Not the name. God, no. Who am I to talk about… The spelling. Don't normally spell 'O'Roark' like that. Guess it doesn't matter. Not like you're Irish."

That. Soledad knew what he was getting at: her being black but having an Irish surname. Like that was as unusual as having a third eye. It was only more games. An IA rat trying to light a fire to see what would bubble up. Soledad just took it. Like a slap to the face, she just took it.

Tashjian: "So you shot a mutie."

"You know I did."

"I know. But pretend I don't. Pretend I'm ignorant. Pretend I don't have a file on you thick as a phone book."

"Yes," Soledad roboted."I shot a freak."

"With that gun of yours. Hell of a gun, that gun of yours."

Like everything else about Tashjian, his voice was just there. Not squeaky, not monotone, not angry or accusatory or hey, buddy-friendly. You could read nothing from the way he talked at you. Just then, Soledad couldn't tell if the crack about the gun was a poor attempt at compliment or some kind of bait, so she let it pass.

"Where'd you learn to put together something like that?"

"It's in my jacket. My jacket you've already read."

Like he didn't even hear: "Where'd you learn to—"

"Northwestern. I majored in emerging technologies."

"Well, that's handy. You studying emerging technologies, learning how to make special weapons, then going on to join an MTac. Oh, hold a second…" Tashjian made a show of just then recalling something. Shuffling through Soledad's file for a paper he knew the precise location of: "Says here you did your grad work in metanor-mal psychology. Is that right? Did you do that?"

"Why are you playing these—"

"Did you?"

More of the robot voice: "I did my grad work in metanormal psychology."

"Well." That's all Tashjian said for a minute. Just that word, then nothing, as if he was taking a second to process this overwhelming flood of information he already knew. Then, again: "Well." And:

"Seems to me like you had it in your mind for a long time you wanted to be a freak hunter."

"That so unusual?"

"Some kids grow up wanting to be firemen. Some wanting to be chemical engineers. Some kids grow up wanting to go after freaks. Now, I think it's as unusual as hell to want to be a chemical engineer. But as far as going after superhumans to earn your pay… Let's find out if that's unusual."

Sarcastic: "And how do we do that?"

"Here's how: Why?"

"Because I ha—"

Tashjian's eyebrows gave a slight spike.

"Metanormals are a clear danger to our society and I've made the decision to dedicate myself to upholding the Executive Order enacted regarding—"

"You were going to say hate."

Nothing from Soledad.

"You were going to say you hate them."

Nothing from Soledad.

"Look, you hate them, you hate them. I hate them too."

"You're not being investigated by IA. You don't have to worry about somebody twisting up everything you say."

"Not much to twist up. Fourteen years since May Day, good luck finding anybody who doesn't want to see every freak put down. Yeah, the bleeding hearts, but some people don't eat meat either. Go figure."

Nothing from Soledad.

Tashjian closed up the file, flipped down his pen."Honestly, Officer, on the record, I'm happy for your piece. Happier if it went to work on every freak left in the city, then started working its way toward New York. Christ, not like we didn't give these things a chance. Thirty days to get out of the country, they can still turn themselves in anytime for deportation. And then they get paid on top of that." A little spark, finally, to Tashjian's voice."They get paid, what?"

"Fifty thousand dollars."

"Fifty thousand dollars in reparations on top of whatever they make selling the hard assets they can't transport. And with all that, you still got the lousy LA Times writing a piece about the freaks' civil rights every other week. They want rights, get out of the country. Go to France and get some rights."

"The Times is an also-run," Soledad tossed in."They've got to be contrary so somebody'll read them. Nobody's reading them anyway."

"However it is, ground zero, May Day, was just north of here. Could've been here. So you see where I'm coming from, Officer? And you can see I'm just asking: Why?"

"Why what?" Soledad had lost the question.

"Why dedicate yourself to hunting freaks?"

"I guess… I was very affected by what happened in San Francisco."

"You weren't born there."

"No, I wasn't."

"Have family there?"

"No."

"Friends?"

Soledad just sat for that one, not even bothering with an answer.

"Cold?"

"What?"

"You cold? Turtleneck, day like today, I figured maybe…"

"Why are you doing this?"

"Asking questions, that's all."

"I've done the drill enough times. Cops don't ask questions for the sake of asking."

"I'm not here to do bad things, Officer. I don't have to be. I'm just here to collect information. Maybe I'm even here to help."

"Yeah. You're my new best friend who was digging through my desk while my back was turned." Fingers became fists. Soledad's hands, living a life of their own, acted like they wanted to take a swing at Tashjian.

"I am trying to help, trying to see things your way. You make it hard when you sit there behaving like some poor, pathetic vic."

"You know what…"

"You made this gun, right? Modified it. Chose to carry it. You chose to go around the regs. Far as I can see, what happens now, you did this to yourself." From his pocket Tashjian took a pack of gum. Wrigley's Big Red. Spicy stuff. Carefully he selected one, tweezered it out with his fingers. Undid the wrapper. Chewed it. Setting the pack on the table, he flicked it to Soledad, who flicked it right back.

Tashjian: "It's a little hard to understand, that's all I'm saying. You can see that, can't you; it's a little hard to understand this obsession you've got."

"It's not… So is every cop on the force obsessed? The second you put on a uniform and try to uphold the law, does that make…" Soledad trailed off, not seeing the point in trying to state her case to the top of Tashjian's head. His face was down, buried in Soledad's jacket, which was apparently too engaging to put aside.

"That's just such an unusual way to spell 'O'Roark, '" he fascinated."Never seen it spelled that way before."

Soledad stared at Tashjian.

Stared at him.

She said: "I screwed up. I know I did. So if I've got to, I'll take what's coming to me. But meanwhile, there're freaks running around free as they please, and you'd rather fuck with me than go after them. So do your job, do what you have to. But I don't have time for this, I don't have time for your bullshit questions or your bullshit games." A hand whipped out to the file. The papers inside flipped up, snowed down."I got work to do."

By the time she heard the door slamming behind her Soledad was well down the hall. Then Soledad was pressing her forehead to the wall, holding herself up. Catching air. Soledad could feel her body shaking. She could talk tough all she liked. Truth: That plain guy she'd just left behind; sitting across from him, knowing the kinds of trouble he could cause for her, truth was he put a hell of a scare into her.

A hand on her shoulder. Bo's.

"Howzit?" he asked.

"I'm good." Still shaking some, sweat on her palms; Soledad wasn't even in the neighborhood of good.

Bo saw but said nothing about Soledad's state.

They walked.

"IA come at you hard?"

Soledad looked to Bo: "You know?"

"Tashjian's been around. He asked me some about you."

"Could've warned me."

"IA asks questions, you're not supposed to talk about it."

"And I'm the only one around here who breaks regs."

"You just have to be careful about things."

"Careful why? Careful because I'm going down and nobody wants to get caught up in my wake?"

"You don't know how things are going to work out. You've got me backing you… Soledad." Bo caught Soledad by the arm, turned her to him."You're good cop. If you weren't, I never would've wanted you on my element. I'm backing you, Rysher's backing you. This is gonna get worked out. You were trying to do right and this… it's gonna get worked out."

It sounded good anyway. At least Bo knew how to put confidence into things when he wanted to.

He said: "Well, now maybe I can talk to Rysher; get you back on the job. Your leg's healed up, and you sitting on a desk isn't doing anybody any good."

Soledad appreciated that and told Bo so and thanked him in advance for whatever he could do.

And then Bo offered: "Maybe sometime you could come by the house. My wife's fierce in the kitchen, loves having people over to cook for. Don't know if you cook much for yourself."

Soledad looked up, over. A couple of detectives, older guys, staring at her. She turned some, shut them out.

To Bo: "Thank you, but I don't think I'd be good company right now."

Soledad thanked Bo again for trying to help out.

Bo walked away.

Walking away. Suddenly that seemed, to Soledad, like a right idea. She thought about bagging the rest of the day. Hell with it. Just walk away, go on home and veg. It was just paperwork waiting for her. But paperwork was now Soledad's responsibility. Hate it or not, she didn't know, honestly didn't know how to ditch her responsibilities. That, or work was all she had in her life. In a fashion it had been her life since San Francisco.

Either way, she headed back for her desk.

Bludlust was the worst of them. There were others, all bad. Thrill Kill, Death Nell, Headhunter. Even The Liquidators managed to snuff the Giggler, but that was mostly luck. Bad luck for the Giggler. But Bludlust was the worst of them.

We should have known.

The moment Nightshift first showed up we should have known if there were these… heroes with supernormal abilities, sooner or later there would have to be super bad guys. And there were. Plenty of them.

At first they were just a better class of perp; ripping off the US Treasury or Fort Knox instead of a 7-Eleven or a liquor store.

It got worse.

Kidnapping the pope, holding the entire UN General Assembly hostage, pointing a death ray at St. Louis. You believe that? A death ray? That's what Hatchetman called it.

Hatchetman and his death ray. Funny except the thing could actually kill people. Could but didn't, because Nubian Princess stopped him.

They were like opposite sides of a coin, the heroes and the villains; the names, the costumes. So very much alike except one side was virtuous and the other side would kill without a thought. It was all so unreal, good and evil going at each other, like watching theater. It was all so far beyond us. And every time the battles between the two sides would escalate, the weapons of destruction became more absurd as they got more deadly. Geothermal devices, antimatter projectors, chrono-temporal displacement units. Forget the freaky names, the mad science that went into them. Those things could wipe out thousands in one swipe. But always at the last second of the eleventh hour, from out of nowhere, in

would swoop The Stylist or Pronto or Nightshift or Civil Warrior to save the day.

Routine it got to be. And, sure, maybe a few people would get killed along the way—a few of us lowly nonendowed normals—but there was nothing new about that. When weren't people getting killed by criminals? How much difference did it make if it was a junkie with a dull knife, a banger with a MAC-10 or Body Count with a sonic resonance device? Dead is dead, and that's as bad as it gets. And at the end of the day the heroes always, usually, beat the villains because the heroes were smarter than them. Better than them.

Better than most of them.

But Bludlust, he was the worst of them. A genocidal serial sociopath.

Shrink mumbo jumbo.

He got off on killing lots of people. Lots and lots of people at the same time. And with his freak supernormal brain he had the smarts to do it. He'd go after a bus, an airplane, a city block or a building. Usually he was nick-of-time-stopped by Pharos, the best of the metanormals. Handsome with his blond hair, golden suit and white cape. He was iconic, angelic. He was the perfect foil to an inhuman beast who could barely keep fed his appetite for destruction. Their battles raged back and forth so commonplace we got used to them in the same way you get used to earthquakes or tornadoes. Nothing you can do about them, right? You just live with them. Besides, the superheroes would take care of us.

Right?

San Francisco. Symbolic. It was where Nightshift, the original meta-normal, first appeared. Bludlust—with some kind of crazy megaweapon— was holding the whole city hostage. Again. Barely rated live coverage on CNN. And at the last moment Pharos raced to the rescue. Again.

And then something happened that had never happened before. The thing, the device, weapon: it went off.

The first day of May.

One second San Francisco was there, the next, half, three-quarters of it was a burned-out, scarred-over, heat-fused piece of rock that looked as if

nothing had ever existed there before. Like nothing would ever exist there again.

One second, one fraction of a moment in time, and the world changed.

Bludlust was eventually caught by the metanormals. He was executed by us normals. No trial, no appeals. He was put to death. It was his fault. His fault, and maybe Pharos's fault. If he hadn't fought Bludlust, if he had just let us pay the ransom…

Maybe, we got to thinking, it was all their fault the metanormals, good and bad. Running around like demigods in their rainbow wear. Who asked them to fight for us? Who asked them to save us? Who needed them?

The president, the Executive Order: Any person or persons who displays, uses or is known to possess abilities that are metanormal or supernormal shall be rendered immediately persona non grata without rights or expectations of rights until deemed by a court of law to be entitled to such rights as provided by the Constitution of the United States.

Political mumbo jumbo.

Kill freaks is what it said.

Most of the muties took their thirty-day grace and went off to Europe to live. Europeans didn't care what happened in San Francisco. They were glad to have the freaks around to save the day.

Fucking Europeans.

But a lot of the freaks stayed, went" underground," living among us like they were" us." They stayed because they were afraid they'd be killed trying to get out of the country, stayed to make a statement. Stayed because they thought they had a right to live wherever they wanted.

Sorry, freaks. The EO says you've got no rights.

After San Francisco—that's all anyone ever had to say,"after San Francisco." It had become a new obelisk on the time line of humanity— after they had destroyed the city, when police started forming the MTacs, I followed them, read about them in the papers and on the Net. Read about them getting killed off going against pyrokinetics, telekinetics, energy conductors, levitators, invulnerables and, especially, telepaths. After following

their exploits for a couple of years there were two things I was sure of: I wanted to join an MTac, and I didn't particularly want to die. So I studied freaks; studied their psychology, their physiology. How they think and how they functioned. And I studied technology. After I'd done all that, I made myself a gun.

Michelle ate.

Vaughn watched, pained. Emotional not physical.

Michelle bit into her chili cheeseburger. With her tongue she lapped up a half-torn pickle that hung from the edge of the bun. She managed to curl it up into her mouth, smiling at her accomplishment. Smiling about being outdoors and among people too. That's what caused Vaughn the pain: Michelle's smile. She should be smiling, but she should be smiling in Asia de Cuba or Orso or some other overpriced faker of trend, not sitting in a plastic chair half hidden out back of Pink's.

Aubrey sat next to her, not eating, just rubbing a spoon with his thumb. Habit.

At a table nearby was a family. A little girl, maybe about six, held a balloon by its string. Her brother, just a little older, found a safety pin on the ground.

Michelle wiped chili from where her lips joined her cheek.

Chili? Slop. She ought to be eating roast duck, Vaughn thought. Grilled turbot. Mahimahi flown in from the Hawaiian Islands. Fresh.

Maybe that was exaggeration.

Michelle deserved all that, yeah, but at the very least they should be at El Coyote, Barney's Beanery… They should be seated at a table, waited on in public like any other group of nice, normal—

Vaughn kicked out a little laugh.

Where they should be is at home, in the dark, in the quiet, listening and fearful of every sound, every shadow.

The little boy opened the pin, snuck up on his sister to pop her balloon; give her a good scare and make her cry. It was little-boy fun.

Michelle had begged, as she did every couple of weeks, for Vaughn to take her out somewhere. Anywhere. Anyplace there were people and relatively fresh LA air. Anyplace she could see bright eyes and hear laughter, and if she could eat food that wasn't out of a can, that'd be good too.

Michelle was not to be refused. Vaughn could deny her nothing, couldn't/wouldn't even try to coax her from her desires. He seriously doubted if coaxing, as he called it, would have any effect on Michelle in the first place.

So there Vaughn was behind Pink's—as unassuming a public place he could think to be—with Michelle and Aubrey, who stayed with them because Aubrey thought there was safety in numbers. That wasn't particularly true. But Aubrey was fairly helpless alone, and Michelle wouldn't send him off on his own into an environment where day and night he would be potential victim to habits; a kid who couldn't remember that sucking his thumb was punishable by death. And that's how Vaughn looked at it, the obligation he felt: an adult taking care of a child. Someone who knew better taking care of someone who knew nothing at all.

Vaughn, when he was honest with himself, dug the feeling. He couldn't say why, for sure, but being a protector? He dug that.

The table behind them: the little boy jabbed his sister's balloon with the pin. It didn't pop. He jabbed it again, then one more time. Nothing. Then he got yelled at by his mother for picking up a dirty pin off the ground and for trying to make his sister cry. And it was the boy who did the crying.

The little girl looked to Michelle.

Michelle smiled.

With a napkin Vaughn dabbed at the sweat beading Michelle's forehead. It was the overcoat she wore, she had to wear, never mind the heat.

"We oughta go," Vaughn said.

Michelle looked sad.

Vaughn didn't press the issue.

Michelle got her smile back, went back to the incredibly joyful act of devouring her food in the open air.

A table over and down one: a couple of older women. One of them—one of the breed, their own business too boring, who have to get nosy with other people's—gave a long look with passive intensity at Aubrey, Michelle and Vaughn. A" what's wrong with this picture" gaze at the pudgy, balding man with plenty of forehead whose hands, like a child's, couldn't keep from touching metal spoons. At the beautiful young woman, pale skin in a too-heavy overcoat, and the young gaunt man—one step removed from emaciation—who sat nearly still but who seemed to be everywhere at once.

Vaughn glanced at the older woman.

Real quick she looked away, and with the same quickness thought of ponies. Green meadows—it was clovers that gave the landscape its green. This she knew from the vividness of the image—filled with young horses playing, and neighing, and biting, and fornicating pressed all other thoughts from her mind.

Liquid warmth above her lip. The woman noticed her nose bled slightly.

Vaughn, again: "We need to go."

Michelle displayed faux-pouty, truly sexy disappointment.

They wouldn't be going anywhere until she was ready.

So Vaughn sat, watched Michelle eat and one more time took the spoon from Aubrey's nervous hand.

On the street, from Melrose, rubber screamed against asphalt. A pair of horns blared at each other, blending into the noise of metal twisting with metal in violent copulation.

Michelle, Vaughn, Aubrey: none of them raised their heads to look to the sound. None reacted particularly this way or that to the crash, to the people who chased the noise to the street and the few wild screams that followed. The only thing that occurred among

Michelle and Vaughn and Aubrey was for Vaughn to say, to mean without wavering: " 'Kay, that's it. We gotta go."

Michelle responded with another bite of her burger.

Out on the street people gawked and commented at the accident. Detached. A crowd watching a television program, not a vicious collision of vehicles. The event was happening but not happening, because it was happening to someone else. It was terrible, yeah, but not as terrible as it would have been if it had happened to them. It was a tragedy, but not so much of a tragedy they didn't press closer for a better view.

From the gawkers came updates of the program in progress: A Gelsons delivery truck and a compact Nissan had disagreed at the intersection of Melrose and La Brea, with the truck, literally, coming out on top as trucks do when they get it on with little Japanese cars. Three people… four the update went. Four people were in the Nissan when it was crushed under the big rig. A couple and their two small children. The truck had rolled completely over the car, compressed it to near flatness under fifteen of its eighteen wheels. The Nissan left barely recognizable as much more than twisted, lacerated metal. And yet, and here was the big news flash, no one in the car—not the couple, not their two kids, none of them—was injured. They were without so much as a bruise, scrape or scratch.

Vaughn: "Michelle…"

Michelle nodded. She knew. A few fries, a few sips more of her cream soda. She stood. All three of them did—Vaughn taking the curled spoon from Aubrey, tossing it in the garbage for no one to see—then walked north on La Brea away from the accident.

At the accident, at the reality/virtual reality event, someone exclaimed during the closing minutes of the show as the family was pulled dazed but unharmed from the wreckage: "It's a miracle!"

G Platoon, MTac's official designation in the Los Angeles Police Department, was split into five units: Central, West LA, Valley, Pacific and Harbor. Each unit was made up of two elements. Each element was made up of three officers and a senior lead officer.

Rysher had been with the LAPD MTac since its inception, its inception being the people of America saying to their president: do something.

The Posse Comitatus Act said the military couldn't do anything. And from the get-go, right after May Day, Europe—the oh so self-righteous international community—was butting its nose in, giving America crap about the laws Congress was writing up concerning metanormals.

So America had to look like it was obeying its own Constitution.

So the president signed an EO that basically said to local law enforcement agencies: do something.

So the LAPD, every PD, did something. They went after all metanormals who refused to leave the country. Whether they fancied themselves as superheroes or villains, even if they were just regular Joes who never put on spandex, but could levitate a car with a shallow thought, they were now criminals. And every freak they went after, every warrant they served, the cops learned from trial and error. Error equaling death. The first thing they learned was that regular cops and metanormals don't mix, regular cops getting sent back from a tangle with a metanormal in body bags. If there were any bodies left to bag. What they learned next was that SWAT cops didn't do much better than regular cops. After that the LAPD, every PD, began forming Metanormal Tactical Units. MTacs. That's when they started learning things that were useful.

They learned an MTac element should only be four operators. A regular SWAT squad would go in with two five-operator elements. Ten strong just to take down bank robbers, bangers or disgruntled ex-employees with AK-47s. With MTac there were only the four. Fewer funerals that way

They learned that you don't send cops wearing metal after a metal morpher. A belt buckle, a shoe clasp, anything metallic on your body could be turned into crawling shrapnel, a slithering razor, a weapon against you. This piece of knowledge came at the expense of the original Harbor MTac. After that synthetic gear was standard issue.

They learned invulnerables and impenetrables usually didn't have enhanced strength.

God overgives with one hand.

They couldn't be shot, but they could be stopped. A well-juiced stun gun did the job good.

Pyrokinetics, the firestarters, had to have a visual before they could induce combustion.

And cops learned, most importantly, if you went up against a telepath, you were as good as dead, most times from a self-inflicted gunshot. That was their signature kill. The ultimate fuck-you.

It was all in the training manual you got with a" Welcome to MTac" your first day of basic.

Rysher had written the manual. Parts of it. The manual itself put together piecemeal, most of it a puree of standard police procedure with theories added and subtracted based on whether cops going at superhumans lived or got killed. As more cops survived encounters—by training or skill or luck—as the elements were filled with more BAMFs, Rysher got credit. Rysher and others who'd sewn together the manual. And Rysher and the others got plaques and awards, and Rysher got an office and a wall to hang them on.

An office with a door that Bo knocked on and waited, respectfully, outside of before being invited in.

Once in, standing before Rysher, he asked: "What's going on with Officer O'Roark?"

"At the moment, nothing."

"IA coming around asking questions isn't nothing, sir."

Rysher's hands flipped over, popped open, signaling powerless-ness in the situation."You know as much as I do."

"You don't know who started the investigation, why?"

"You know why."

"Hell yes, I know. I was there. I was one of the cops who got his hind end pulled out of the fire. Literally."

"With a nonreg weapon."

"She did it on my element. You don't hear me complaining."

"It's not what she did, Bo. You know that. You know it isn't."

"Yes, sir."

"It's how. She knew the regs and went the other way. There are any number of people upstairs who'd like to make sure the LAPD doesn't come off like a pack of vigilantes. All that does is give Amnesty International and their bunch ammunition. I'm guessing IA finds something it doesn't like about O'Roark, they're going to come after her hard as they can."

"Oh, hell, Freddy…"

Rysher looked up. He could do without the familiarity.

Bo: "What is going on? Look, you made the girl sit out. She gets it. Beyond that, it's us operators who've got freaks coming at us one every other month. I don't know an MTac who'd care Soledad used a little independent thought. So why the hell should anybody else?"

"It's our job to care. It's my job to keep a thumb on five units, forty cops, and make sure they're alive enough to go home to their families every night. And when something goes south, I'm the one who takes the punches like a mud wall trying to hold back a tidal wave."

"Why would you be taking punches?" Bo, a cop, always a cop, picked up words and puzzled them together."She did this on her own."

Rysher looked down to the papers he'd been reading through before Bo'd come in. He looked, but he didn't read them. He said, to Bo, but still looking at the papers: "This is my fault."

Bo didn't get that. Before he could say anything, Rysher went on with:

"Maybe I moved her up too quickly, instead of when she was ready."

"She did good work everywhere she landed straight out of the academy," Bo, defending Soledad in her absence."I don't know too many cops more ready for their first call."

"Maybe. I just… when I look back on things, I wonder if I pushed her because… because I thought it would be good for us to have someone like her around."

"Someone like…"

Rysher's head shook, slowly, full of self-lament.

Someone like… And for the very first time Bo considered, just for a second, but he considered it just the same: Was Soledad good cop, or was someone like her just good to have around?

Pushing aside the thought, Bo said: "Put her back in uniform."

"No."

"I'm just saying at least let her wear blues and a badge."

"Bo, I can't."

"Why not?"

"Officer O'Roark is under revi—"

"And it's guys like me out there watching bullets bounce off of freaks or dodging them while they turn into panthers and try to rip our heads off. I don't care what anybody else upstairs thinks. They're upstairs, not out on the streets. And if they've got a doubt, at least put her back in uniform and let her prove them otherwise."

With the back of his thumb Rysher rubbed at his lip, the action disconnected from anything in particular."I'll see what I can do. But what I can do might not be much of anything."

"I appreciate the trying."

"What's to appreciate? I put her back out, she screws up so much as once, there's nothing any of us can do for her. Not a thing."

Even so, Bo thanked Rysher again, then left his office. Left, not really feeling better about Soledad's situation. Feeling, although he'd tried to do something, he'd accomplished nothing. Or at best, nothing good.

Patrol?" Soledad spat out the word like she was allergic to it. She'd spat it three or four times now."Patrol?" Five.

Bo said: "How many times you gonna say that?"

"What else am I supposed to… Patrol?"

"Want to be back on a desk?"

"All of LAPD, every other slot I've been in, and they're putting me on—"

"Patrol. Yeah."

"You ever ridden a beat?" Soledad paced the steps outside Parker Center. She walked them down, then back up to Bo like she was working out. Working things out, working out frustration, was what she was doing."A full shift of just riding around, riding around, getting the finger from passing cars, breaking up drunks fighting in alleys. Quicksand's a better way to go."

"A thank-you'd be nice."

"Who they've got me partnered with?"

"Dang it, Soledad."

"Thank you, Bo."

Bo gave up a smile. Unintentionally Soledad could be funny. In the time he'd known her, it was the only way Bo knew Soledad to be funny.

"I don't just mean for getting me off a desk. For watching out for me." She wasn't trying to be funny at all. She was working at being sincere."I didn't turn out to be much of a probee. I appreciate you not giving up on—"

"Hell, Soledad. First I can't get a kind word out of you, then you want to sing hymns. One or the other, but either way, do us both a favor and let's avoid a moment."

Soledad matched smiles with Bo, asked again: "Who've they got me partnered with?"

"Willie Lesker."

"Don't know him. He good cop?"

Bo took a second to color his phrasing."He's… old school."

"How old school?"

"Old old school."

"You know what? I think I want to take my thank-you back."

"Oh, hell no. I'm keeping it. Can't wait to tell everybody else on the job I got a kind word out of Soledad O'Roark."

"Everybody? My rep go that far?" Bo was kidding around and Soledad kidded with him, but mostly she kidded because she wanted to keep the conversation going. She wanted to know Bo's opinion: "Nobody thinks I've ever got anything good to say?"

"You're a tough one."

"And all these years I was thinking that was a good thing for a cop to be."

"Far as I care there's no—"

Bo's cell rang, he answered it. His wife. He held up a finger to Soledad, mouthed" Give me a sec," then moved a couple of steps away. Not that she was trying to, but Soledad caught Bo's half of the conversation. One of his kids had gotten into some kind of trouble at school. The wife was upset. Bo didn't seem to be. Calm, Bo talked his wife through the situation. One of the few pluses of being an MTac: makes the rest of life comparatively easy to deal with.

Bo talked, and Soledad stared out at the traffic beyond Parker Center, watched it crawl along the 10. End of day. Most of LA done with work. Traffic'd be crawling along the 405 too. And the 101, the 134, the 170. There was no good way home, no quick way. Even so, people tried to force traffic. Soledad could hear car horns screaming at each other. Couldn't hear, but was sure inside their GM and Ford and DaimlerChrysler cocoons drivers were screaming at each other too, flipping each other off. When summer finally hit, when it got to be a few more degrees warmer, one of them—at least one— might pull a gun and really show people what road rage was all about just 'cause they were in a rush to get the hell home and catch a rerun of Friends.

And Soledad had to laugh. Soledad didn't have to worry about rushing from one spot to another. The thing about not having a life: You were never in a hurry to get back to it.

At the bottom of the steps: a couple of cops. Uniformed. They looked up at Bo and Soledad. Stared at Soledad. One of them said something.

Soledad's eyes tightened. Looked like, she wasn't sure, but it looked like he'd just mumbled at her: "Lucky fucking bit—"

"Sorry about that." Bo crossing back over.

"… That's okay…" Soledad looked after the uniformed cops as they headed into Parker Center.

"So you just get back out on the street, keep your head down… all this'll go away. Sometimes… that's just it; sometimes it takes time."

After that, for a second, Bo and Soledad didn't say anything.

And then Soledad, one more time, for the record: "Patrol."

Hello?"

"Uh…" the voice on the other end of the phone mumbled, and mumbled—if there were degrees of mumbling—weakly.

"Hello?" Soledad asked again.

"This is…" More mumbling.

"What?"

"Is this Soledad?"

"Who's this?"

Uneasy breathing, then: "Ian…"

Soledad thought, tried to collate names with faces. She came up with nothing. The voice on the phone clarified things for her.

"You don't know me. I mean, you do… We… I was the guy you hit. You hit my car."

Jaguar Guy, Soledad thought."Jaguar Guy," she said.

"Yeah." Not mumbling. Relaxing some.

"My insurance company should've already—"

"They did."

"Then I don't think we have anything—"

"I'm not calling about that; about the accident."

"There's something else you wanted to—"

"I wanted to…" Back to the mumbling.

"Can't hear you."

"I wanted to see you."

"See me?" Soledad noncomprehended."See me for what?"

"For… because…" His voice sounded like a lot of effort was going into looking for the right thing to say, the right way to say it.

Couldn't find it. All he could come up with was what he'd said before: "I wanted to see you."

"You mean a date?" Soledad asked.

"A date," Ian confirmed. Barely.

Now it was Soledad who had trouble with the language."That's… uh…"

The conversation was devolving into sounds and non sequiturs.

"I don't know if you have a guy. I know you're not married. No ring, and I checked your insurance record…"

"Jesus, you stalking me?"

"No! No, I just wondered if… I wanted to…"

"See me," completed Soledad. A date. A date with some guy she'd run into, literally, who'd seen her once for a couple of minutes or so standing in an intersection, and wanted to see her again.

And real quick she felt, Soledad felt… flattered?

Soledad worked at remembering what Jaguar Guy—Ian—looked like. She knew she wasn't repulsed by him, so that was something. Maybe he was six or six-one. Good height. Not fat. It came to her that he was in shape enough that he probably worked out regular. Soledad liked guys who weren't body-obsessed but cared enough about themselves to at least know where a gym was located.

"Well…" Soledad hesitated. She'd been on the phone, what, three, four minutes with this guy, and not more than twelve words exchanged between them."Maybe not a date date."

"Okay. Okay. Then… what?"

"I don't know. Just not a date date."

"A date date?"

"Not a real date. We can do… something, but not like—"

"A date date. No, that's cool."

"You have a phone number?"

Ian did, of course, and gave it to Soledad. Gladly. Soledad took it down, checked it as he repeated it, promised to call. Soon. They good-byed each other and hung up.

The phone cradled, in an instant, a dozen variations of a hundred dates and the endless variety of relationships they'd be potential birth parents to visited Soledad. A prophetic flash that caused her to sit and smile, and to stop smiling when she realized she was. He was just some guy. Some guy she'd had a crack-up with who'd gotten the hots for her, Soledad propagandized herself. That's all he was. Maybe he was a nice guy. Maybe he was a fun guy. Maybe he was just a guy hardly different one way or the other from most of the rest of the guys in the world. So drop the excitement, the anticipation, she ordered herself. Just because he was the one guy who— for whatever reason in however long—decided to throw a little attention her way, that was no reason for her to feel… good?

The phone rang. Soledad's hand shot for it. Forcibly she pulled it back, let the phone chirp on. Shameful. At her age, and here she was playing schoolgirl games.

She answered the phone driving all expectation from her voice."Hello?"

It was only after Soledad was across the room grinding right fist into left palm that the memory of slamming down the phone caught up to her. She did a rewind: the phone ringing, her answering, a woman's voice saying hello, then asking: "Bullet?"

Again the phone rang. When it didn't ring itself out, Soledad crossed back over and picked it up saying nothing.

A woman's voice again. Same woman who'd just called a minute previous."Sorry. I should have said: May I speak with Soledad?"

There was a Chinese place in the Beverly Connection. Dollar for dollar, far as Soledad cared, it cooked up the best Chinese food, or Americanized version of Chinese food, in Los Angeles. And that was the thing: dollar for dollar. You could spend more, get better for your money spent, but Soledad was living on cop's pay—which, in LA, on MTac, wasn't as bad as the cliche'd lead you to think. But saving money was never a wrong idea. Soledad got her Chinese food in the Beverly Connection. She waited, ate the house fried rice, read the Daily News. Typical LA stories: gang shooting, bank robbery, actor beats up girlfriend. Harsh, dark, violent, but at least nothing like: the giggler nabs mister disaster or major force ends the liquidators' crime spree. The days of such headlines—laughable, except that the perps were deadly psychopaths—were thankfully done and over.

There was even a little good news buried in the pages. Six-year-old girl runs out into the street, gets hit, hit hard by a car and lives. A picture of mother and daughter and stunned onlookers at the scene. Mom: "It's a miracle."

Soledad flipped the paper aside, checked her watch. Eighteen minutes past the time she was supposed to meet Gayle.

It'd be another ten minutes before Gayle actually arrived.

Gayle Senna, the woman who'd phoned up Soledad the day prior, had done a workman job—in spite of making the mistake of calling her Bullet—of talking Soledad into taking a meeting. The Bullet thing Gayle apologized for as she sat.

"Sorry about the Bullet thing."

"I don't like," very firmly Soledad pointed out,"to be called that."

"Obviously. When I was asking around about you, some cops I—"

"I don't like to be called that."

A shrug. A nod. Gayle put the subject to bed and moved on."So let's talk about helping you."

"Except I don't need help."

The thing about the Beverly Connection: It's a series of shops and cafes built around one big parking garage. Sitting al fresco really meant sitting around while cars crept by looking for open spots and spewing fumes.

Gayle sucked carbon monoxide and tried to figure how long it was going to take to get to the heart of things with Soledad.

"Look, we started things wrong, and that was my fault. But let's not keep going wrong by slinging crap at each other. You need help, and if you didn't, you wouldn't be here."

"I came because me saying yes was the only way to get you off the phone."

"It pays to be persistent, Soledad." Gayle stressed the name, stressed her acquiescence. Stressed it to the point of nearly being snide."I'm tenacious like that. Good trait for a lawyer. Get it from my mother's side. Always stuck with things. Married six guys till she found one she could stand. Talk about not letting go." Gayle crossed her legs, which jutted from the skirt of a smart business suit. She had great legs, long and shaped by muscle. Even Soledad had to notice them. Gayle's great legs went with her great body, smooth skin and dark hair. She wasn't model beautiful, but she didn't miss the mark by much. That didn't give Soledad a lot of confidence in Gayle's legal abilities. In a city where good looks traded at a premium, Soledad figured the counselor never had to pay full freight for anything.

Helping Gayle get back on track: "What you were talking about was helping me."

"Yes. You're being investigated by IA. Potentially you could face disciplinary proceedings. I'll keep that from happening."

Soledad waited for more, but all that happened was Gayle flagged a waitress, ordered some potstickers.

"That's it?"

"Well, I can make you a media darling too, but I get the feeling it's not what you're looking for."

"Just like that you're going to get me out from under?"

Ignoring the question: "It's got to be eighty degrees. Are you warm at all with that turtleneck?"

Warm, yeah, but Soledad was getting used to it.

Ignoring the question: "You're going to keep me from being brought up on charges? How?"

"We're talking about the law. There's always a way around it. Provided you step carefully. The first mistake you made—"

"Didn't know I'd made any."

"Two. The first one is you're not even represented."

"I'm not on trial."

"Anytime an officer is under review by IA, or DAID, you're entitled to have an attorney present during questioning." Gayle waved away the exhaust from some kind of eighties version of Cadillac."Is there somewhere else we could—"

"You wanted to meet. Here's where we're meeting."

Letting it go, letting Soledad feel like she was running the show: "Your second mistake… let's just call it an error of judgment: You are on trial. Just because you're not staring down twelve of your peers, don't think otherwise." Gayle dug a pen, a legal pad from her bag, pushed aside the soy sauce to make room. Poised, ready to write: "So tell me what's going on."

"How about we slow things down for a second? How about you tell me about you. What do you… what…" Simplest way to put it: "Who are you?"

"I thought I was pretty clear on the phone—"

"How do you know about me? Does your firm—"

"I'm not with a firm."

And Soledad downgraded her assessment of Gayle. Good-looking, and couldn't get with a firm? Her skills have really got to be suspect.

"So how'd you find out I was… I'm having troubles?"

"I'm well connected."

Soledad laughed derisive.

"What?"

"You mean you sleep around."

"Sure. Because I happen to look good, and I get the job done, so, of course, I'm a whore."

"If you were a whore, you'd have landed a firm instead of having to make cold calls."

With her pen, Gayle drew a little box between the lines of her legal pad. Drew another. Drew another. She set the pen down."You know something? You and I are going to do good together. You've got an attitude that's as pleasant as a fist to the face. So do I. I modify it for work. Have to. But with you, I think I can relax and just be the difficult woman I am. So, no, I haven't landed a firm. Don't want to. I'm trying to build a rep, and it's not the kind most of those leather-couch establishments'll touch."

"What kind is that?"

"Defending the constitutional rights of metanormals."

And Soledad said: "Fuck you!"

And Gayle asked the waitress for hot mustard as she set down the potstickers.

"Fuck you!"

"I heard you the first time." Gayle looked over her plate of food. Six dumplings. All the same. Still, she inspected them carefully, finally settled on one and harpooned it with a chopstick.

"Those things don't have rights."

"Well…" Gayle talked around a mouthful of food."That's still being debated."

"You got a thing for muties."

"Did you know they like to be called 'extra-otherly-abled'?"

"Why?"

"Remember the Northridge earthquake, the section of the 10 that went down?"

Soledad remembered but didn't respond.

"Tavor, the Expandable Man saved my brother-in-law and about fifteen other people."

The sound Soledad made was like something had caught in her throat."You have any idea how queer those names even sound? What kind of person calls himself the Expandable Man?"

"I'll have my brother-in-law ask. He sends Tavor a Christmas card in Belgium every year."

"And you're telling me I've got problems? You're soft for freaks—"

"I told you, they like to be called—"

"Metanormals, M-norms. Muties. Whatever. You're soft for them, but you're trying to put a gun back in my hand. Meanwhile, the IA cop who's trying to bury me thinks I did right."

Gayle smiled."World's an odd place." Another potsticker got harpooned."Thing is, handling your… problem gives a young, hardworking girl like myself a lot of credibility. Freaks, as you say, used to be heroes. Maybe they could've done without the funny outfits and snappy names, but they were heroes; they saved lives, put their own at risk. Nobody told them to, nobody told them to look out for us normal people, but they did.

"Now they're killed—"

"Lawfully arrested."

"Sure. Just like Japanese Americans were lawfully rounded up and herded off to internment camps during the Second World War."

"Yeah, there's a good comparison. Normal humans to freaks."

"The comparison is racial profiling to genetic profiling: taking away someone's rights not because of what they've done, but because of who they are, what they are. It's like shooting a bird just because it flies. But then, they do that, don't they?"

"They're treated same as every other suspected perp."

"And what's cop talk for serving a warrant on a metanormal? Hunting? You hunt them?"

Soledad gave a hard shake of her head."You ACLU bunch, everything works as a concept to you. Tell you what, you try holding up the Constitution when a fire freak's throwing thousand-degree flames your way. See how much it protects you then."

"So you shoot metanormals because the law says you can?"

"When they resist arrest, yeah."

"You just enforce the law?"

"That's all we do."

"Well, I'm just trying to change the law. Then you can enforce it my way."

The sounds of cars circling the structure; over that, at close range, Gayle could hear Soledad's teeth grind.

Gayle: "A lot of stuff got shoved past us after San Francisco; a lot of politicians wrapping their careers in the flag and reactionary politics in memorial statements. Doesn't mean everything that got done was done right. When it comes time to make the change, I think a lawyer who's proven her impartiality could come in very handy."

"And I've got no say in any of this? I'm supposed to let you use me to help yourself?"

"You don't want me, you don't want me." Gayle made a show of digging in her bag, looking for her car keys."But I don't see anybody else running to your side. Cops talk big about all bleeding blue, but when it comes to facing IA charges, nobody wants to bleed with you. You've got no PPL lawyer, no legal aid. Just me." Keys in hand."So go on, tell me to fuck off one more time."

Soledad didn't say a thing.

"I'm using you, yes. But like you said: the guy who sees things your way is working against you. So if me using you gets your neck out of a noose, take it. Take what I'm offering."

A beat. No words exchanged. Armistice.

Gayle, putting back her keys, picking up her pen, getting back to things: "So tell me what's going on. The IA cop: What'd he ask you?"

"Not much of anything. I think he was just, you know… trying to get a rise out of me; get me to say something stupid. Went through my history, how I moved up through the department, why I wanted to be MTac…"

"Why did you?"

"Metanormals are a known and real threat to us, our society, and—"

"You sound like Mussolini's parrot. Forget the cop school propaganda. You: Why did you put in for MTac?"

Soledad didn't answer.

"That's got to tell you something, doesn't it, if for whatever reason you can't say why?"

Nothing… then from Soledad: "I always liked San Francisco. Can't say why, just thought it was a cool city. Maybe 'cause the 49ers didn't know how to lose a Super Bowl when I was a kid. Anyway, always wanted to go visit. Never got a chance. Now I never will."

"And that's why you're an MTac: because the metanormals blew up your football team."

"My family was going to take a trip there. I'd talked them… I'd bugged them into it. Would've been my first time going. I got sick, we didn't make it. The day we were supposed to go; first day of May. Fourteen years ago."

"May Day." And Gayle got it. Gayle understood.

For a moment Soledad's eyes went slick."I should have been there. I should have been in San Francisco." For a moment her edge faded."By some fluke I'm sitting here, when I should be…"

"… If you had been there," Gayle, voice soft,"you realize you were just a kid. You couldn't have done anything except gotten killed with a couple hundred thousand other people."

"Probably. But I didn't. So I decided to do something with being alive. I decided I wasn't going to let something like San Francisco happen again. Not if there was anything I could do about it. Anything at all."

"Like work on a new kind of gun. One especially made for dispatching metanormals."

"Yeah."

"So now you're… you're driven by a failure that wasn't your fault, that you couldn't have prevented if you'd wanted to. Or worse, you're motivated by guilt because catching the flu means you're alive instead of dead."

"I never… I don't think of things that way."

"That's called denial. I could understand if you lost family there, but this… Look, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not saying your thinking's psychotic, but somebody could spin it that way."

"Somebody like the IA."

Gayle nodded.

"So… what do we do?"

"You saying you want my help?"

"I'm asking what do we do?"

"For starters, from here on, anybody wants to question you about anything, do yourself a favor: don't say a word."

You gotta get yourself some glasses. A good dark pair. Keep all the shit out of your eyes."

Lesker was talking.

Soledad wasn't paying attention. Was trying not to. She was looking out the window of their squad. Nothing to see. They were patrolling LAPD's Central Division. Downtown LA. Streets that used to be full with foot traffic were now just full of traffic. Decades ago GM had conspired with the city to rip out all the light rail so it could fill the streets with buses and cars. Now there was nothing but buses and cars. No more people to walk and window-shop. So no more upper-end stores. No more chain businesses. Bodegas and street vendors and flea markets and the low-end customers and high crimes that went with them. Better, for Soledad, to look at all that nothing than to have to look the other way, catch a glimpse of her new partner. Patrolman Willie Lesker.

"Ride around like this for the next twenty years without glasses and you'll go blind. Jesus, look at this bunch on the corner."

A few Hispanic-looking guys standing around hoping to catch some work.

Lesker yelled at the Hispanic guys: "Hey, Ese! Como estd?" To Soledad: "Look at 'em. Grinnin' like a bunch of donkeys." To the Hispanic guys: "Arriba to you too, Poncho." To Soledad: "Christ, nobody's got jobs anymore?"

"Maybe they're taking a business lunch. Open air, you know."

Only three shifts. Soledad couldn't stand looking at her partner anymore. Listening to him wasn't much better.

"Check that one over there. Swear I rousted him not two weeks ago."

"Which one?"

"Take your pick. These people stand around yapping on a corner, then always seem to come up with enough scratch to make bail. Explain that? Don't earn that kind of money selling oranges by an off-ramp." Talking about Soledad's face: "Let me see."

"I'm okay."

"Just wanna see if you're swelling up."

Soledad didn't care about showing her new bruise to Lesker. He was there when she got it. She didn't want to show him because, really that much, she didn't want to have to look at the guy.

"C'mon, let me see."

Soledad turned from the window, got an eyeful of her partner. Lesker was overweight, but not so much to get kicked off the force. Unfortunately. He tended to be unpleasant in an annoying way, was free of ambition and was just marking time until he could draw pension. Combine all that, it was no accident he was partner free, available to work with whatever cop came along.

He checked out Soledad's face. A bad bruise had formed on the right side between her eye and temple."Shoulda just popped the bitch back."

Soledad had gotten careless on a domestic disturbance call. Not careless. Not really. No matter his years on the job, Lesker's police skills were weak and he was lazy about using them. Soledad found herself having to do two things at once. Domestic disturbance calls are not a good place to get distracted. More cops are injured refer-eeing those than any other kind of calls. Including MTac. Soledad had got herself between a drunk husband and an angry wife. Lucky all she got was an ashtray to the temple.

"Shoulda just popped the—"

"I heard you. Should've popped the bitch. It was an accident!"

"Coming at you with an ashtray? Those people don't hit cops by accident."

"What kind of people is that?"

"Those kind. That's what kind."

Old school, Bo had said. Old school didn't begin to describe Willie Lesker.

"Those fucking people. We're supposed to be protecting them, then every time a cop gets shot they have a holiday; break into a liquor store and burn it down or some shit. Christ. What the fuck are we out here for?"

"If they didn't have us, they'd only have each other to shoot at all day long."

"Hell, let 'em."

If it came glazed, Soledad wasn't sure Lesker would recognize sarcasm. Didn't matter. His focus was across the street. Another of" those people" rubbing him wrong just by existing.

"Jesus, look at homeboy in the Benz. Yeah, we're winning the war on drugs. Fucking oughta roust him."

Soledad's head swung the opposite direction, looked out her window. Only the third shift.

"Oughta roust him. Ten to one he's got an outstanding on something. Probably child support for baby number thirty-two. Got to get yourself some glasses, O'Roark. A good dark pair, before all the shit gets in your eyes."

We could go somewhere else."

"That's okay."

"I mean, if you wanted to—"

"I'm good."

When Soledad'd told Ian it was okay if they went out on a date, long as they didn't go on a date date, he figured that meant shopping or going to a bookstore or tossing around small talk in the middle of the afternoon over a couple of Jamba juices. What Ian hadn't figured on: To Soledad a nondate date was sitting in an auto shop on Little Santa Monica while the front end of her Honda got worked on. Except for the heat and the noise and the auto repair smells and the grease-covered guys sneaking Soledad the eye while they chewed their lips, it was very close to almost being something like a date.

Ian tried one more time to get Soledad around to the idea of going somewhere—anywhere—else.

"You know, across the street there's this little cafe—"

"Want to keep an eye on these guys. Minute you walk away they start making up stuff that's wrong with your car."

And she had sunglasses on. Bad enough all the other distractions, but here they were inside and Soledad kept her eyes hidden.

Ian fell back in his chair. Not defeated, but definitely taking a between-rounds breather. Ms. O'Roark was going to be work. A whole lot.

She said: "Thought you'd like this."

"Like what?"

"Thought you'd like coming to the garage with me. I mean, you like cars, right?"

"I like them, but—"

"And this place… I don't know, it's got character."

And it did. Right among the overpriced boutiques that littered Beverly Hills, the banks and finance companies, movie and television production houses corralled in Century City, the garage was a little brick throwback of a building that couldn't hold more than three vehicles at a time. Driving regular speeds down Little Santa Monica, you'd miss it if you weren't looking.

Soledad'd missed it plenty of times. Wasn't until a cop on SPU had given it a recommend that she'd driven real slow and found the joint.

They did good work at Grimmet's, the garage. Had to. Family-owned since the days when the cars that rolled through the door had names like Packard and Studebaker. They'd done a lot of star business at Grimmet's too. Headshots on the wall: Cornel Wilde, Barbara Stanwyck, the Fonz.

It was funny about LA: every shop, dry cleaners and hole-in-the-wall restaurant you went to had headshots autographed by stars. But in all the years she'd lived in the city Soledad'd never seen anyone particularly famous. Not a one. Just a guy who could light himself up and shoot flames. That Soledad had seen.

"The Jag you drive: What kind," Soledad asked,"is that?"

"Sixty-seven Series I XK-E." Ian tripped over himself answering, happy Soledad showed the slightest interest in something about him."It's nice, you know, but way too temperamental. All the Brit cars are like that. The old ones. What I really want is a Sixty-four and a half Mustang."

Soledad frowned.

"What?" Was he talking too much? Did she really not care about cars?

"That's what guys say. Whenever a guy goes on about old cars, he always says he wants a Sixty-four—"

"Sixty-four and a half."

"Mustang."

"That's because it's a classic. It's a classic car."

All Ian earned with that was a shrug out of Soledad."Camaros are cooler."

"I thought you didn't know anything about cars."

"How much do you have to know to know cool?"

Shaking his head, dismissive, adamant, not caring he should be working to earn points on their first nondate date: "You can't even compare the two."

Dismissive, adamant back: "You got that right."

"I'm talking about a classic piece of automotive—"

"Classic. Classic, not a muscle car. What I'm talking about is a muscle car, okay? I mean, yeah, you want to go pick up some drapes from the store, take your grandma to dialysis, an old Mustang is real nice, but..

Ian stared Soledad right in the sunglasses. He saw a teeny-tiny version of himself getting exasperated."You know who drives Camaros? White trash. White trash drives Camaros. They love them. That big V-8 is good for towing around their mobile homes."

"Lots of people drive Camaros." Soledad tried to think of a few. A bunch of pale trashy faces popped into her mind."… Lots of people."

"White trash and New York goombahs."

"They drive Trans Ams."

"Same shit. The shit's the same."

She fought it hard, but she couldn't help herself: Soledad smiled.

Ian got energized by this tiniest of victories. A foothold while storming the beach O'Roark. He pressed his advantage."You have nice eyes," he worked at being smooth."At least I remember them that way. I'd love to see them."

Soledad dropped her smile. For a second Ian thought he was going to be repelled back into the cold, cold water. A few seconds after that, Soledad's hand came up, slid off her sunglasses. Hard as she made that little bit of a chore seem, she might as well have been lifting a bus over her head.

And they were pretty eyes. Green. They looked good against her caramel skin. Would've looked even better if most times they weren't always burning so hot.

Soledad said: "I was really surprised when you asked me out."

"Because you'd just wrecked my car?"

"Hey, I saw the insurance claim. It's not wrecked. And wasn't just that. The look on your face when you saw my gun."

"Yeah. Well…" Ian's ass squirmed, looked for a comfy spot on his wood chair."I've got a bad habit of being attracted to the wrong women. Women with guns are about as wrong as it gets."

Out on Little Santa Monica someone was trying to make a left turn across a double yellow into the drive of the Peninsula. Traffic behind the car was getting held up. People were getting pissed. People were laying on their horns. Eventually the car made the turn. The other drivers went on to wherever they were going—now short of temper—to infect the rest of the city with their freshly acquired anger.

Falling dominos.

"So… what's with yours; your gun?"

"Hit woman for the Triads."

"No, really…"

"It's legal, it's registered. Can we talk about something else?"

"But is it, is it like protection? Do you have a restraining order against—"

"Let's talk about something—"

"Something else. Yeah, I'd like to, but you don't want to talk about anything else: your family, what's going on in your life, what you do for a living."

Shooting the mutie, the trouble over her gun, IA and lawyers: All that thrashed around in Soledad's head. Did this guy need to know any of that? Did she need to rehash it?" Maybe we should—"

"Talk about something else. Yeah. I know."

"How about we talk about you?"

"We talked about me."

"When did we talk about you? We didn't talk about you."

"Yeah, we did."

"I don't know where you're from, I don't know anything about your family…"

Between his teeth Ian gripped his lip.

Soledad: "Okay, so the sharing only flows in one direction? Why don't you like to talk about things?"

"Why don't you like to talk about things?"

There was just the sound of the cars getting worked on.

Ian said: "Told you about my job."

"Barely. Said you were an architect, but you didn't—"

"I'm not an architect. I do industrial design."

"I thought… I'm sorry, I wasn't…" Soledad trailed off into the incomprehensible.

"Landing gear," Ian said.

"Oh, yeah," Soledad remembered.

"I design landing gear for commercial jets. Business has changed a lot since Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas. Then they shut that down, no more MD designs. I don't think there's going to be as much innovation as the—"

"That's a weird job."

Ian shrugged."It's decent work."

"I guess not weird. I guess I meant… It sounds kind of odd. Never thought of landing gear being designed. Not in particular. I always figured…" A little laugh. An honest laugh."I didn't figure anything 'cause it's not like I sit around thinking about landing gear." Heels to the edge of her chair, Soledad pulled her knees to her chest, wrapped her arms around her legs. Went a little fetal."So I'm really bad company and I'm way too intense and I kind of was… part of me was hoping this would be a shitty time so you wouldn't call me again."

"Why?"

"I have a lot of guilt and I want my life to be miserable."

"… Fuck…"

"Yeah. I'm fucked-up, huh?"

"And they let people like you have guns?"

From Soledad, a sideways glance.

"For real, though, that's just… that's, like, that's a helluvan honest thing for someone to say about herself."

"I'm going through a situation. The kind that forces you to be honest about things."

Ian, again: "Fuck. Who's your therapist?"

"Don't have one. Just this lawyer…"

A couple of the mechanics working on a Volvo got into an argument about something. A lug nut or a timing belt. They went at each other good and loud, and one of the guys had a wrench, gripped hard and held low, that he looked like he wasn't afraid to use if things ended up going that way.

Ian: "I think… I think you're an interesting person, Soledad. I wouldn't say it's been a shitty time, but I don't get the feeling you and I…"

Soledad looked to Ian.

Ian didn't return the stare.

Soledad said: "You want to call it a day, I don't blame you. Really don't. Like I said, I was kind of hoping for that. But you should just know, I haven't been testing you. I've been testing myself. My world, it's not very big; there's not much to it, and I'm not used to letting other people wander around in it."

"At least we start off with something in common."

Ian looked to Soledad.

No fire in her eyes. Not anymore.

"I want to try," Soledad said."I want to, but this is going to take a while."

"How long is a while?"

"Longer than most guys would want to stick around. What you're doing now, it's a deposit on a long-term investment. If that's what you want."

Ian slumped, let out a breath long and slow.

Back on went Soledad's sunglasses.

Ian said again for the record: "Always did pick the wrong women."

The mechanics settled their dispute, quit arguing. There was nothing to fill the quiet between Ian and Soledad.

"In Japan they have this thing called haragei."

"You know about Japan?"

"There're all kinds of things to me, Soledad. Some of them aren't that obvious."

"Japan…?"

"Japan. They have this thing called haragei, and it's… it's talking without talking; without saying anything. It's just people sharing an experience. Maybe we could do that, for starts, just… share an experience."

No need to think about it: "Yeah. Let's do that."

The two sat and shared the experience of Soledad's car getting its front end worked on.

After a while the mechanics finished up, handed Soledad the bill. Handed her a little more eye. Soledad paid up, suspicious of the charges.

The experience ended.

Soledad and Ian got ready to go. Ian walked out to Little Santa Monica, to where his Jaguar was parked, started it up. When the road was clear, he pulled out into traffic and drove home.

It was opposite the direction Soledad was heading.

Had it always been there? That or one like it. Was she just noticing the picture of the girl—actress or model or singer—more endowed with chest than talent, ass than ability. She had on a bikini, a size too small and then pulled tight. She'd been yanked from the middle of Maxim or Stuff or FHM and stuck on a wall next to someone's desk.

Fine.

If the girl looked hot and wasn't good for much but looking hot, if a guy somehow felt high on himself for being stupid enough to pay hard-earned cash for a one-dimensional version of a woman… everybody was happy. Nothing to write NOW about. So the idea of a little cheesecake around Parker Center didn't bother Soledad.

Alone it didn't.

But there was that picture and there were other pictures torn and ripped and tacked and scotch-taped all over Parker Center— this desk, that locker… And there was that detective by the window, the one with the coffee mug. The one with the coffee mug that read: save a mouse, eat a pussy. How long had he had that thing? Was she just now noticing it, same as she was just now noticing…

That uniform: Was he staring at her? Just looking in her direction, or was he staring at her? That cop he's talking to: was he just talking to him, or talking about Soledad? Was he really saying…

Had it always been there? Was she always oblivious to it? Was it even, really, there now, or was she somehow making more of the stares, the cheesecake? The lips that moved slowly, were read clearly, saying: "What a lucky fucking bitch."

Had they…

Was she…

Soledad went for the motor pool. Head down, blinders on.

That's some crazy shit, I'll tell you that. Some crazy, crazy shit."

Willie Lesker was in the process of letting Soledad know the shit was crazy.

He continued to illuminate her."Just don't make good sense to me why anybody would get it in their head they want to be an MTac cop."

"We've talked about this, Lesker. Talked about this yesterday, day before…"

"Just don't understand—"

"Month and a week, how many shifts? You don't get it, you're not going to get it. I can live with that, so why don't you?"

"Just saying—"

"The shit's crazy. Somebody's got to do it."

Bad as Lesker was, for Soledad it was good to be in uniform, to bear the appearance of being a cop and a stepchild to an MTac officer. Even with the midday heat, the traffic she suffered through cruising with Lesker, it was good—she reminded herself—to be wearing a gun, small and useless as her service revolver felt in her holster.

Except for all that, it was good. Pretty good. Would've been better without Lesker.

"All I'm saying, running after them muties, ought to be glad you're done with it."

"I'm not done with it." Soledad was both being defiant and expressing a personal truth."You go after a freak once, you see what they can do… you're never done with it."

"Good goddamn way to get yourself killed."

"Being a cop is a good way to get yourself killed."

"Shit, had my share of trouble with crackheads and gang bangers, but I've never had one start flying around shooting heat beams from its eyes."

"Freaks only have one ability, not multiple. It couldn't fly and—"

"Never once." Not even hearing Soledad, or hearing and not caring.

"You learn to deal."

"Yeah, bet you do. You learning to deal with that shit on your neck? A freak give you that as a going-away present?"

The blues she wore left the burns on Soledad's neck exposed. She wished for one of her turtlenecks. She wished she was Yarborough and didn't care how many scars she'd collected.

Lesker leaned to the window and spat. The wind grabbed up the saliva, splatted it yellow-green against the back window of the squad.

Soledad was starting to think maybe this was the reason the brass had yessed Rysher's request to get her back in uniform. Maybe Lesker was enough to annoy her off the force and save the department the expense of a disciplinary hearing. Maybe that was his sole remaining purpose for being a cop. Officer Lesker: Police Irritant.

"You're on the job," Soledad said,"you've got a good chance of getting dead, so what's it matter how?"

"It matters. You're staring at death, it matters if you're going the easy way or the hard one."

She wondered: How would he know? If Lesker'd ever even glanced in death's direction, it was by pure, complete accident. Soledad was fairly sure Lesker'd never code-3-responded in his life. If he'd ever drawn his gun, it was to use it as a paperweight.

Outside her window, normalcy. The appearance of it. The traffic, drivers cocooned in cars, in their own worlds. Pedestrians slogged through hot, static air made visible by the smog. A copy shop filled with people running off resumes, poorly written screenplays. The low-end menial business of show business. Soledad speculated:

Which of them—of all those people in the cars, on the street, going about their jobs—which of them was secretly a mutie? A freak?

Lesker asked: "Know what I shoulda done?"

Soledad grunted vague interest.

"Moved to Seattle. Got on the Seattle PD. Rains in Seattle."

"Heard that."

"It rains a lot."

"Heard."

"Nobody goes out in the rain. Not regular folk, not perps."

"It's safe."

"Yeah. Safe."

A beat.

"Alaska." Soledad looked at the dash, out the window. Anywhere but at Lesker. In their time together Soledad had gotten no closer to mastering the trick of looking at him while conversing. They talked, but it was more like she was talking to herself.

"What about it?"

"Snow. Snows a lot in Alaska. It's safe."

"Yeah. Bet it's safe."

"Know where else is safe, Lesker?"

"Where?"

"Dark side of the moon. Why don't you see if you can't get yourself to the dark side of the moon?"

Lesker had no problem giving Soledad a look that told his partner, in graphic and exacting detail, just what she could do to herself.

Soledad wasn't going to be back in uniform much longer. Officer Lesker: Police Irritant was on the job.

Outside the car, across the street: voices loud and threatening. Soledad looked, couldn't make out the situation except that there was a gun involved.

To Lesker: "Roll on that."

"Aw, shit." Crime had managed to mess up Lesker's quiet day. He tapped the siren, yanked a hard U in the middle of the street. Pulling to the curb, both cops got a better look at the things. Just outside a corner market a Korean woman was having it out with a black guy. The black guy was holding a thing of orange juice. The Korean woman was gripping a gun.

Up out of the squad Lesker and Soledad eased for the scene. Lesker easing a bit more than Soledad, letting her take point. She kind of shook her head in disgust at him, but mostly kept her eyes on the Korean woman, on the gun she held. Soledad put her hand on her piece, her teeny-tiny-feeling service revolver that would be more than enough to kill the Korean woman if things worked out that way. But Soledad didn't draw it. That was one of the tons of reasons women made better cops than men: Female officers tended to navigate potentially dangerous situations with intelligence instead of force. Male cops liked to kick in doors and spit lead.

Lesker was something different altogether. Lesker just floated around in the background.

Calm, firm, like she was talking down an angry dog, Soledad said to the Korean woman: "Ma'am, put the gun down."

The only response was a wild babble of Korean.

"Put down the gun!"

"What da fuck is dis bullshit?" The black guy got all angry-brother indignant with Soledad's measured response.

Eyes on the woman, Soledad turned her command toward the brother."Stay where you are; do not move!" Back at the woman, stronger: "Ma'am, I'm asking you for the last time to put down the gun!"

"Sheeeit. Brotha had a gun, you'da blowt his head off by now. Why you havin' dialogue wit ching-chong?"

Too much going on."Shut up," Soledad yelled at the brother."You want to just stand there and shut up? Lesker!"

Lesker moved in the direction of the brother, but just slightly.

"Ma'am…" Grip tightening on her piece. Maybe it was coming to that.

A new voice: "No, no! She doesn't speak English." From out of the market: a boy, seventeen, also Korean.

Soledad confirming: "You speak English?"

"Yeah, I do." Not even the hint of accent.

"She your mother?"

The boy nodded.

"Tell her to put the weapon down and step away from it."

Quick, the woman got the instructions in Korean. There was a little back-and-forth between her and her son, but even with the language barrier Soledad could tell the boy made it desperately clear to her what she needed to do. The woman laid the gun on the sidewalk. The woman took three steps away from it.

"Ain't dat a bitch? Brotha woulda been long laid out by now."

"Hey, brother man" — danger past, Lesker got into things—"didn't you hear the girl?"

… The girl…?

Let it go.

Soledad picked up the gun, popped the clip, cleaned it working the slide twice. Nothing. No shell chambered. In another situation, if things had gotten real hectic, all the Korean woman would have been able to do with the weapon is get herself good and dead.

Soledad, to the boy: "She have a permit for this?"

"We have it in the store. I can go—"

"Later. Tell me what's going on."

Brother Man answered: "Wha's goin' on? Whatcha think goin' on? Da bitch tryinta kill me."

"I wasn't talking to you."

"Why you axin' ching-chong an' them shit?"

Soledad stepped to Brother Man, stepping past Lesker in the process. She hadn't bothered to look at Brother Man before. Now that she had, she saw fashion was a sense he didn't own. Polyester shirt. Matching shorts. Knee-high silk socks. Gator skin loafers. Along with that he trimmed himself with cheap gold, plenty of it, like he did all his shopping at Huggy Bear's garage sale.

Locking eyes with Brother Man: "I'm going to get what I need from you in a second. Right now, I'm dealing with the lady. Okay?"

"Damn, girl, whyya gotta git attitude? Black gotta do right by black, ya know?"

Soledad was already back to the boy."What happened?"

"My mother says he stole that carton of orange juice, walked out of the store with it and didn't pay. She tried to stop him, and he pushed her."

"Aw, sheeee—"

"That's when Mom got her gun."

"Dat's bullshit."

"Is that bullshit? Is it? How much bullshit would it be if I hauled your ass in? How many warrants going to get kicked back on you?" Getting the feeling Brother Man was mostly talk, Lesker was getting bold with himself. He was about to give a real live OJ-stealing street thug a hard time. He was about to get himself some stories to tell the other cops in Seattle, or Alaska, or wherever he finally ended up.

Dark side of the moon.

"I didn't steal no juice. I paid for it."

"Yeah, you did," Lesker editorialized.

"A brother cain't have ends? I got more in my pocket than you do, blue."

"You sure don't waste any of it on wardrobe, slick."

"Lesker!" Soledad's head was starting to hurt."Let's keep it civil."

"How about let's do this: How about we remember who's senior here? How about that, O'Roark?"

The Korean woman added something to all that, but she added it in her native tongue and got nothing but ignored for her trouble.

Soledad brought things back around to the boy, who seemed to be the only one present she had anything like a rapport going with.

She asked: "Did you see him take the orange juice?"

"My mother said he did."

"But did you see him take it?"

"My mother's not lying. He obviously stole it."

An eyebrow from Soledad."Obviously?"

"All those people do is steal."

More eyebrow."Excuse me?"

Lesker: "You got that."

"Muthafuckin' choon."

Something from the Korean woman.

Soledad to the boy: "I'm one of those people, all right?"

"Yeah, but you're, you know…" The boy, formerly articulate, suddenly found the spoken language a struggle."You're different." He took a moment to figure how."You're… a cop."

"All I need from you is the story straight and simple. I don't need any help with anthropology."

"Sheeeit, goddamn sellout what she is."

Soledad felt like a mill was being rolled, slow, over her. Forget the heat and Lesker and having to deal with the high crime of fruit juice theft. The alleged high crime of fruit juice theft. Here was a smart young kid taking good advantage of everything America had to offer. Except part of the package deal was all the racism he could carry. Black vs. Asian, Soledad caught square in the middle, and the representative from her side doing very little representing.

She prayed, quietly, to herself, for something to transport her from the situation.

The thing about prayers: Occasionally they get answered.

Quick, violent, the ground shook. Shook so much the assembled group had to spread their arms, sway to maintain balance. Could have been an earthquake, but it was too severe and over too fast. It was more like an explosion. The screams that followed the thunderclap of noise would make you think so.

Typical LA: People ran toward the panic, not away from it. There'd be death and mangled bodies to see, but only if you were in the front row.

Soledad ran too, but with a different purpose: to save lives if she could. To help. To do… something. Lesker was behind her, but all he got was farther behind.

Olive Street.

Pushing through the crowd, the gawkers, Soledad saw: not an explosion. In the middle of the boulevard the ground had split open, collapsed. A sinkhole that swirled thick, dark and dirty. A collision of earth and water. On each side of the hole—it was a chasm stretching sidewalk-to-sidewalk, probably as deep below the churning water—LA traffic stopped dead, a parting like the Red Sea between cars. That meant down there in the pit…

Chaos. Confusion. People trying to get away. People trying to get close. Screams and the ever-present heat. A wall of faces, each registering its own response to the disaster.

To the crowd: "Get back! Everybody move back! Lesker!"

Lesker, just hitting the scene. The short run had turned his uniform a sweaty dark blue. If he said anything back to Soledad, it was lost under the hard huffs of his overworked lungs.

"Get these people away from here! Get on a radio, we need EMS and Rescue to go down for survivors!"

Survivors?

Soledad looked into the hole. A main had broken. That was obvious. It'd turned the ground above it to near liquid that raged in a soil river through the Red Line tunnels below the boulevard.

Survivors?

There were only the dead, and they were probably washed halfway to Santa Monica by now.

"Officer!"

"Come on, move back. You've got to clear—"

"Hey, Officer!"

Pushing through the crowd, a guy in a worker's uniform. The patch sewn to his shirt: MTA.

Soledad grabbed him, pulled him close."You work this site? Were you down there?"

"Yeah, I—"

"How many men down there?"

"Nobody. We were on break and—"

"Is there an access tunnel? Any way to get to the cars?"

"There are no cars. That's what I'm saying: There's nobody down there."

The constant throb of adrenaline that made reacting easy made thinking hard. Soledad forced herself to understand."The traffic…"

The MTA man carefully, clearly painted the picture."I'm standing there on the corner, we're on break like I said. Just come up out of the tunnel, me and my crew. We're standing there, and all of a sudden the traffic it… it splits up, you know? Those cars back there stopped." He pointed to the vehicles that rimmed the sinkhole."Every one of them stopped where they were."

"Stopped why?"

"Just did. They stopped, and the ones in front kept moving. I'm standing there looking at it thinking, ain't that queer: the cars stopping. I'm thinking just that, then the ground opens up."

Soledad looked at the hole. No workmen down there. She looked at the cars lined up to one side or the other of the sinkhole, but none—not one—where the ground had split.

She repeated the engineer's words to herself: Ain't that queer?

"It's like…" The engineer thought of something new to add to the obvious."It's like a—"

"A miracle," Soledad finished for him. A miracle. Like that gas explosion on the news that had injured no one. Like that little girl who survived getting hit by the car.

Miracles.

Miracles don't just happen.

Her eyes to the faces, the limitless faces in the crowd. Her hand to her gun. Looking. Looking. Endless expressions: horror, fear, shock, alarm, excitement. Expressions, expressions, expressions… then nothing. No expression. One face that was blank. One face that was placid. One face that was perfectly calm because it knew no one was hurt. It knew of miracles.

Soledad pushed through the crowd toward the face: a woman wrapped in a heavy overcoat. Too heavy for the ninety-plus-degree LA day.

The woman saw Soledad coming, surging for her. The woman smiled some, turned away and walked.

"Hold it!" Soledad swam, fought through the crowd.

The woman didn't have to fight or shove. She seemed to just float away.

"Stop, police!" Hand on her gun, too many people to pull it out.

The woman, in the open, gaining distance. She walked, but somehow moved faster than a leisured pace. Quicker than her casual steps would seem to carry her.

One arm before her, Soledad swatted aside the gawkers, their attention having shifted from the victimless sinkhole onto her."Move!" The people moved, not nearly enough."Move!"

Tripping, stumbling out into the open, Soledad saw the woman getting farther away. Soledad fought herself upright, raced forward.

Gun out, she hit an intersection.

A car horn, the skid of tires.

Soledad one-handed herself over the hood of the Ford that almost took her out, hit the pavement, rolled, kept moving. Eyes on the woman, eyes dead on the woman.

Up the boulevard the woman slowed, turned. Still smiling; warm, gentle. Fearless. She had nothing to fear. Hands to her coat, she peeled it open and let it fall away.

Soledad stopped cold. She had thought that in her studies, in her research, in the files and documents she'd poured over year by year, she had seen every metanormal, every freak and mutie known.

She had never seen this.

The woman—white of skin. Somehow golden of tone—free of her coat, spread wide a pair of feathered wings.

The gasp, from Soledad, from the crowd well behind her, was audible.

And then the woman was in the air. She didn't leap up or beat her wings, she quite simply raised for the sky.

Recovered, Soledad gave a final warning: "Police, stop!"

The woman sailed on upward.

With her gun, Soledad took aim. One shot she would get. One poor shot at the flying woman gliding farther and farther away. Two-handed grip, finger on the trigger… Squeeze.

Bang.

In the air the near speck that was the flying woman shook, faltered. Rose again. Then sank.

Soledad marked the trajectory and ran for it as the figure twisted, tumbled, spiraled to the ground. To the hard dirty pavement.

Soledad was there, gun extended, ready to shoot. The scars on her neck were a reminder that muties don't go down easy. She eased up to the woman stretched out on the boulevard. Not dead. Not yet. But in no shape to do damage.

With her foot Soledad rolled the woman to her back, as much as she could with those wings—mangled, snapped now. She was bleeding hard, but with her complexion so naturally white the loss was hard to calculate.

The woman looked to Soledad, still smiling. Different than before. Still warm, but something else now. Forgiving.

Behind her, sucking air hard and dripping sweat, Lesker came running. He looked at the woman, her wings. To Soledad: "Jesus Christ! You shot an angel!"

"She's not an angel. Angels don't bleed. She's just another freak."

Lesker had too much disbelief to hear any of that. He knew what he saw and reported it to Soledad one more time."You shot a fucking angel!"

It's hard at first. Sort of. Balancing the law with what's right. The law tends to be dear. What's right is gray, if it's even in that much contrast.

A guy climbs a fence onto land marked no trespassing, it's wrong. Guy climbs a fence onto land marked no trespassing to pull someone who's drowning out of a lake, he did wrong to do right.

That's the simple version of things.

A guy's walking down the street, crowded street—civvies, old women, kids. And this guy's walking along with a loaded gun; out in the open, finger on the trigger. What do you do? You treat him like the pope? Offer him a foot massage? What you do is you act like he's a potential criminal. A probable killer. You protect those people on the street any way you have to, up to and including putting a bullet in the guy. It's the right thing. Now, let's say this guy isn't just carrying a loaded weapon. Let's say he is a loaded weapon. Let's say he might not just take out a couple of people on the street, let's say he could take out every single person on the entire block, half the city… You going to be any more gentle with that guy than the guy sporting the gun? Hell if I think so. And every freak there is, is nothing but a loaded weapon looking to release. And maybe, sometimes, because you're human, you question: Is this, is what we do, right? Then you think of the guy on the street with the gun. The law says take him out. Common sense says take him out. So what do we do? We take them out.

Thing is, clear as all that is, obvious as it is, you get the liberals and the heart bleeders going on about what's right; about people's rights.

As if freaks are people to begin with.

Declaration of Independence says people are created equal. Freaks are as unequal as it gets. So, no, they don't get treated the same as we do. And while the contingent that's soft on freaks always want to talk rights,

somebody else's got to go out and protect theirs. They've got a right not to get run over by a drunk driver. They've got a right not to get dragged into an alley and raped three times, and a right to fly to Grandma's without the nut of the week jacking their plane. They've got a right not to get killed 'cause one freak that claims it's trying to protect us from another freak knocks over the building they work in. End of the day, only right that matters is the right to life. Sometimes, here in the real world, to keep that right, somebody's got to give up some of theirs. And if you think otherwise… you've never stared down a superhuman who could end your life easy as drawing a short breath. Once you have, right becomes very simple to you. Gray separates into black and white.

Quiet.

Mostly.

Other than the sound of metal scraping metal, like steel leaves rustling—generated by chains that hung from the rafters—the loft, the building, deserted, was quiet. The metal was for Aubrey. Toys. Things to play with. The solitude was for Vaughn. Being isolated let Vaughn think. Freely think. Vaughn picked up thoughts from people without even concentrating. In a crowd, the thoughts of others were always with him—a radio, volume turned low, that could never be shut off. It was constant. Constant. Constant. Enough to drive a guy…

A lesser guy…

And that was the thing. For Vaughn, for the ones like him: They couldn't turn the volume off, but they could turn it up. Standing as much as a mile away from someone, to Vaughn their thoughts became pictures. A book of faded photographs for him to leaf through. Less distance than that, the faded pictures became crystal-clear images. Sense memories, complete with taste and touch and smell.

And Vaughn could touch back. At little more than half a mile from someone he could make subtle suggestions, the mind he touched feeling nothing more than a whim—Gee, I think I'll buy a lotto ticket today. Say, why don't I call my old college roommate? Hell yeah, I'm not going to work; the beach is where I ought to be— to be used or discarded as the person Vaughn coaxed saw fit.

But closer, a quarter mile, less than that… At that distance? At that distance Vaughn could make another mind his own. At that distance suggestions became orders, hints were commands: strong, forceful. Undeniable. At that distance, for Vaughn's kind, there was nothing they couldn't do to someone.

More than that.

Nothing they couldn't force someone to do to himself.

Aubrey was coming.

A minute and a half later Aubrey came through the door. Haltingly. Tentative. Overly quiet. Something was wrong. Aubrey had done something wrong. Vaughn sensed it. Heightened perception wasn't hardly needed. Aubrey carried himself like a kid who'd messed up. Literally like a kid.

Vaughn, to himself: Jesus.

Aubrey was slow. For Vaughn, to put it that way, was being kind. Honest? Aubrey was just about retarded. Always he had to be watched over, minded. Especially in public. Aubrey couldn't help himself from touching, playing with metal. He couldn't help himself from doing things with metal. Things that could get him noticed and things that could get him killed. But Aubrey did, despite, maybe even because of his slowness and his need for attention, make a good companion for Michelle. There was no limit to her patience and affection, and Aubrey could use all he could get. And through Michelle, because of Michelle, because of what Michelle could bring out in him, Vaughn had come to tolerate Aubrey. To feel the need to share the responsibility of taking care of him.

Most times he felt the need.

But at times like this when Aubrey was distraught and troubled, but silent as a child with a bad secret, Vaughn was taxed to his relatively low limit. And at times like this Vaughn thought of Michelle and forced himself, as Aubrey came through the door, to be gentle as he could.

"Hey, Aubrey. What's up?"

"… Noth… I…"

"C'mon, man. Something's up."

Aubrey didn't say anything.

"Something's the matter. You know I know, so just tell me."

Aubrey kept up his quiet.

Less than a minute. Already Vaughn's patience was worn beyond thin. It'd be so much easier to slip into Aubrey's mind—Aubrey's mind would be nothing but easy to slip into—and extract whatever he cared to know, affect Aubrey and make him happy or sleepy or anything else that'd give Vaughn another couple hours of peace and God-loving quiet.

Except Vaughn didn't do that; didn't coax. Not with his own kind. A rule. One those who're gifted adopted a long time ago. One Vaughn, even now, stuck to. Vaughn just sucked a deep breath and tried again.

"Aubrey… Aubrey, you do something wrong? That what happened?"

"… Yes."

Yes. A word. It was a start.

"Tell me 'bout it."

"Can't."

Look at him, Vaughn thought. Scared. Squirming where he stood like if he didn't pee, his bladder was going to bust. That wasn't how adults behaved. This was a waste of time. So much easier to just…"Course you can. You can tell me anyth—"

"You'll get mad."

"I won't."

"You'll get mad and hurt people."

"Damn, man. I'm not gonna hurt you."

Aubrey made a noise: "Unnnnnnnn."

"Aubrey!"

"I'm sorry, Vaughn." All of a sudden Aubrey's eyes got wet. All of a sudden tears spilled out and ran over his cheeks, ran streaks through the dirt that pancaked his face. Aubrey's face and skin,

Vaughn's too, were perpetually dirty. Hard to keep clean when you live like a pack rat. Except Michelle. Michelle seemed always clean. Michelle seemed—

A long pause full of fear, then: "… Michelle…"

Years of living with his abilities. Vaughn, attuned to the subtle, was nearly blind to the obvious. Michelle never went anywhere without Aubrey. The opposite was also true. But here was Aubrey. Alone.

"Where's Michelle? What happened to Michelle?"

A daze settled over Aubrey."My fault. Shoulda been me," he chanted."Shoulda been."

Vaughn's mind went sharp as a switchblade, tore into Aubrey, dissected and cut and ripped away images: Olive Street. A sinkhole. Lives saved by Michelle's gift of grace.

Vaughn hacked deeper into Aubrey's memory. A cop and a gun and a shot fired. Michelle hit. Michelle hurt. Michelle tumbling through the air. Falling like a rock. Falling…

Michelle…

Minds locked, Vaughn/Aubrey screamed.

Vaughn pulled himself out of Aubrey's head.

Aubrey sank to the floor. Blood leaked freely from his nose, covered his jaw.

Vaughn swayed, buckled. He'd absorbed more than just recollections. He got everything Aubrey had seen and heard. Hours after the fact, and he'd been where Aubrey'd been: Hidden in a crowd on a hot street in the center of LA, he'd stood and watched Michelle, watched his wife get killed.

No.

Murdered.

Feeble in voice as he was in body: "Tell me."

"It's my fault," Aubrey sobbed through the hands that clutched at his nose."It's—"

"Goddamn it, tell me, or I'll go back inside."

"No, Vaughn." Aubrey wrapped his arms around his head as if that'd protect him; as if that'd keep Vaughn from shredding his mind again."I'll tell you! I'll tell! She… she wanted to go out. You were gone, and, and she wanted to go out."

"I told you never to—"

"I know. I know, but I couldn't help it. She wanted to, and, and I couldn't help it."

Vaughn knew he couldn't have refused Michelle either, sirenlike as she was angelic. Vaughn'd never been able to act contrary to Michelle's graces, so what willpower could a mess like Aubrey have in reserve against her?

"Michelle, Michelle didn't like being all inside all the time. She didn't like it. Michelle liked to be outside. She liked, you know, she liked people."

Past tense. It made Vaughn's stomach retch, his head swim.

"We went walking. We went walking 'cause… 'cause Michelle liked to, liked to, uh, liked to go out and be good to people." Aubrey sputtered on the blood that ran down into his mouth. He wiped it from his upper lip. It was freshly replaced."She got this, like, drug woman to not, not to be on drugs anymore. And, and there was this guy who was in a, uh, gang who just about got shot but didn't. And then… and then…"

An image from Aubrey's mind."The sinkhole," Vaughn said.

"We were on… on this one street…"

"Olive Street…"

"And she got that look, you know? That look of… pre…"

Precognition. Vaughn knew the look. One split second of anxiety in anticipation of death, disaster. One moment of radiant glow as she… what did she do? What other way was there to say it? Michelle made miracles happen.

"And then there was this police lady there. And, and she sees Michelle, and she… I don't know, but she knows something's not… she knows something's bad. And the police lady started chasing Michelle. But Michelle, she didn't care. She wasn't worried."

Why should she be? No one could hurt Michelle. No one would ever—

"And the police lady's chasing Michelle and she's chasing her and… and Michelle tried to fly away. Right in the middle of the street she tried to fly away… and then… and then…" Aubrey lost it, broke out in heaves and tears.

Didn't matter. Vaughn didn't need the story finished. He'd seen it. Michelle, mortally wounded, left to bleed like a rabid dog put down in the middle of the street. He knew people'd gathered and gawked and stared and pointed and taken pictures and said: "They did it, they got another freak." That's what waited for the ones who were careless or reckless. Or worse, it's what waited for those who couldn't just stand idle when people needed help; went into action putting out a fire with a single huffed breath or yanking a child from the path of a runaway truck at hyperspeed, doing so, revealing themselves for what they really were. Vaughn thought for certain it's what one day—too thoughtless, too distracted around metal— would happen to Aubrey. It's what he never thought, could let himself think, would happen to Michelle.

A wave of despair spilling over him; Aubrey could feel, vividly, the hole in Vaughn's soul. An empty pit into which he slid.

"Vaughn, please… don't… They'll… the rest of them'll get mad!"

"Fuck them! They want us to hide, they want us to wait. Then they let… they let Michelle…"

"… Vaughn…"

"They killed my wife."

A block away, a homeless man cried uncontrollably.

"Vaughn, don't do nothing. Please don't."

Clumsily Vaughn took Aubrey in his arms and held him. Vaughn was no good at expressing himself with touch. Tender, firm, harsh: shades that were beyond him. Michelle understood that about Vaughn. Michelle forgave him that: his aversion to physical contact. It was poor tribute to her that Vaughn even bothered trying with

Aubrey. But he did, he tried, and what Vaughn couldn't do with his hands he did with his mind. He calmed and reassured and then, with a gentle thought, he made Aubrey weary and sent him into what amounted to a restless, agitated sleep.

Vaughn stayed awake. He had so much to consider now that he had nothing left to live for.

Whump whump, thwap, thump-thwap.

Wasn't much going on.

There wasn't much going on in Soledad's life since her last OIS, since she'd gotten herself stuck back on a desk doing paperwork, back to being a secretary with a gun. And the gun might only be temporary.

Thwap, thwap thwap! Whump! Whump!

There wasn't much going on in the gym at Parker Center. No other cops around and Soledad was just fine with that. No noise, no chatter.

No… looks. Seemed like she'd been getting more and more… looks.

No sounds except her hands and feet doing work on a heavy bag.

Whump! Whump! Thwap whump!

Maybe there was something else she could do, she thought. Some other way to earn her keep. It was—felt like it was—coming to that. Obviously the cop thing was going nowhere. Maybe if she got out of all this halfway clean, if IA didn't bury her too deep, let her quit instead of getting discharged, she could… she could what? Work security at Century City Mall? Join Edison or ADT, drive around Beverly Hills scaring away the blacks and Mexicans every time Mr. and Mrs. Stuffy McNervouspants put in a call they'd seen one of those people in the neighborhood.

Yeah. Like she could keep sane living that way.

But what do you do when you've spent most of your life gearing up to take on ultra-empowered, supernormal genetic mutants and in the first six months it doesn't work out and doesn't work out as much as something can?

Thump, thump thwap. Whap!

Soledad liked the feel of fist and foot against the leather of a bag. Beyond that, she wasn't much of a fighter, having previously been in only one brawl in her entire life. Sixth grade. Maggie Pearson had stolen Soledad's Miami Vice poster from her locker. Nobody touched Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas and got away with it. Nobody.

Years later Soledad had studied—had taken—some kung fu classes, or classes the guy who taught them called kung fu because kung fu sounded cooler than self-defense, which is what he was really peddling. During one of the classes some guy, another student who thought he was the next Jet Li, connected a foot to Soledad's head. Soledad connected a fist to the center of his face. Okay, so maybe twice in her life she'd been in a fight. Sort of twice. One punch and the guy went down like a two-dollar whore.

Whump, whump whump! Thwap…

Soledad wound up for a spin kick. Anger, rage, frustration; she was going to let it all out. She was going to let somebody have it even if it was just a dumb punching bag that was good for nothing but being strung up and getting the stuffing knocked out of it.

She related.

Halfway into the spin, a voice: "Knee in."

The voice, unexpected, threw Soledad. Her foot struck late, missed the bag. Momentum kept carrying her around, would've taken her to the floor if she hadn't somehow steadied herself. The speed with which she recovered her balance was a bit surprising. Pleasantly.

Soledad looked to the voice.

The voice had come from Detective Tashjian, Internal Affairs Division.

Tashjian said again: "Knee in. You have to keep your knee in, thrust out, strike at the last second. You can't telegraph your blows."

He was giving tips? Tashjian, looking like a" before" shot from a Gainers Fuel ad?" And you're the fight authority."

Tashjian threw a couple of tight punches in the air and wasn't at all clumsy about it. He threw them like maybe he wasn't just a bland-as-bland-gets geek. He threw them like maybe at some point in the past pugilism was Tashjian's stock-in-trade. Probably. That was Tashjian: a guy who looks like nothing, but who's nothing but trouble.

"You have to hide your blows," Tashjian directed."Hide them, deliver them fast and plentiful at the last possible second so your opponent doesn't know which way to turn. All they can do… well, all they can do is be beaten. Take the beating that's coming to them."

"That your creepy metaphor for the day?"

"I'm talking about the martial arts. What are you talking about, O'Roark?"

At the moment Soledad wasn't talking about anything. She was pulling off her gloves, unwrapping her wrists.

"Keep trying to tell you I'm not a bad sort, O'Roark. Not like you think I am." Tashjian crossed to the heavy bag, tapped it with a finger as if to check its constitution, then pocketed his hands."Only doing my job."

"So am I. Difference is I get strung up for it."

"There are just questions that need to be asked. You can understand that, can't you? Most cops go their entire careers without drawing their side arms, without being in an officer-involved shooting. Now in the past few months you've been involved in two."

"I was on MTac. We're supposed to shoot freaks."

"A probee, by herself, with some kind of homegrown weapon takes out a pyrokinetic."

"He was about to—"

"An officer, by herself," Tashjian continued, uncaring for anything Soledad had to say,"shoots a… well, whatever it was."

"This last shooting was righteous. You know that. For crying out loud, I used a service revolver. The department wouldn't even let me carry a nine."

"Question is: Should you have taken the shot at all? Procedure would have been for a uniformed officer to make the call to MTac."

"It was flying away. Flying! By the time I'd put in a call, by the time MTac responded, the thing would've been setting up shop in Idaho. Lucky I got one shot off."

"You made it count."

"And good for it. The thing just opened up a hole in the middle of Olive."

Rocking on his heels: "Not so sure about that. Times says—"

"Christ. The Times."

"You're telling me."

"Then why you always talking about the Times?"

"Usually one laying around Starbucks. For free, what does it hurt to hear what the liberals are saying? They're saying the freak might've saved people from being trapped in the hole."

"And Fox News says the gov ought to federalize the MTacs."

"Handing MTac to the bureaucrats." From Tashjian, a shake of the head."God help us all if they do."

"In the meantime I do my job; I see a freak, I stop a freak."

"There are any number of reasons for pulling a trigger. Stop a crime, commit a crime. Grab a few headlines."

"I'm trying to make a name for myself, that what you're saying?"

Tashjian's head dipped slightly, signifying agreement.

"That's a guy thing: buying fame with a gun," Soledad said."It doesn't come from women."

"What about Solanas?"

"Who?"

"Valerie Solanas."

Soledad blank-faced him.

"The woman who shot Andy Warhol."

"Who?"

Tashjian's head lolled."How old are you?"

"Twenty-seven. Just turned."

"And you don't know… You're serious." Tashjian's hands came out of his pocket, rubbed his forehead.

Soledad thought she was giving him a headache. Soledad smiled.

Tashjian: "Warhol was an artist. Painted soup cans."

Soledad went back to giving blank face.

"Trust me, he was big. Big for an artist anyway. So Solanas shoots him, trying to carve out her own little piece of history."

"She should've shot somebody more famous."

"Fifteen minutes."

"What's that?"

"In the future everyone will be famous, but for only fifteen minutes."

"I believe that."

"Warhol said it."

Soledad thought for a moment, considered, then quite plainly: "Looks like he was right."

Tashjian cut loose with a broad and appreciative grin."I like you, O'Roark."

"Like a snake likes a mouse."

"Like a mongoose likes a snake." He fed himself a stick of Big Red. Even over the stink of sweat, Soledad could catch the scent of its spice."Maybe you've got to go down, but you don't go down easy."

"Or maybe I won't go down at all."

"Nope. Not one bit easy." Tashjian flicked the heavy bag, not hard, but he made it move. Very little, but it did move."And I like that."

"By the way," Tashjian said as he walked toward the gym door,"I've met your lawyer, that Senna woman. Tough gal. And I mean that as a compliment."

"Sure you do."

On his way out: "Good luck to you, O'Roark. I'd miss you if you weren't around."

In the time he'd been her SLO, little as it was, Soledad had learned almost nothing about Bo, his civilian life. Cops tended to be private people. MTacs the most so. All Soledad'd learned about Bo came from watching the guy. Everybody knew to keep an eye on him because when you first hit the academy and people find out you wanted to put in for MTac, they'd tell you things. Things besides you're crazy and you'd better have good insurance. They'd tell you about certain BAMFs: cops you want to keep an eye on, learn from if you've got any desire to live past thirty. Bo had made it that far plus ten.

So Soledad looked for Bo, found him, watched him and got schooled.

She saw Bo on a target range, always sporting a Colt. 45. Always deadly accurate with it even at distances some would be off target with a scoped rifle. She learned: Take your time, don't rush a shot just to take a shot. Make every squeeze of the trigger count because with freaks, usually, one shot is all you get.

If.

She saw Bo with other officers: always cool, always in control. He projected authority. Easy to do when people looked up to you anyway; when the rest of the cops on the force think you're just shy of being a legend. But you don't get that kind of status for nothing. You buy it by putting down a total of twenty-three freaks. Putting them down and living to brag about it.

Except Bo didn't brag. He didn't much talk about the things he'd done. He was the polar opposite of Yarborough. Where Yar had a tale to tell about every call he'd ever been on, all Bo ever had to say in confirmation of any of his exploits was: "Well, now, I guess so."

And Soledad had seen Bo in action and under fire. Just once. Once was enough to confirm everything else she'd seen, heard about the man was real and true. He was strong and tough and confident. Just about impossible to kill. And he was there for Soledad when Soledad needed him the most. Life in the balance, she'd looked up and seen him standing with a smoking gun in his hand. A dead freak by her side.

She'd seen all that, but what she had not seen, what she never thought she would see-… when she followed a little sound—an odd, rapid, quivering breathing—to a corner by a towel Dumpster in the locker room, what she saw was Bo crying.

Bo looked up at Soledad. Three words he managed.

"Reese," Bo said,"is dead."

Just about the last person Ian expected to see when he opened his door—other than Elvis or Hitler—was Soledad. Since their antidate date they'd gone out a couple more times. Similar circumstances. Places where they could be together but not intimate. They'd talked on the phone. Infrequently. And rarely about anything specific to either of them. Only being very generous about things could they claim their relationship was moving—crawling— in a direction which could be considered forward.

Now here she was, just… showing up.

Not knowing what else to say, Ian said: "Hey."

"Can I come in?"

"Yeah. Come in."

Soledad did, then she and Ian stood around just inside the door of his apartment. Ian didn't press Soledad, he just let her stand there. Would've let her stand there until natural causes ended her life, if that's what she wanted. For Soledad, from Ian, anything.

When she was ready to talk, Soledad said: "A friend of mine died."

Ian delayed some, then said: "Oh."

Incredulous: "Oh? I tell you someone dies and you say 'Oh'?"

"I haven't seen you in how long? You show up, you tell me someone died. I don't know what this person—"

"She."

"I don't know what she," Ian adjusted,"means to you—"

"Meant. She's dead."

"Soledad!" A quick, exasperated flare, but exasperation would do

Ian no good. Patience. Compassion. As much of it as he could dig up: That's what he needed.

Taking Soledad by the hand, lightly, Ian led her into the living room and sat her down. A black leather couch, a big-screen TV, a coffee table that was used as a place to rest feet and beers. A drafting table where he did his… industrial design, Soledad made herself remember. Not much else. A very" guy" setup, if Soledad had been in a frame of mind to care.

Ian asked her if she wanted something to drink, water or stronger.

She shook her head.

Ian: "I don't know what to say. I know next to nothing about you. I know less about your friend. Why me? Why are you coming to me for…? Why not your friends, your parents?"

"I'm not much closer to my parents than I am to strangers. And… I don't have friends."

"Come on, you don't have—"

"People I know, acquaintances… I don't have friends."

Ian thought about their relationship to that point, about himself and how distant he liked to remain from people. Yeah. Probably Soledad didn't have friends.

"I've spent so much time pushing people off, there's no one left to let in."

"But the woman who died…"

"I looked up to her. I admired her. She saved my life, so I call her a friend."

"And me, I'm just around by default? I get to be your friend because no one else wants the job?"

"Because you'll sit and listen and won't ask questions, and maybe want to know more than I tell you, but won't press me to find out any more than just what I say. You care about me, Ian. You care enough to take what little I give you and leave the rest. I need someone like that in my life."

"What good is any of that for me?"

"You get someone who won't ask questions back. Much as you keep from me, isn't that how you want it?"

Ian felt as if he'd just been walked through a blueprint for disaster."It can't work. We can't make a relationship out of secrets."

"We might as well try. Other than that we're just two people keeping secrets alone."

It was Ian who needed the drink. The kitchen. All the liquor he had was some Jack Daniel's coolers. Two of them. He drank one, drank the other and he felt nothing more than a mild change in climate.

Ian went back to Soledad, sat with her. For a while they shared their special brand of nontalk.

A little way into that Ian said: "I've had a lot… not a lot, but too many friends who've died and most of them have died in not-too-nice ways."

He paused, gave Soledad the opportunity to ask about that; about his friends dying.

She didn't. She just accepted what he'd told her.

For Ian, how their relationship of don't ask/don't tell might work came into focus a little.

Continuing: "The last time it happened I had to… I went to a psychologist. I thought I needed some help."

"What'd he tell you?"

"Basically I had to get over it. I had to forget. You dwell on the loss, and you can never put it behind you. The best thing to do is just put it all out of your mind."

Soledad didn't even take time to consider the advice."Sounds like bullshit."

Ian laughed a little."Yeah. That's what I thought. One visit to the guy: That's all I bothered with."

"My dad never thought much of therapy. I'm from Wisconsin, you know."

"No. I didn't."

"I am. My dad said therapy was for screwed-up city people. And white people. Black people weren't allowed to whine. And in Wisconsin you got a problem, you go out, you do yard work, you come back in and you're too tired to have problems anymore."

Ian laughed again and Soledad laughed too. Weakly and mostly to keep from crying. She lifted a hand to rub a tear from where it was starting to run down her face. When she lowered her hand, it came to rest close to Ian's, touching it just barely.

Ian didn't try to move his hand, to hold Soledad's. He just let it lie there next to hers. Touching it just barely.

"So what'd you do?" Soledad asked."How'd you get over it; your friends dying?"

"I didn't in a way. In a way I didn't want to. Someone's dead you don't just forget about them like they never existed.

"I had this one friend… Did I tell you about the time… She loved Mexican food, and it was about two in the morn— No. Of course I didn't tell you. Anyway, when she died… she had this cut of 'Tiny Dancer. ' Elton John, you know?"

Soledad shrugged."Peter Frampton's about as far as I ever went in that direction, but I know the song."

"Yeah, so, she had a single. A forty-five, not a CD, and it had this little scratch at the intro over the piano part. But it made the record sound like no other version of the song. Sometimes, when we were both feeling mellow, we'd smoke a little, she'd play the single and we would sit and talk and…"

"Did you love her?" Soledad asked.

"Of course I did."

"I don't mean 'fellow human being' loved her. Did you love her?"

Ian said nothing. Same as if the question had never been asked, he went on with: "After she died her family let me have the single. Every once in a while I put it on, I hear that little scratch that's not on any other copy of 'Tiny Dancer, ' and I remember. And long as you remember, as long as every now and then you keep someone alive in your heart and in your mind…"

Ian didn't finish the thought. Didn't need to. And for the next seventy-six minutes, except to ask Soledad if she wanted anything to drink yet, to which she replied,"No," Ian said nothing else.

I'll try to explain this best I can, as simply as I can. A wood door, a steel slab, a windowpane: They're all solid objects. They seem solid. But they're really just molecules held together by cohesion. That's like a… think of it like an energy glue. The glue is stronger with steel than, you know, water, but between the molecules is space. Reality is, nothing's really solid. So if you could manipulate your own molecular cohesion, alter the space between your molecules, you could lower your density."

"You could make yourself intangible."

Whitaker nodded. Vin was getting it.

Maybe Whitaker had a way of coming off as Mr. Eager to Please, but by nature he was a guy who knew there was a way to handle every situation. For some MTacs, for most, handling a situation meant figuring which was the biggest, baddest gun to tote after a mutie. For MTacs like Whitaker, knowing your muties was the first order of business.

Whitaker tried to bring Vin around to that way of thinking.

Bo just read the sports section. He'd already learned plenty about freaks, firsthand, from ten-plus years of going against them. From seeing too many good cops like Reese get put down.

Vin asked: "You ever seen one, an intangible?"

"No. Saw some video of cops chasing one in Tampa. Chasing. The thing was walking away from the cops. Nothing they could do to stop it."

"Jesus, Bo. You hear this."

"Yeah. A guy can change his density. You want to explain something, explain why the Dodgers can't take a three-game home stand."

"Know what's scary about intangibles?" Whitaker went on."I've heard, and I don't think anybody's sure, but there's evidence they can manipulate the density of other things same as they can their own."

Vin wasn't sure what Whitaker was getting at.

Whitaker: "Okay, well, to me that counts as a secondary ability."

"Freaks don't have secondary abilities."

"What about that freak Soledad put down? It could do whatever it did with that sinkhole and fly."

"Yeah, but we don't… nobody knows what happened with the sinkhole. Not for sure." Vin, trying to be optimistic about a negative matter."So maybe all it could do was fly."

"If that thing could do what it did and fly," Whitaker went on, objective with the facts,"if intangibles can extend their abilities, could be we're starting to look at the next step in the next wave of freaks."

"Fuuhhhhk."

"Yes. Fuck. Muties that can fly and breathe fire, or triple their size and shoot electricity."

Vin, again: "Fuck."

"If that's what's waiting for us, we're going to look back on these days as the good old days."

Bo acted like he was still just reading the sports section. Really he was hearing every word Whitaker was saying.

Yarborough walked into the ready room.

"Hey, Yar."

"What's goin' on, boys?"

"Whitaker's telling ghost stories."

"I'm just talking about the freak population, telling it like it is."

"Here's how it is: I see a freak…" With his hand and fingers Yarborough made a gun, pulled the trigger."There's your freak population."

Bo took himself from the sports long enough to wonder to Yar: "That a new jacket? It's nice."

"Yeah? Like it?"

"What'd I say? Said it's nice. What is that? It looks like—"

"It's Pleather."

"What?"

"It's a Pleather coat."

Vin was the first to start laughing, but Whitaker, I-want-to-get-along-with-everybody Whitaker, laughed loudest.

"Every time," Yar said with a front of mock indignance, but harboring a little of the real thing,"I buy something you all've gotta make fun of it."

"Well, now, that's because every time you buy something you buy something like, Pleather. What is that, plastic leather?"

"Quality material's what it is."

"Sure." Vin, getting into things."Comes from some of the finest Pleather on the planet. Remind me, Pleather: flora or fauna?"

Yar made a show of carefully taking off his jacket as he swapped his civvies for Nomex."Twice as durable as leather, half the price."

"Half the cost and twice the laughs."

"Yeah, man. Sorry, but Pleather sounds like something that went out of style about the same time as KG and the Sunshine Band." Whitaker had some humor to him when he felt like using it.

"What you all thinks not hardly my concern. Chicks dig Pleather."

Another round of laughing started up.

Vin: "Yar, you don't seem to be aware of the fact that chicks don't dig being called chicks, so how are you going to tell us they dig Pleather?"

"Hey, as a cop who's remained notoriously single through three divisions, I don't think you should be schooling me on what chicks dig."

"Being the married one," Bo weighing in,"I gotta go with Vin on this. Traditional ladies don't really shine to being lumped in with barnyard animals. Cute and yellow and fluffy as they might be."

"That's what I'm saying; I'm not really trying to attract a traditional girl. I like 'em, what's the word? Atypical."

Vin, smiling but shaking his head: "I can't wait to meet the girl who turns you out. Man, she is going to drag your ass by your heart."

The girl.

It was really hard for Yar to say if she had been the one or not. She was pretty, plenty pretty, and that was—right, wrong, chauvinistic or not—Yar's first consideration. She was tough too. Not just take-a-punch tough, but take-what-life-gives-you-and-deal-with-it tough. Good with a gun, and that, well, c'mon, that makes any woman sexy. And sometimes Yar would catch her smiling. Smiling for no reason when she thought no one was looking. She was cute when she smiled. It planed her edge. And sometimes she would wink at Yar. Not flirting. Joking. Like: Hey, I'm thinking something, and wouldn't you like to know what I'm thinking? And maybe she was just a woman, and nothing more or less special than that, not nearly all that Yar recalled. But she was also dead, and that made Yar think of Reese and think, maybe, one time, instead of just staring at her smile he should've asked her out for a drink or to a movie. Or short of that, just told her, Reese, you're all right and I'm glad you've got my back. And Yar missed her. Whether he would have ever dated her or not, if it ever would've worked out or not, he missed Reese; missed what she was about, felt guilt for never having taken the thirty seconds out of a day to get to know her a little better. And he wanted to tell Bo and Whitaker and Vin that he missed Reese and that he hurt from missing her and wished he could go back and tell her he loved her, or at least liked her a whole lot. She shouldn't've died wondering if she was loved, or at least well liked.

None of them should.

He wanted to share all that with the guys…

Yarborough wanted to…

But the laughing… they'd just laugh if he said all that.

Wouldn't they?

So Yarborough said, instead, giving the people the Yar they thought they knew so well: "God ain't invented the girl that can own me. When He does, I guess I'll just cross her bridge when I get to it."

Bo was going to make a crack, keep ragging on Yar 'cause Yar was good to rag on and could take a well-thrown joke. Before he got a chance Tac-1 crackled with a call out from Command to Fifth and Flower. A patrol reporting a metanormal.

The radio hadn't even gone quiet and all four MTacs, weapons in hand, were moving from the ready room for the APC.

When D Platoon, LAPD's SWAT unit, rolled on a call, they hit the scene in modified GMC Suburbans. Doesn't sound real menacing, traveling same as your average soccer mom. But you see a couple of the vehicles—armor-plated, dark black or deep blue—you see guys sporting MP5s or CAR-15s piling out of them, that'll get your menace up. Unless you're a metanormal. You're a metanormal, maybe all you'll do is use your telekinetic abilities to send the Suburban flipping into the side of a building from a block away.

It happened.

So MTacs don't show up in modified Suburbans. MTacs roll in carbon-fiber APCs rated to withstand temperatures of up to l, 200°F and pressure up to 3, 000 psi. And since its exterior isn't metal, a metal morpher can't put a hand to it and simply make the vehicle collapse, killing all the cops inside.

That happened too.

So, most times, the carbon-fiber APC was enough to get the MTacs to the call in one piece. After that, they were on their own.

Bo led Yarborough, Vin and Whitaker from the APC to a squad blocking off the intersection on Flower. Down the block was another squad doing the same. To the officer in charge, Bo gave his standard greeting.

"Whatcha got?"

"Guy flagged a patrol down. Says he saw a shape-changing freak."

Bo looked up the street. Low-rise brick buildings. A couple of parked cars. A motorcycle. Garbage cans. Pay phone.

Bo asked: "He thinks he saw a shape-shifter, or he saw one?"

"We hit the scene, there were three or four guys, baseball bats, beating the shit out of the thing. One second it's a bear, then it's a… like a lion. Thought it was gonna turn into an elephant or something, trample the hell out of those guys."

"They can change shape not mass." Halfway up the block an alley."It'll maintain its relative size. How big was the guy?"

"Caucasian male about six-one, maybe two hundred pounds. It was for a second. Then it was a lion again."

Six-one. Two hundred pounds. That left a lot of possibilities.

Yar, Vin and Whitaker were already fanning the intersection, weapons ready, looking up the block for likely targets: something that should be still but was moving slightly. Something that should be inanimate but was bleeding from taking hits from a Louisville Slugger-armed Neighborhood Watch.

Bo to the sergeant: "Your guys chased it up the street?"

"Yeah. The other squad cut it off. It headed down the alley, but it dead-ends. They kinda looked for it."

"Kinda?"

Direct but not trying to be harsh: "Their job's to lock the scene down and put in the call. You got the call. You take out the freak."

The freak.

It probably wasn't, couldn't be, one of the cars. Could easily be a garbage can, the pay phone stand. But maybe it'd blended with the stoop of one of the buildings. Maybe that bit of wrought iron was really just a mutie in disguise.

Or maybe it was none of that. Maybe it'd managed to slip past the uniforms.

Or maybe that newspaper vending machine was going to do everything it could to end an MTac's life.

"Mike check. One."

"Two."

"Three.""Four."

Gripping his. 45, Bo took point, started down the block. Yar, Vin and Whitaker followed.

Yarborough yelled: "Bo!"

Bo whipped around. Bo saw a section of brick wall of the alley moving toward him. He had a split second to do something.

The split second passed.

Bo did nothing.

The wall was nearly on top of him. The wall was about to come crashing down on him. The wall was going to kill Bo.

And then the wall was raked with a steady stream of automatic gunfire spat hot and loud from a pair of HKs. The wall jerked back, twisted in response to the hits. Couple of its bricks went flying as the slugs tore divots from it.

The gunfire stopped.

The wall seemed to steady itself as if its masonry and mortar were marshaling; readying up for a surge forward.

Whitaker's Benelli took care of that.

The shell of the shotgun ripped away a huge chunk of the wall. The wall staggered, collapsed—not collapsed, more like slumped— down to the ground.

Yarborough, Vin and Whitaker eased for it, weapons ready to do some more graffiti work if necessary.

The wall didn't move. But it changed. It contorted and contracted. The bricks turned from red to the pinkish tone of flesh. The wall took on the shape of a human. Naked, bullet-riddled, absent some body parts where bricks had been blown off in its previous form.

The four MTacs watched the transformation without expression. Just another changeling. Just another freak. Now it was just another dead one.

Yarborough looked down at the all-but-smoking carcass."Got you, mutie." To the others: "Shape-shifter. Hate 'em the most. Sneaky bastards." To Bo: "What's the matter, Bo? Didn't read 'em?"

"Must've missed it."

"Got your back, man. Tough mo-fo, huh? You even hit him, Vin?"

"Blow me. Shoulda thrown your Pleather jacket at it. That would've scared it off."

"Hell, bet if we had a piece like Bullet's we coulda put it down in one shot."

Whitaker nudged the shape-shifter with the muzzle of his Benelli. The shape-shifter responded by flopping a bit, then lying still some more.

Vin said: "Heard around she doesn't like to be called Bullet."

"Yeah, well, you don't tell her I said it, she don't gotta find out."

"What's she like?" Vin wanted to know."I can't get two words out of her."

"You ladies want to form a stitch 'n' bitch," Bo cut in,"do it on your own time. As long as you're on the city's clock, how about you sweep the rest of the alley; make sure there aren't any more muties hiding out while I get a wagon out here for the meat?"

Yarborough and Vin" yes sir"-ed that, started down the alley. Whitaker nudged the shape-shifter one more time. One more time the shape-shifter flopped, then lay still. Maybe they were superhuman when they were alive, maybe there wasn't anything they couldn't do. Dead they were just as dead as anybody. Whitaker tagged along behind Yarborough and Vin.

Bo stayed back with the body, looked down at it, then looked at his left hand. He curled it into a fist, held it that way for a second, a second more. Uncurled it. He did the same again.

No difference. The action had no effect.

Bo couldn't stop his hand from shaking.

Not that she knew what to expect other than what you see in movies and on TV shows, but the morgue at Cedars-Sinai was different than Soledad figured it'd be. It was cold, yeah. Had to be cold to keep the dead from rotting. And it was empty of smell except that it smelled well scrubbed. It smelled clean. What it didn't smell like was death, however death was supposed to smell. Rancid. Stale. Soledad was pretty sure death didn't smell like Pine-Sol.

Mostly the morgue was a whole lot louder than she figured it would be. Should be. There was, even at the late hour, nothing but people—living people—in the morgue. MEs and cops examining bodies, giving them a close and careful once-over, pushing paper; turning lives into forms to be filed away. Grieving family members come to ID loved ones, gather loved ones. And regularly, very regularly, new bodies making their way down from above. The dead didn't stop coming. Morning. Noon. Night. Los Angeles kept on manufacturing fresh corpses.

Bodies in, bodies out.

It took a bit for Soledad to flag down an assistant assistant ME. Upstairs, somewhere else in the hospital he would have been an orderly. Down there, where the people weren't so particular, he had a title and owned just enough self-importance to ignore everyone around him. It was basically Soledad's flashed badge that got his attention.

"What yah need, sistah?" He was a black guy, young, with long dreads—well kept, not the raggedy-ass kind a lot of Rastahs sported—with more than a little accent from somewhere in the Caribbean.

"I'm looking for someone."

"Name?"

"Bannon, Reese."

The AAME repeated the name a couple of times to quick-fix it in his memory. He looked over some papers, then flicked a finger for Soledad to follow him.

A back room. Tables. Lots of tables. Stainless steel. A whole bunch of no-longer-living people all congregated, all draped in sheets.

Bodies in, bodies out.

The AAME went down a row checking toe tags…

Soledad shook her head. They really used toe tags.

He flipped one over, read it. Flipped another over, read it. Flipped another… He stopped at the table.

Looking to Soledad: "Ready?" He was already pulling back the sheet to reveal the body. Asking was just a formality.

Reese.

One time a guy called death the Big Sleep. It sounded good, clever, and it stuck. Reese didn't look like she was sleeping. She didn't look like she was sleeping or moving to a higher plane or in a better place. She looked dead, and she looked like getting that way hadn't come easy. Muscles atrophied. Pale and gaunt from months of coma, of being fed by tubes and kept breathing by machines. A chest wound that had been worked on every way doctors knew how but in the end would slow-kill her. Reese looked like life had been back-alley-beat from her. And Soledad figured that would've been about the only way Reese would go: not gentle into the night, but only after a long, nasty, bitter, violent fight. But not so much of one that Death wouldn't chalk the victory in the end. Nobody, not even BAMF Reese, was that good a warrior.

"Look aht daht shit, huh." The assistant assistant ME ticked his head at the stitched and stapled defect where Reese's sternum used to be."An' she duhn't die right away? She a tough sometin', huh?"

He said what he said oblivious to Soledad, to her feelings. He said it with no respect for Reese. Forty-plus-hour weeks in a morgue had long since desensitized him to the dead. They weren't people anymore, weren't even bodies. Just inventory to be sorted and stored and just-in-time-delivered to a destination six feet due south.

Bodies in, bodies out.

Meat in, meat out.

A row across and a couple of tables up, three people, a family, stood near the badly charred and mangled remains of someone. They cried profusely. Some other assistant assistant ME kept saying to them over and over: "I need you to identify the body. Please, could you just identify the body? Is this, or is this not…"

From her little backpack purse Soledad slipped a Kodak Fun Saver camera.

Yeah. Right.

She circled around to Reese's right shoulder and lined up a shot.

"Dhis for ahn invesTIgation?" the dreadlocked assistant assistant asked.

Soledad snapped a picture, then snapped a couple more to be safe.

"If daht's not for ahn invesTIgation, yah have tah ask de family fhurst. I can't jhust let yoou be comin' in here takin' pictures of de bodies."

Sure, now he cared.

Soledad tucked the camera back where it had come from and started from the room, let the dead get back to their business.

"Hey," the assistant yelled after her."I'm goin' tah have tah report dhis, sistah. I duhn't wanna have tah geet yah in trahuble."

"Take a number," Soledad said."Get in line."

I know you believe what you're telling me. But what I'm starting to think… look, you can't blame me if this—all of this—is starting to sound a little fantastic."

Soledad flashed anger. Gayle, the lawyer who'd come around uninvited, talked Soledad into letting her work her case, was calling Soledad a liar?

Verbalizing her anger: "You're saying I'm making things up?"

"No, I'm not."

"You said it was a fantasy."

"I said it was fantastic."

"Same thing." Big gesticulation. Dismissive."How's that not the same thing?"

A guy at the next table with good hair and bright but vacant eyes stared at the arguing women.

Gayle caught his look, said: "We want an audience we'll sell tickets. Turn your head, drink your mochaccino."

The guy did as told, was good about taking direction. Probably he was some variation of actor or unemployed actor or wannabe actor come to LA to give a go at being a superstar. The town was sick with them. The cafe—Kings Road, on Kings Road in West Hollywood—was full of them. Soledad didn't care for their kind, didn't like being around them, but Kings Road cafe was walking distance from her apartment, and Gayle had complained enough about meeting in the fumy Beverly Connection Soledad figured she'd make an offer of meeting in the coffeehouse. Now, thinking she'd been called a liar, on top of the fact Gayle was half an hour late for their meeting, Soledad was sorry she'd made the gesture.

Gayle calmed things down, stepped Soledad through the situation."You told me that two years ago you submitted a proposal on your gun to the PD."

"Yes."

"Well, there are no records of it. None that I can find."

No hesitation, strong in her conviction: "That's impossible."

"So it's okay for you to say it's impossible, but if I say it's fantastic…"

"You need to check with A Platoon and the Department of the Armorer."

"I did. No record anything was ever received. You send your work blind?"

"No. Well, not… I'd talked about it with the Sergeant. He told me I should submit my work to the Lieutenant."

"And you did that?"

"Yeah, I did."

"Did you get a receipt?"

"A receipt? I wasn't buying groceries."

"So that's a no."

"If I had something like that, I'd give it to you."

"So you sent your work to the lieutenant, then what?"

"After I didn't hear anything for about…" Soledad gave careful thought, confirmed the time line with herself."It was almost four months. I sent a follow-up letter. Three more months I sent a letter to the sergeant of MTac Operations, told him about what I was working on, that I'd already sent proposals to the Department of the Armorer. Sent another letter two months after that."

Gayle took a drink of her tea. Black and strong."What about the lieutenant of MTac?"

"Rysher?" A shake of Soledad's head."Figured it be better to start lower, have somebody rabbi me up the chain. When I made MTac, I sent the lieutenant commander a query, asked if my submissions had anything to do with my selection. That was just a backward way of trying to get someone to go back, look at my work."

"So, at least, what, five times you made some kind of communication regarding your work."

"At least that. Yeah. I did everything I could to get people on board with what I was doing."

"Not that I can prove."

Shrugging all that off: "So there's no paper; so what?"

"The so-what is: If there's paper, you're a conscientious cop who at least tried hard as she could to get people to listen to her. If there's no paper, no proof you tried, then you're a liar who doesn't give a damn what other people think and just does whatever the hell she pleases." Hand up, cutting Soledad off before she could even get going: "I'm not saying you are, so let's not even start that again. But you're saying there are these documents out there, and I'm telling you if they exist, I can't find them."

"How is that possible?"

"It's possible if somebody makes it possible."

Soledad's head ticked; the idea she was about to speak, her mind couldn't quite grasp."Somebody got rid of the documents?"

"Somebody's lying. If it's not you…"

"That doesn't… Why would anybody…"

"Here's something else: Cop's involved in a shooting, let's say he puts a bullet in the back of some unarmed innocent. Every time, the same thing: The department does everything it can to make it look like the cop's in the right; the guy who got shot wouldn't follow police instructions, made a sudden move, looked like he was holding a gun. They back the cop's play best they know how; keep everyone from looking bad, keep the department from getting buried under lawsuits. What they don't do is put a spotlight on the fact the cop screwed up.

"You take out a metanormal, even I admit he was a bad one. The department ought to be hanging medals all over you; show the world what a great job MTacs do. But they're acting like you going in with your piece is the next worst thing to Mai Lai."

Soledad, trying to logic things out: "What I did… I look back,

I see how I was wrong. The department has to try and protect itself."

"Man, you're a good soldier; throwing yourself on their grenade for them. Who's the department protecting itself from? And from what? The voting majority that's got no problem with metanormals getting shot in the street? Amnesty International filing some useless lawsuit? Would anybody even have any idea what happened in that warehouse if the department hadn't started an investigation? And if the charges that you're facing are so god-awful, you're a vigilante who used an unapproved weapon, why does IA need to investigate you at all? Why not just go with things as they stand?"

Gayle was talking… what she was talking were lies and deceit and conspiracy, and Soledad didn't know what to make of any of it. She didn't know what to do other than to say: "We should… we should go to Rysher."

"That's no good."

"He's my lieutenant. If something's going on, he can help."

Between her palms Gayle rolled her tea mug, the liquid so black it kicked back a fluid reflection of herself, of herself saying: "He's got no desire to help. Soledad, where do you think this IA investigation came from?"

She didn't know. But what Soledad couldn't believe…"The lou… No. Since I've hit MTac, he's been there for me."

No response from Gayle.

The lack of engagement pushed Soledad's conviction."He has my back. He's treated me solid from day one. Told me he'd do what he could to help clean all this up. Why would he build something against me?"

"You really are the good soldier. All the questions I ask, as far as I can follow things, it started with him. More than that, I think he might be poisoning the well against you."

Lies and deceit and conspiracy Gayle was talking.

The actor guy got up to leave. He was replaced by another just like him only Asian.

"Why are they doing this to me?"

Gayle shook her head.

Soledad asked, desperate: "What do we do?"

"If all you had to face down was the law… the law I know, I know how to work the law. What's going on now… I don't know what's going on now. I don't know how to fight it, don't know if I can. So what we do now… what do you want to do?"

Without thought, what Soledad should do was obvious."I should quit things. That would be the smart play. It's what they want. Just take whatever out they give me, walk away."

Gayle said nothing to that.

Soledad: "I won't. I won't do it."

"No matter how bad it gets?"

Letting her head swing free, Soledad looked around the cafe. Didn't look at anything in particular. It was motion for motion's sake. It was being wound so tight some kind of release, no matter how slight, was needed."The good thing, bad thing about being a cop: the blue wall. The idea that we all stick together. Protects you from a lot of crap, you know? A lot of crap out there. But it keeps things in too. Things bounce off the blues. You get the echo of all the quiet voices."

"And the voices say?"

"They say: Look at her. She wouldn't be here if she wasn't a woman. Wouldn't be here if she wasn't a black woman. She got handed the job. She's no good. Why do we have to make exceptions for the black woman? Course 'woman, ' 'black': They've got other ways of saying that. You hear them so often you get good at reading lips at a distance. You can read eyes too. A cool stare, a cold look. And you can read between the lines: You're a good girl, Soledad. A credit to your race, Soledad. Backhanded compliments. A slapping back of the hand. All they're saying: You're okay, Soledad, but too bad you're not one of the boys."

A little laugh from Gayle.

From Soledad: "That funny to you?"

"You first met me, didn't we have a conversation about me being too good-looking to be a decent lawyer?"

"You don't trade on your sex?"

"Trade on it? No. Flaunt it? Yeah, I do. But I'm not about to hide the fact I have the capacity to look good when sixty-eight percent of the rest of America has the capacity to eat drive-thru fast food until they blow up like stuffed pigs. And if somebody figures my good looks equal stupid… well, my rearview mirror is littered with the wreckage of people who've made that mistake." Gayle took a breath, leaned back in her chair, gave Soledad a moment to see the error of her misjudgment."You know, I'm starting to get you. Maybe you're not always right, you've always got to prove other people wrong."

"I'm not getting run into the ground, have people think I got what I deserve for being nothing but a poster child for affirmative action."

"Isn't that the mistake you made with your gun? No one responded to you, they ignored you, so first time out you've gotta prove your thing works because Soledad O'Roark is never mistaken. Yes or no?"

Soledad said nothing.

"You're going to prove yourself into a grave."

"You came to me. You don't like what I am, you don't like what you're staring down…"

"I'm asking this: Who are you trying to prove things to? To yourself? Then good; stand. Fight. Go down swinging so you'll know you're the fighter you believe you are. But if you're trying to prove things to some old boys—no matter how things come out, they're going to think of you the same as they think of you now—then you're killing yourself for the wrong reason."

Soledad didn't answer. She was getting tired. She was burning out.

"I'm not quitting things." Gayle, lightening the mood, trying to: "You don't get rid of me that easy. I don't know what's going on, but whatever it is, it's dirty. Okay. If that's how things are going to go, I can get dirty too. I can—"

"You can what?"

"If I have to, trust me, I can hit these fuckers coming out of the sun."

Northridge.

The man walked into the Devonshire police station. The interior of the building, the building looking to have been built in the sixties, was in a slow state of decay. Paneling was cracked and fraying. Tiles were missing from the floor. Tiles were missing from the ceiling. The furniture, what little there was, was hand-me-downs from LA Unified. Plastic and dirty and dated when it was factory new.

It was late and fairly quiet at the station. The desk sergeant was talking to a Hispanic guy with a bad, bleeding bash on his forehead. The Hispanic guy seemed only to be able to speak Spanish, and the desk sergeant communicated in a busted language that sounded as if it had been patched together after several years of trying to get information from people who knew Spanish and nothing but Spanish.

"Porfavor llene las formas," the sergeant said. Tried to say.

The man, the man who'd just entered the station, sat in one of the dirty plastic chairs and waited for the desk sergeant to finish his business. The man dabbed his upper lip with a handkerchief and had himself a look around. Not much to look at. A few plaques from the Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce thanking the police for this or that. A few softball trophies. Old. The man didn't figure police officers much got together for things like soft-ball anymore. Some public service posters reminding people to be safe, telling kids to stay off drugs and stay in school. Considering the state of the world, the posters didn't seem to be doing much good. Maybe if they were hung somewhere besides inside a police station…

"Sehor, llene las formas."

The Hispanic guy was sent over to a chair to sit and fill out some forms.

The man stood, dabbed at his upper lip again, went to the desk sergeant.

"Can I help you?" the desk sergeant asked. Didn't sound like he meant it.

"Yes. Yes, I think… I hope you can."

Just a little, but the desk sergeant looked relieved. Relieved that the man spoke English. It wasn't that the desk sergeant had anything against Hispanics. He wasn't like that. For LAPD the sergeant was nearly forward thinking. It was just nice, on occasion, to be able to talk to someone in his native tongue.

The man said: "I'd like to make a report."

"What kind?" The sergeant opened a drawer filled with papers, poised a hand to take out the appropriate form for the information he was about to receive.

"Well, I'm not exactly sure. I've never made a report like this before. I've never made any kind of report, for that matter. And what I saw, maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's nothing. But, well, it was odd. I… I think it was odd."

"Why don't you just tell me what happened. You tell me what happened, and we'll figure out what kind of report to make."

"That seems like the way to do it. Well, I was over in… I guess I should tell you my name is Theodore. Theodore Kopeikin. I guess you'll need to know that at some point, so I might as well tell you now."

"All right, Mr. Kopeikin—"

" 'Ted' is fine. I know my name is kind of a mouthful. Thought you might need my whole name, but Ted is what everyone calls me."

"Ted, then." The desk sergeant's hand was still poised to grab up a form."Tell me what happened."

"First thing I should say is I work in real estate. Now, I'm not some kind of big tycoon, I'll tell you that right off and have no problem doing so. Just being honest. You should know I'm honest. You're going to… I'm going to want you to know I'm an honest man. But I do work in real estate."

The relief that had come to the desk sergeant when he first talked with Mr. Kopeikin was fading. Maybe they both spoke the same language, but he seemed to be getting less from Mr. Kopeikin than he did from the Hispanic guy.

"Does this have anything to do with what you're reporting?"

"Yes. In a way, yes. I was looking at some property in Northridge. You see, I deal in low-value property. We like to call it undervalued, it sounds better, but it is low-value property. Land near freeways, near dumps, condemned and tenement housing. I'm only telling you that because I'm not selling to you. Believe me, if I was selling, undervalued property; that's what I'd be—"

"If you could just get to what it is you're—"

"I only want you to know I'm an honest man. Taxpayer. I'm sure you get a lot of crackpots off the street, and when you hear what I saw, I don't want you to think—"

"You're an honest man. Yes, sir." Below the desk, above the drawer, the sergeant's hand balled into a fist."If you could just go on."

"Well, as I was saying, I was looking at some property here in Northridge. Apartments where the management has had some troubles, gone out of business. Abandoned, I guess you'd say they were. Now, while these buildings are sitting vacant it's not unusual for squatters to move in."

"Squatters. You want to report squatters." The sergeant was already looking for his trespassing forms.

"No. Not exactly." Mr. Kopeikin found a clean spot on his handkerchief and blew his nose."I'm out looking at some property, as I said, some condemned property, when I see this man up on the eighth floor of the building. He's out on the fire escape laying out some clothes to dry. I think that's what he was doing. Anyway, he was out on the fire escape doing something, and it gave way. The fire escape gave way. As I said, these properties are old, abandoned. He shouldn't have been there in the first place."

"And the man?"

"Well, he fell. Fell straight down to the ground. Straight down and headfirst."

"So you want to report an accident." The desk sergeant started reaching for a new form.

"No. No, I… well, here's why I'm so… The man fell, and I thought that's it. He's dead. Eight floors straight down, on his head; he's dead. But he hit the ground, he lay there for just a moment then… then he got up."

The desk sergeant suddenly got unbored with the story."You said he…?"

"Hit the ground, lay there for a moment and got up. Got up like all he'd done was nicked his toe on a rock. He looked around for a bit, in a strange manner, as if he were afraid someone might have seen what had just happened. After that, well, after that he went back into the building."

The desk sergeant got himself up from where he sat and he was quick about it."I want you to stay right here," he said to Mr. Kopeikin, and said it in a way that would make it stick."Stay here, and I'll be right back."

Mr. Kopeikin started to say" Okay," but the sergeant was already gone.

Wasn't even a minute and the sergeant returned. With him was another cop who had even more stripes on his uniform.

The desk sergeant introduced him."This is Captain Lanning. I want you," the sergeant directed,"to tell him what you told me."

"Well, I work in real estate—"

"The man you saw; just tell him about that."

"I appraise low-value property. Now, normally we call them underval—"

"He saw some guy fall from a eighth-story window." The desk sergeant did the storytelling for Mr. Kopeikin.

"Fire escape," Mr. Kopeikin corrected.

"Fell on his head, right?"

"Yes. And it was onto concrete. I don't think I—"

"The guy fell, and got up like nothing happened."

"An invulnerable?" Lanning asked.

"I couldn't… well, I couldn't say," Mr. Kopeikin said."When I saw it happen, I thought: That's one of those superpeople. Has to be. I couldn't be sure. Never seen one before. Not in real life. But a man takes that kind of fall…"

Captain Lanning looked square in Mr. Kopeikin's eyes and was very serious about things."Mr. Kopeikin, in all likelihood you did see a metanormal human. It's very important we make a record of everything you witnessed, do you understand?"

"I think I—"

"Everything. Even the slightest detail could be important to us later."

"All right. I'll… I'll certainly try."

"I want you to wait here with Sergeant Harris. I'm going to get someone from DMI—"

"Those are the special policemen, yes?" Things were happening fast now, too fast for Mr. Kopeikin.

"Division of Metanormal Investigations. They handle situations like this," Lanning explained."And if they determine we are dealing with a metanormal, they'll issue a warrant and send an MTac element after it. I'm going to bring someone from DMI out here, and then you're going to tell him everything you saw."

"Yes. Yes, of course."

"Sergeant?"

The desk sergeant, Harris, practically snapped to."Yes, sir?"

"Make sure Mr. Kopeikin is comfortable."

"Yes, sir."

Fast, Captain Lanning disappeared back into the station.

Harris gave Mr. Kopeikin his full attention."There anything you need? Something to drink, if there's someone you need to call…?"

"Actually" — Mr. Kopeikin went back to work on his upper lip—"if maybe you could find a tissue for me. For some reason, this never happens to me, just never, but I seem to have the worst nosebleed."

MTac funerals are the best. Not as good as they used to be, not like the first few in the years just after San Francisco, but they're still better than what most cops get sent away with. They were the best for two reasons. One was because a whole lot of show went into the services, kind of like Viking funerals. At least like the Viking funeral I saw in that one movie. The other reason they're so good is 'cause they've had a lot of practice burying MTac cops. A lot of practice.

When the first bunch of MTacs started getting killed, their funerals rated live TV coverage. Networks, CNN. Precoverage on the morning shows and afterthoughts on Nightline. All the airtime they wanted to spend on ceremonies as long as it didn't cut into prime time. Except when the Baltimore Eight got buried. But when the president makes a eulogy, you carry it, you carry it live and you carry it live even if it bumps the sitcoms.

That's part of the reason the funerals aren't as good anymore. Beautiful as they are, there were so many of them so often they got mundane. How many times can you watch cops in full dress salute flag-draped coffins? How often can you look at young widows and widowers hug busted-up families? How much speechifying can you stand from the brass and politicians about" the greatest service you can give" and" not dying in vain"?

So no more live coverage and not as many politicians giving speeches. Unless it was an election year. Election years they fought like white trash at a Wal-Mart sale about who was going to say what over which body.

Except in California. Harry was at every funeral. Harry spoke at every funeral. He didn't give a speech, he spoke. He was one of the few politicos who could talk about pain and loss and the need to be strong and mean every word he was saying. Sometimes he would cry, but most times he wouldn't. But everyone who listened cried. Everyone who listened felt like they shared his pain. We didn't, because no one had lost more than him. And if he could survive and carry on, couldn't we?

And Harry never said any more than he had to, and he never said anything about anything that had to do with politics. From him there were only comforting words, there was an expression of understanding and there was a vow to protect the normals from the metanormals.

Harry made you proud to be MTac. Harry made you glad to know that when your time came, there would be someone like him to say a few words overyou.

Sometimes LA was a beautiful city. The beautiful days mostly followed the bad ones. Hard rain and strong wind carried away the smog, left clear skies behind. The hidden was revealed. Behind downtown were mountains. Under the clouds of car exhaust the Valley was a decent stretch of land. At night, glowing electric below the Santa Monica mountains, it was downright good-looking. On those days, the beautiful days, you could almost understand why people wanted to live in the place.

But it just figured LA would decide to be beautiful on the day Reese got buried. Wasn't right. Should've been raining. Los Angeles should've been crying for her.

The black cars, the limos that carried the family, the brass and suits were all pulling away. The other cops had scattered, gone home clutching their own family members while reassuring them— not real convincingly but giving it a shot anyway—that what happened with Officer Bannon wouldn't happen to them.

The reporters, the few local media that still bothered showing up for" these things," were gone. Harry Norquist had stayed, lingered, not rushing off like the other bureaucrats. Tried to comfort the family. But he'd gone now too. There was, after all, still a state to be governed. All that was left at Veterans Cemetery were the rolling greens, the rows of headstones and the dead.

Among them walked Soledad with Bo, Yarborough and" those two," which is what Soledad called Vin and Whitaker.

Looking up at the sky, the blue sky, Soledad said: "Ought to be raining. It's the kind of day people get married, not buried. It's not right. It ought to be—"

"She had more family than I figured." Bo stumbled into Soledad's thought. Half because he wasn't listening, half because he wanted to at least steer the conversation toward something positive."Think that's good she had so much family come out and see her off."

"Just that much more family she's left behind." Soledad brought back the dark clouds.

Whitaker: "They should be proud of her. Reese was good cop."

Soledad was downright nasty with the" who asked you" look she flashed. Whitaker took it, shut up, looked away.

"I'll tell you this, though." Yarborough talking now."She hung in there, huh? Never did anything the easy way right up to the last. That's how I want to go."

"That's how you want it? On your back, in a coma?" Vin didn't care for that idea. Cared for it zero."No thanks. When it comes for me, I hope it comes quick."

"Sure. Live like a bitch" — Soledad shared her ace boon nasty look with Vin and was glad to do it—"die like a bitch."

Vin didn't look away like Whitaker had. Vin gave Soledad nothing but smile.

Yarborough modified himself: "All I'm saying is she didn't go down easy. You gotta respect that. She was a fighter. A fighter. I don't want to go down without putting up a fight."

Soledad, looking at the blue sky again: "It's too nice a day. Should be raining."

"Well, now, it's not like freaks give you a choice on how you want to go down," Bo pointed out.

Vin asked: "You ever get a choice? There isn't much in this life that won't kill you. Read the other day about a guy trying to shake a soda loose from a machine. Fell over and crushed him. Died for a Coke. Now, how messed up is that?"

"A woman one time," Yarborough said, recalling a story,"got drunk and passed out in her Jacuzzi. Boiled to death. Like human soup or something."

"Honest?" Bo asked.

"For real," Yarborough answered.

Whitaker didn't say anything. Whitaker could do without any more looks from Soledad.

Soledad: "I heard about a guy who was out fishing, he yawned, a fish jumped out of the water, down his throat and he choked to death."

Everyone waited for the punch line.

Soledad confirmed her story."It's the truth. I mean, I read it… Heard it."

Bo wasn't buying."Sounds like one of those urban legends."

"How's it gonna be an urban legend?" Yarborough wanted to know."How's somebody going to go fishing in the city?"

"In New York, in the lake in Central Park you can—"

Whitaker got himself another look from Soledad. Whitaker shut up again.

Yarborough laughed."Yawned and choked on a fish. That is truly messed up."

The other four laughed too.

"I mean, seriously, you are some kind of loser. That's like having a fatal accident shuffling cards."

More laughs, a little stronger.

"Hell, if I knew there was a fish out there with my name on it, I'd pay a freak to burn a hole in my chest."

The laughing stopped: Just that fast and just that casual Yarborough had said too much. The five cops had to spend about a minute standing around in his embarrassment.

Yarborough didn't know what to say. He had meant nothing by his remark. No disrespect to the still-cooling Reese, as disrespectful as it had come off. But to speak on it further, to try and apologize, would only serve to prolong the discomfort.

Bo gave them direction: "How 'bout we take a moment, say a prayer?"

Five white-gloved hands reached head-high and removed uniform caps. Five heads bowed in quiet tribute.

Four police officers, in their thoughts, best they could, strung together bits of eloquence in asking God to give Reese comfort and love in her passing.

Soledad prayed a little different. She prayed a little more simply. God, she requested, give me one more chance to kill every freak that wanders into my crosshairs.

A respectful amount of time later Bo lifted his head, his cap went back on.

He said: "All right. We all got things to do other than stand around, so how about we get back to them?" The subtext of the statement being: Life goes on, people. Reese is dead. I miss her. You miss her. But it's time to go back to doing work.

It was a little cold, Bo's hidden meaning. A little harsh. But it was honest. Reese was gone, respects had been paid and all the standing around, all the crying in the world wasn't going to bring her back. She wasn't the first MTac to go down. Wouldn't be the last.

Soledad did a quick scan of the other cops. She wondered which of them would be next. No doubt they were thinking the same thing.

Good-byes got swapped. Bo, Yarborough, Whitaker: they drifted off for their cars. Before Soledad knew it, could do much about it, it was just her and Vin.

Vin looked at Soledad. Held his look.

"You want something?"

Vin shrugged."You okay?"

Soledad took a casual, spiteful glance around the cemetery."Yeah. Great. You know a better place to spend your days?"

She started to walk.

Vin paced her."You hungry?"

"No."

"Want something to drink?"

"Kind of early for that."

"Doesn't have to be liquor. Just something in a couple of glasses we can sit and talk over."

Soledad stopped walking. She got with a look of hot disbelief."You trying to pick me up?"

Vin said nothing to that.

"You trying to pick me up at a funeral?"

"I'm trying to talk to you."

"Sure, and maybe I'll be so overcome with grief you can talk your way into my pants. There, there, Soledad. It's all right, Soledad. Have you seen my bedroom, Soledad?"

Vin stood looking bored and unaffected by Soledad's little run.

He asked: "You done? Are you done cracking wise so maybe we can converse like two people?"

Except that she didn't walk away, Soledad was nonresponsive.

"All I'm saying is," Vin said, explaining himself,"I want to talk to you. I want to get to know you. I want—"

"You want a date."

Vin stuttered, hesitated, tried to think his way around coming out and saying it, but yeah: "I want a date."

"Sorry. I got a man."

That was a surprise, not so much for Vin as it was for Soledad. She was attracted to… okay, she liked Ian. He passed for a friend. But in Soledad's world that didn't take much.

They'd gotten around to having sex.

But so do drunk salesmen and lonely housewives who meet at the bar/lounge in the airport Ramada.

And being honest, Soledad would say the sex, though good, was perfunctory. Spectacular only in that Ian wasn't revulsed by, nor did he ask about, Soledad's scars. So she hadn't hardly considered, had never said Ian was her man, and the moment she'd said as much she wondered if she meant it or if she was just using the concept as defense against Vin.

Vin took the information quite passively."A man?" he repeated."When I asked around, people seemed to figure you for being unattached."

"Asked around…" Soledad, now, did the repeating. She would have expected herself to be annoyed or pissed at the idea someone was" asking around" about her, digging into her private life. But she found herself to be unexpectedly intrigued by the concept of a guy inquiring after her."Who'd you ask?"

A shrug."People."

Soledad worked hard as she could to sound casual, but came off as nothing but curious."… What did they say?"

"They said be sure not to call you Bullet to your face."

Soledad's teeth did some grinding.

Vin did a little smiling."Lot of talk about what's going on with you and IA. That's just talk, so I didn't bother with it. Most said you were a loner, even as cops go. Keep to yourself, don't converse much. So with all that, I didn't figure you were seeing anyone."

"You figured wrong."

"Well, good luck with it." A pause."Long as it lasts."

From the end of a little jaw-dropping scoff: "That supposed to mean something?"

"It means people like us—"

"Like us?"

"Cops. We don't do well in relationships, especially with civilians."

"Maybe not people like you."

Vin shook his head to indicate Soledad's wrongness."People like us. C'mon, Soledad. See the things we do, live the way we do, then think we might not be living at all tomorrow. We don't hardly get attached to people. You know that goes double for MTacs. Hard to make commitments when you got to go out and bust guys who can throw buses at you. Look at Reese. You'd been on her element how long? How much did you know about her, her family? Nothing. And she was one of us. With civvies the level of noncommunication just gets multiplied. We need to be alone with our demons."

Soledad started to say something.

Vin cut her off with: "Okay. You're the only cop who doesn't have demons. I'm just talking about the rest of us crazies who feel the need to try and arrest gods for a living."

Vin took a beat.

Then: "You're not the only loner in the department. You've just got it worse than most."

"Yeah, well, maybe." Soledad talked fast like what Vin was saying didn't deserve much consideration."But me and my guy—"

"He got a name?"

"Yeah, he does. And me and my guy get along good."

Vin smiled at the lie."Sure. How well did he take you being MTac? I'm sure he was real happy to find out there's a thirty-seventy chance his girl's going to make it home at night."

Soledad didn't say anything, and what she didn't say spoke volumes for Vin.

"You didn't tell him? Did you even tell him you were a cop?"

Soledad looked off somewhere.

Vin got with a laugh."Oh, that's good. Good luck with this one."

"You know, if you're trying to win me over, your rap is way off."

"Wasn't trying to win you over. When I do try," typically cop cocky,"believe me, you're not so icy I couldn't crack you."

"Then do it."

"… What…?"

"You're such a hotshot, you've got thirty seconds: crack my ice or leave me the fuck alone."

Not cocky, flustered."Well, I didn't mean I was going to—"

"You want me to count your time down for you?"

Vin took a second, took a couple.

Soledad smiled, was sorry she'd only given Vin thirty seconds. She liked watching him twist.

Vin said: "Most beautiful thing I think I've ever seen was the most destructive thing: Mt. Kilauea erupting in Hawaii. You see it at night, you see the red and orange glow of it, you see the warm light of the lava flowing from it, and it looks magnificent. It looks like a… like a living paint running over a canvas. But at the same time it's like a slow-moving death that's just creeping to kill whatever it can find. To burn and burn until it's the only thing left. Nothing can stop it, nothing can stand in its way. That's what's frightening: It's not just a destructive force, it's a destructive force you can't do anything about. But then you think, well, this is nature or God or whatever doing its thing, and that's the point: We can't stop it. We're not supposed to stop it. It's building life from a fire from the heart of the earth. It's like it's all there just to show us how insignificant we are. So don't judge it, don't try to fight it. Just stand back and watch the beauty of it."

And for a moment after Vin stopped talking Soledad was quiet.

When she finally said something, it was just: "See you later."

She started away.

Vin called to her."You don't like me much."

Turning back to him just some: "Don't flatter yourself. I don't like you at all."

"Because I'm replacing Reese?"

Soledad did the laughing now."Told you before, you're not replacing her. Dead, and you're still not half the BAMF she was."

Vin nodded to that, not really agreeing, but not trying to make an argument of things."Never meant to replace her. This is where I got put. Just filling a slot. Could've been any cop who got the call."

"It wasn't any cop. It was you. You got the slot, and you get everything that comes with it. Everything."

"And you know something," his smile creeping back,"I'll take it. See ya, Bullet."

Fiero, Martin, Jenkinson, Adetuyi. Valley MTac. The four men, body armor worn in various degrees of regulation, eased up the stairway to the eighth floor, top floor, of an apartment complex in Northridge. Empty. Musty. Abandoned. Abandoned except for a potentially very deadly metanormal who'd managed to remain hidden from floors one through seven.

Stairwell door. Eighth floor. Fiero was SLO, had point. He peeked his head through the doorway. His eyes swept the space.

From behind, Adetuyi: "What do we got?"

"We got nothing." Fiero pulled back into the stairwell."Nothing I can see. Can't see much. Windows boarded up, walls torn out. Lot of boxes. Must've used the floor for storage."

Fiero's parents were from Mexico. Good Catholics. He was first-gen American. When Fiero told his madre and padre he wanted to be a cop, his mom cried with joy, pride. Their son toting a gun and badge, upholding the law, made them feel more American than the whiter-than-whites who looked down their noses at the Fieros for being in" their" country in the first place. When Fiero went to the academy, his parents saw him off. Graduation day they showed up four hours early, his two sisters in tow, to get front-row seats. The first bust Fiero made—snagged a hophead snatching purses at the end of a dull steak knife in Studio City—got written up, barely, in the Times Valley edition police reports. Fiero wasn't even mentioned by name. His mom cut the article out and built a scrapbook around it.

Then Fiero told his parents he wanted to be MTac. His dad, who used to be a street fighter back in Mexico just to earn enough pesos to keep his family fed, cried like a little girl. His mom? She put together a small shrine and kept it ready for the day she would light a candle to her dead son.

"Hate this shit," Martin said."Hate serving warrants."

"Should've thought of that," Jenkinson,"before you went MTac."

"Don't like hunting for them, that's what I'm saying. You're on a call, one of them is in the middle of Ventura tossing cars around, okay. You know what you're up against. But this… Hate this shit."

Fiero: "We know what we're up against. The witness IDed it as an invulnerable."

"An invulnerable and what else?" Martin asked."Could be a nest of 'em for all we know."

"Muties don't usually travel in packs. Too easy to get made." Fiero spoke straight from the handbook."Swept seven floors, and no evidence of a cluster."

"No evidence of anything," Jenkinson said."So let's just do this floor and go home."

Martin, again: "Really hate this shit."

Even bulked down with gear, the four cops managed to mist their way onto the top floor low and quiet. Fanning out, they avoided the shafts of light that cut through the window boards, used the crates and boxes for cover.

In position, they all looked and scanned and listened for the sight or sound that'd say to them" freak."

Nothing.

In their earpieces they heard Fiero."Clear?"

Down the line:

"Clear."

"Clear."

"Clear. Waste of time," Jenkinson added.

Fiero came back with: "Tell me about it after we finish the floor. Move out. Keep it low, keep it slow."

They did that. Silent as shadows, the four cops came up from cover, weapons at the ready, and fanned the floor.

Fiero picked up chatter from Adetuyi."You hear about that chick on Central? Bullet?"

"Heard she's facing discipline."

"Yeah. Heard that. And I heard the brass is trying to keep quiet she took out a pyro with a homebrew piece."

"Wouldn't trust it," Martin piped in."Pull the trigger, that shit's liable to blow up in your face."

"She's BAMF two times," Adetuyi said, pushing past a box, his HK ready to do some spraying."She's got to be doing something right."

"Hell, I pull some crap like that, make my own gun, they'd've canned my ass by now. Know a guy on the job in Admin, says the only reason she's still around, the department's got a quota to—"

Jenkinson: "Fiero."

"Got something?"

"Just thinking. If it is an invulnerable, our pieces aren't going to do us much good. Close quarters like this we might just end up plugging each other much as anything else."

"And you want to go at this thing hands empty?"

"Stun guns, man. It's the only thing that's gonna drop an invulnerable anyway."

"Regs say—"

"Screw the regs," Adetuyi cut in."The guys who wrote the book are kicking it back in their little offices. All I'm trying to do is make it another day in one piece. I'm with Jenkinson. Let's pull the SGs."

Fiero thought. Fiero asked: "Martin, you with it?"

"Whatever. Let's just get the show on the road."

"All right. Stand down on your pieces," Fiero ordered."SGs."

Adetuyi and Martin shouldered their HKs. Jenkinson slipped his Benelli into a back saddle. Fiero holstered his. 45. All four drew their stun guns, triggered them and got 850, 000 kV of high-amperage spark in response. Just enough to short out the CNS of the most ornery of otherwise indestructible metanormals.

Seven floors done, two-thirds of one to go. And somewhere in that two-thirds was a hiding freak. Now the sweating started. Four cops snaking around boxes, crates. Looking, inching, looking again. A sound track of heavy, nervous breathing coming through their earpieces.

Inching, looking, snaking, eyeing… eyeing. Sweating hands gripping their weapons.

Fiero: "Anything?"

"Nothing."

"Got nothing."

"Nothing."

"The freak," Fiero said,"must've known he got spotted. Hit the road."

Martin: "Must've packed good. Nothing to show anybody was ever hiding out here."

Jenkinson stood."Waste of time."

"Go to all this effort, at least ought to bag a couple pushers for the trouble," Martin said as he came from cover.

The two remaining MTacs stood as well.

Fiero ordered: "Keep your eyes open on the way down. Let's keep it sharp till we get out of here."

As the four cops started for the door Adetuyi felt something warm and wet streak from his nose. He reached to touch his upper lip, feel the dampness. Instead he took his HK down off his shoulder.

Fiero spotted him."Ad, shoulder up. We'll go down with the SGs."

Adetuyi worked the rifle's slide.

"Adetuyi, you hear me? Shoulder your weapon."

The only response Fiero got was the muzzle of the HK swung in his direction.

"Shit!"

The word was lost under the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic fire and the bullets that hot-swarmed around Fiero as he threw himself for cover.

Martin and Jenkinson stood unbelieving as they watched a fellow cop try best he could to splatter another. They stood that way until

Adetuyi jabbed his HK in their direction. At that moment they became converted true believers. They did their believing as they did some moving. Mimicking Fiero, the pair rolled and tumbled, scrambled behind crates. Bullets chewed up the space where they'd been.

Fiero tried to scream at Adetuyi through his throat mike."Ad… Ad, whataya doing?"

All he got for an answer was more bullets coming his way.

Martin perched himself up a bit."Got to take him out."

Fiero: "Hold your fire."

"I got an angle." A confetti of crate chips rained on him.

"Hold your fire!"

Adetuyi's clip clicked empty. Bullets stopped coming. Shells quit plinking on the wood floor. Quiet. Quiet except for the scream that came pouring out of Adetuyi's mouth. A scream followed by some frantic babble.

"I–I can't… I can't control myself. Fiero! Fiero! I can't—"

"Ad, take it easy."

"Don't shoot me! Don't shoot! I can't control myself."

Jenkinson went ballistic with confusion."What's happening?"

Adetuyi's hands opened. The spent HK dropped and clank-clanked on the floor. Against itself Adetuyi's body turned. No fighting it. No way to fight it. Something else was in possession of him. His eyes spied what his body was turning toward: one of the boarded windows. A voice inside him, his own but not his own, told him what to do next. What he whispered to himself scared him deep.

"No!" His right foot took a step. He begged: "Fiero…!" Fear spilled from him. Panic raced his heart.

"Adetuyi!"

"I can't…" Two steps. Three. Moving quicker."Help me!"

Jenkinson: "What is going on!"

Adetuyi too far away to be stopped. Moving at a dead run. Mov-ing for the window like it was a long-lost lover. And just the same he opened his arms to it.

"Jesus Christ, help me! Hel—"

He leapt for the window. He crashed through the rotted wood that separated inside from out. Adetuyi embraced the open, empty air. He tumbled and spiraled. Flew downward. At the end of his plunge he crashed onto and into and through the roof of an Olds-mobile parked on the street below. The alarm played his taps.

Fiero stood, edged for the window. Martin and Jenkinson trailed, tried to make sense of the senseless.

Jenkinson offered up his own analysis of the situation: "He went crazy! You see that? He… he went out of his mind, and—"

Fiero: "No…"

"Goddamn out of his mind."

"It's a telepath."

"Oh, shit…" Martin swung his HK around looking for something, someone, who could just as easy be a quarter mile away as standing right next to him.

"Move!" Fiero got to giving orders."Move! Let's get out of here!"

Martin was staring at Jenkinson. He said: "Your nose is bleeding." Anxiety in his every word.

Jenkinson dabbed at his nose. It was bleeding."Must've smashed it when I took cover."

Martin figured things different."The telepath, he's puppeting you."

"No, I… I jammed my nose, like I said."

Martin brought his HK around quick, leveled it at Jenkinson."Put your weapon down."

"Martin!" Fiero stepped in.

"It's just a nosebleed."

Martin wouldn't convince."Put your weapon down now!"

Instead of putting it down, Jenkinson brought it up. Squared it at Martin."You're the one getting puppeted."

"Goddamn it, put it down, Jenkinson!"

Fiero saw things spinning out of control fast."Stand down, both of you!" Smoothly he traded his SG for his Colt.

Confusion. Words came like barks from a gang of stray dogs.

"Lose the weapon!"

"I'm warning you!"

"Listen to me!"

A finger twitched on a trigger.

"You're not taking us out!"

"LISTEN TO ME!"

"YOU'RE NOT—"

"PUT IT DOWN OR I SWEAR I'LL—"

"LISTEN!"

Chaos, paranoia, they mixed at high speed. Twin bangs: the crack of auto fire, the boom of a shotgun. Jenkinson and Martin swapped wounds. Jenkinson took it in the chest, Martin one to the face. Their bodies, instantly empty of life, dropped to the ground like they were in a race to see which would get there first.

Tie.

After that it was quiet in the apartment building. Outside, the car alarm kept ringing. Fiero was by himself. But not alone.

He gave a nervous clutch to his. 45, backed for the door with a game plan playing in a closed loop in his mind: Get out, get away. Get out, get away.

Fiero was cop enough to feel wrong about leaving Martin and Jenkinson even if they were dead. But he was father enough to his children to logic out there was no fighting a telepath. All trying would do was get him dead along with the rest of the element. All trying to go against a telepath got you for your trouble was a bullet to the head courtesy of yourself. So sorry, boys, no hanging around. Be back for your bodies later. Right now? Get out, get away. Get out, get away.

Get on the floor.

Fiero did that, just like he was told to make himself do. He got on the floor; got down on it just as far as physics would let him. He pressed down against the warping wood as he was overcome with an uncontrollable desire to grovel, to truckle, to supplicate himself. He was a worm. He suddenly and instinctively knew he was a worm, and wanted more than anything to crawl wormlike over the floor. So he did. Not against his will. Didn't have any will to struggle with. It'd been replaced by something else that was completely new to his psyche and just as much a part of it.

I'm a worm. I am a worm.

Uniform soaking with perspiration, Fiero slithered and inched and crept until he came to a boot in his path. He looked up. He was allowed to look up. Above Fiero was Vaughn.

Vaughn stared at Fiero; at what he'd reduced Fiero to. He dug what he saw. Even at that it gave him little pleasure. He turned his head and his attention over to the bodies of Martin and Jenk-inson.

He said: "Know what's funny? I wasn't controlling either of them. That's real funny to me." Vaughn didn't laugh."The other one… that's how Michelle died; fell from the sky."

Fiero was treated to a private showing, courtesy of images extracted from Aubrey's head and planted in his, of Michelle tumbling to her death. Experience so real, when Michelle hit the ground, Fiero hit the ground. What she felt—the impact of a body dropped two hundred feet onto pavement—he felt.

"Ahhhhhhhh!"

"That hurt? 'Cause honest, man, it's only gonna get worse."

Sweat ran from Fiero. Tears poured from his eyes."Puh… please… m-my wife… I–I have—"

Fiero's need to be wormish got jacked up. He tried hard as he could to screw himself further into the floor.

"Please, Jesus, don't…"

No sympathy came from Vaughn."I'm gonna give you something to remember, 'kay? Then you're gonna repeat it word for word."

"Ye… ye…"

"Understand that?"

To Fiero's thinking compliance equated a stay of execution. He couldn't comply enough."I'll repeat it. I'll repeat everything you say. I promise. I promise I will. I won't forget what you tell me."

"No," Vaughn said."I'm not gonna tell you anything. What I've got to say, I'm just gonna put it in your mind."

Valley Bureau was going crazy with itself. Cops worked phones, manned radios. Cops—plainclothed, uniformed and Tac—were running all over with no place to go. A bunch of blue gerbils going round and round on a wheel. The trickle of information that made its way back from the outside was like a slow leak of gas onto a flame.

First report: shots fired at an abandoned apartment complex.

A squad was rolled. The call came back: officer down. Down and in and through the roof of a car. Later, much later, the body fused with the vehicle would be determined to be MTac officer Rob Ade-tuyi.

Quick duty check. MTac serving a warrant at that twenty. SWAT rolled as backup. They fanned the building. The call from SWAT: two more bodies. Two more MTac making for three total. The fourth, Fiero, was unaccounted for.

Question: How did the others get killed?

Obvious: It was a freak.

Yeah, but what kind of freak? Where was it? Where was Fiero?

The information kept on trickling in. The panic kept on brewing. Valley Bureau tried to keep a lid on it. They did a bad job. People talked. Word spread. Reporters got wind. Channel 9 was first on the scene. Thirteen was next. The rest of the numbers started swarming en masse.

All of a sudden Deputy Chief Metcalf had one job: keep things calm, don't let the public know there's a killer mutie on the loose. Not yet.

Questions got shot at him. Denials got made: Yes, some officers were incapacitated, but at this time we don't know the extent of their… For the moment we have no way to determine if it was a metanormal they made contact with or… We have every available MTac element in the LAPD ready to respond if this is indeed a homicidal metanormal we're dealing with, but let me stress again that for the moment, at this time, to our best estimation…

Denials were a hard sell when every other blue in the joint was like a headless chicken with their delirium. Stonewalling wasn't easy when you had three cops on a slab and one missing.

The alternative? Tell the truth.

Sure. Tell the public there was more than probably an angry freak loose in LA. What did that get you? Six years ago all over again. Three days of eight million people panicked out of their minds while a changeling ran wild killing free as it pleased. Three days of chaos before it got put down. Three days Metcalf didn't want to live through one more time. So for now…

Deny, stonewall. Lie for the public good.

So ENG cameras purred, flashes popped, radios squawked, cell phones chirped. Cops darted and dashed and ran making double time but getting closer to absolutely nothing.

Into all this zombied Fiero. He'd made the five-and-three-quarter-mile walk back from the call to Valley Bureau just like he was told to do. No one saw him along the way, or people saw him but paid him no mind because even though he was being looked for, no one would've figured a missing MTac cop—the one remaining of four—to be strolling through the Valley. And apparently no one figured on Fiero all of a sudden just showing up at Valley Bureau, because the craziness that was going on there didn't slow down a lick for him. All around, the cameras kept purring, the flashbulbs kept popping. The radios and cell phones kept on doing their thing.

Fiero, softly: "… Listen to me…"

Questions shouted. Answers evaded. Orders given.

"Listen…"

Shouts. Purrs. Denials. Flashes.

"LISTEN TO ME!"

Everybody stopped. Everybody turned. They all looked and listened; listened because they were too stunned by the sight of the sweat-drenched, terror-filled cop with the blood flooding from his nostrils to make a sound.

"The… the rev…" Fiero fought. Hard as he could he fought. He didn't want to say what was planted inside his mind. Wasn't because of the message itself. That he didn't give a damn about. But he knew what was waiting for him once the message was delivered. He knew what happened to messengers."The reve…"

Metcalf said, started to say: "Fiero… Adam, what happ—"

"Don't let me say it!" Tears and sweat and blood all mixed together dripped from beneath Fiero's chin.

"Don't let you say what? What happened?"

"Jesus Christ! Don't let me…" No more fighting. There was no fighting to be done."The revelation is coming. The truth will set them free. But… but not us. Not… this is what's waiting for us."

Arm up, gun in hand. Gun into mouth. Fiero jerked the trigger. A. 45 slug lodged in the ceiling. It carried most of the top of Fiero's head up there with it.

The camera guy from Channel 9 got a real nice shot of the whole thing.

Rumors.

Rumors were flying. Rumors were chased by speculation and hearsay. Everybody, every cop at Parker Center had a version of what went down in the Valley. Orders from up high were: Stick with the official story. Stay away from rumor and speculation. Nobody say nothing.

Orders got ignored.

Blues talked: Didjya hear there was a badass freak in the Valley? Didjya know Valley MTac got wiped out? Again. Did they tell you one of the cops popped himself? Sounds like a telepath.

Parker Center was like a brass beehive. This deputy chief was calling, that lieutenant commander wanted info. Every MTac cop wanted to know what was truth and what was the company line.

Soledad wanted to know what was going on. Desperately wanted to know. Back on a desk, away from MTac, information flew past her, around her. It avoided her. Frustrating. The almost but not quite knowing of things was very frustrating.

No good asking Yarborough. Yarborough didn't know much. All he cared about was: If a telepath was out there, when would he get a crack at it?

Bo knew things. Bo followed orders. Bo didn't talk.

Vin knew things. Vin could answer some questions. No way was Soledad going to Vin for a favor. Better to be in the dark. Better to wonder about the situation. Better to…

Then again…

Maybe going to Vin wouldn't be so awful. So she'd owe him one in his mind. Was that so bad for a scrap of info?

Soledad looked up. Every cop in the joint looked up, saw Deputy Chief of OVB Metcalf, saw Special Assistant Deputy Chief Tannehill, saw Bo, saw all of them striding toward Lieutenant Rysher's office. A plan of action was about to get strategized on. And every cop would've given anything to have been in Rysher's office with them. None more so than the MTacs. None more so than Soledad.

Bo, as he passed, gave Soledad a look. The look was quick. The look was just long enough to say: Sorry, kid. Know you want in on this, but not much I can do.

Bo said that with his look, then disappeared into Rysher's office along with Metcalf and Tannehill.

Soledad watched them go in, watched the door get closed. For a good while she stared at the door, hypothesized about who was saying what to who about whatever really happened in the Valley, what should be the first consideration and what would be the next step.

All the staring in the world gave Soledad no clairvoyance.

She went back to moving a pen over paper. It made for a crappy distraction. Going through the motions of work did nothing to take her mind off what kinds of plans were being cooked up to deal with the—

The door opened. Bo half popped himself out.

"Soledad." He ticked his head back toward Rysher's office.

Soledad sat a moment, then fumbled Jerry Lewis-style for the office, her heart pounding, her mind working on fantasies of getting the call to duty: They needed her, they needed her piece, there's no way they can stop the freak without…

Inside the office. Tomb quiet. Soledad got no notice from Metcalf or Tannehill. Bo said to Rysher: "O'Roark?"

Rysher hesitated a little, said: "Yeah, she's fine for this. Get a pen and paper, take notes."

Soledad's heart slowed, practically quit beating. Fantasies, that's all they were.

And the way Rysher'd said Soledad was fine for" this," told her to get a pen and paper. Those weren't just assessment and direction. To Soledad's ears they were comments of condescension.

The poisoned well? Lies and deceit and conspiracy?

But she wanted in. Deal with the lies later.

From Rysher's desk Soledad took a pen and paper, took a seat.

A secretary with a gun. Except she didn't have a gun anymore.

Tannehill: "Let's get to it. David?"

Metcalf said: "Media's playing ball, for now at least."

"Playing ball or swallowing bullshit?"

"Mostly swallowing. They're going with the story. Murder-suicide."

"Now, hold on." Bo interrupting."You gonna put out Fiero killed those other three and himself? He's good cop."

"This isn't about him," Rysher cautioned.

"Hell, I know what it's about. But the man's got family. You're gonna leave him painted like a nut job killer for them?"

"Sooner or later," Tannehill said,"the truth will come out. We'll put it out. He'll be vindicated."

"Sooner or later?"

"If it keeps the people from panicking, consider Fiero doing his job even in death. I promise you, when this is done, he'll be fully, completely cleared. His family will receive benefits over and above what they're due. But we've got to keep the peace. Any way we can, we've got to."

Silence was acceptance. But Bo, even under the circumstances, didn't like a dead cop being mud-dragged.

Tannehill asked Rysher: "What's the status of the MTacs?"

"Valley is up to full strength. We've transferred over one operator from Harbor, Pacific and West LA, and one TOL. Now, that's going to shake things up at all the divisions, but it's better than having one green team. Especially if this freak is hiding out in the Valley."

"Do we know it's still in the Valley?" Tannehill asked.

"No," Metcalf answered.

"Do we even know what we're up against?"

"We're pretty sure it's a telepath."

Pretty sure didn't sit too well with Tannehill."Jesus, David. What have you got your DMI doing?"

Metcalf flinched away, then said: "All we've got is just this much to go on: We had a civilian come in off the street. He claimed he'd seen an invulnerable and gave us the location. Turns out he was being puppeted. We know that now."

"And you didn't bother to consider that before you sent four cops to kill themselves?"

The finger-pointing was starting. The brass, Soledad thought, had a hard-on for pointing fingers as long as the fingers got pointed away from themselves.

Lies and deceit and conspiracy.

Bo—good cop, team cop—stepped in, came to Metcalf's defense."Well, now, there wasn't much precedent for this. In all my years I never heard of a freak baiting MTacs; setting them up for the slaughter."

Tannehill had a question."Why lure them out at all? If it was a telepath, it could've walked in and had the whole division putting bullets into each other."

An unsettling thought.

Rysher offered: "The stinking coward's too scared to face down more than a couple of cops."

"Telepath can jump from mind to mind so fast, it could take out an entire station before they knew what hit them." Bo laid out the facts as he saw them."Could be it was just targeting MTacs. Maybe it didn't want anyone else to get hurt."

"Since when," Rysher scoffed,"do muties care about who gets killed?"

Not since San Francisco, Soledad thought as she wrote.

"Gets worse," Metcalf said.

Rysher: "You mean the message?"

Soledad stopped writing. In the rumors she'd caught she hadn't heard about any—

"Message?" Tannehill asked.

"Before Fiero," Metcalf started,"shot himself he said—he was made to say by the telepath—'The revolution is coming. The truth will set them free. '"

"Revelation."

Everyone looked to Soledad.

She said again: "Revelation, not revolution."

Tannehill: "How do you know?"

"I know because it's the same thing a freak said to me."

Bo, for Tannehill's benefit: "On her first call Officer O'Roark came in close contact with a metanormal."

"How close?" Tannehill wanted to know.

Soledad hitched down her collar, let Tannehill get a good look at her neck scars.

She said: "When a pyro's got you by the throat trying to burn the life out of you, you remember what it tells you. What it told me is the revelation is coming."

"What," asked Rysher,"is a revelation?"

"A revelation is a disclosure or something disclosed by or as if by divine or preternatural means." Soledad, snide, looking to Rysher: "It's when you find out the truth about things."

That was lost on Rysher."I know what a revelation is. What does it mean? In this context, what does it mean?"

No one had an answer.

Metcalf did his best guessing."A code word of some kind. Has to be."

Tannehill: "For?"

Bo: "Must have some kind of significance. The telepath wanted Fiero to tell us."

"Does it matter? For Christ's sake, we got freaks passing around coded messages—"

"But if it was some kind of a code, I don't think they woul—"

"O'Roark, just take notes," Rysher directed.

Metcalf weighed in anxious."Whatever the meaning, coded information is being exchanged among these things, and far as I care that amounts to subversive activity. We need to gear up."

Tannehill: "Let's think about this."

"We need to gear up now!"

Bo pressed a palm to his forehead, slid it up and over his hair, slicking it back with his own sweat, his hand trembling through the move.

"Is that what you want, David? Every paper, every TV station screaming about a terror network of freaks?"

"That's what it is: freaks teaming up with each other."

"We'd have panic in the streets."

Metcalf ignored that, sputtered on: "We… we need to mobilize the military."

"The law doesn't allow the military to—"

"The law?" Metcalf cut Bo off."They changed the laws after May Day, they can change them now. Let's have a talk with the White House, tell them what the hell's going on out here and see what happens. What you don't do is let words on paper keep us from doing the job."

Rysher didn't agree."A president hasn't put federal troops on the streets since when? Since the fifties? Since Little Rock? No sitting politician is going to fess up to a freak crisis. This is our problem. It's ours to solve."

"And ours to take credit for when it gets solved?" Tannehill asked/said very pointedly.

Soledad noticed, on the wall, the picture of her and Rysher. Gone.

"… I'm not even thinking about that. My primary concern, as always—"

Tannehill waved off the rhetoric."My primary concern is what if we can't solve the problem? Telepaths have a way of putting together a body count."

"We can handle it."

Again, all eyes to Soledad.

"We know the territory, we know what we're up against. There's no group better trained for this." The words stomped out of her mouth full of confidence."Whatever the muties throw at us, MTac can handle." Soledad said what she said with pride and presumption. She said what she said without regard to the fact that whatever MTac did next it would be without her services.

Tannehill did some considering. A lot in a very little amount of time."All right. For now we keep it local. Bring in this freak and do it fast. MTac or the army; I don't care who gets to wear the medals, I just want these monsters off my streets."

Tannehill stood. He walked out of the office. He patted Soledad on the shoulder as he passed.

Little gesture as it was, it made Soledad feel good. Feel proud. It made her feel like not quite the whole world was against her.

The feeling went away when Rysher said: "Go type all that up, O'Roark."

Julie was always the most nervous just when she was closing up her bodega. She knew, from three previous incidents, when she was closing up was most likely when someone—an addict or a banger or just somebody who'd gotten hold of twenty dollars' worth of gun—was liable to push their way into the store swinging their piece, demanding some of what little she'd been able to earn over the day. They wouldn't have to demand hard. She'd hand it to them. They could have it. It was just money. More than just money, really. It was food on the table, medicine, it was the difference between paying the electric bill and sitting nights in the dark. But even at that it was still, really, end of day, just money. So they could have it. Jorge wasn't so easy. He hadn't risked his life, the life of his family, to cross the border, take whatever crappy, demeaning work he could scrape up standing on street corners soaking in all the sneers and looks and pejoratives that got thrown his way daily, saved his pay and bought a bodega where he'd still be earning just enough to barely, barely get by only to pass it off to whatever punk wanted to get his by shoving a gun in someone's face. So when guys with guns came around, Jorge didn't give up the dough. Jorge got shot. Got shot four times one night. Lived. Lived, but didn't learn. Guys with guns came around again, and again Jorge didn't give up the green. He got shot. Once. In the head. He died. For all his bravery Julie was now alone with the store, with their son and daughter and with all kinds of bills for all kinds of things. She did not remember Jorge fondly. When she thought of him, which was every night when she closed up shop fearful of the guys with guns, she cursed his name.

Vaughn sensed all that sitting in his loft six or seven hundred feet away. The city was at ease, Aubrey was sleeping—a sleep Vaughn had put him in. The night was still. It was effortless for Vaughn to read Julie's story, her emotions. He could even see the night she watched Jorge take a fatal bullet through his occipital lobe. That clear it remained to her, and was to him.

He said, in his mind: It's pointless. It really is pointless.

Quiet.

I know you're here. Quit hiding.

Across the loft the shadows seemed to part, a curtain opening to reveal a man and a woman; a black guy. An older guy. Late forties, and, like Vaughn, very lean. Lean, and at the same time imposing. The woman—young, twenties—looked angry. Her fisted hands looked like they were always curled tight.

The black guy started to say: "Vaughn—"

I'd tell you it's good to see you again. But it's not good, and you never much come around anyway. I know it's slumming for you.

"You're the one who chose to live like you do."

You mean live like I am, instead of pretending to be something I'm not: one of them; normal.

Never mind the rising tones, Aubrey stayed asleep.

The girl stayed quiet, the fingers of her fists twisting on each other.

"What you are, what you've become, is a murderer. And all you're going to do is get people, more people, killed. Us and them alike."

I can hear you fine. No need to talk. Or what's the deal? Gotten so used to faking like you're normal you don't remember how to—

The black guy, ignoring Vaughn, using his voice: "And what you've let happen to Michelle—"

"Don't you tell me about my wife!" The base emotion of rage made Vaughn scream.

Aubrey rolled over.

The girl's hands made anxious twitches.

The black guy: "We're sorry for her misfortune."

Mis— My wife getting shot; bleeding out in the street? That the misfortune you're talking about?

"Believe it or not, Vaughn, we are sorry. All of us. But hurting them'll only hurt us."

We're not being hurt, we're getting killed! They're trying to exterminate us, then use the law so they can fake like it's okay. Call themselves normals, and they call us freaks and muties. We're the superior ones. The minute they turned on us we should have wiped them out! Killed every one of them!

And for a moment the black guy said nothing. Vaughn could sense what he was feeling. What the black guy was feeling was pity.

"I know this is hard for you."

You know?

"Do you think you're the only one to lose somebody? Do you think you have a claim on pain? You don't, Vaughn. You do not. So, yes, I know this is difficult. I know you have anger. But what you're saying now… now you're just talking insane."

The girl cracked her knuckles. They crackled back with a bluish energy.

Anger, fear, straight defiance. Vaughn showed none of that. From Vaughn the black guy could sense nothing.

You can't stop me. I was aware of you long before you got here.

"The only thing you're aware of is what I want you to be."

A hand slammed into the back of Vaughn's neck, slammed hard, slammed him senseless for a sec. The hand took Vaughn's neck tight, the hand on an arm that stretched allll the way across the loft and into the darkness. Fingers bit into Vaughn's throat, cut off his air. Thought, difficult in coming, was starting to disappear. The metanormal in the dark contracted his limb, dragged Vaughn for him, reeled him, reeled him in.

Vaughn fought, jerked, swatted at the arm. Useless. Always physically weak, lack of O2 was stealing the little strength he owned, was passing him out.

The black guy, the girl: they moved toward Vaughn, the girl's hand alive with the blue energy. And she was, since first showing herself, displaying expression. A nasty look that said all this ends here, ends now.

Vaughn:… Aubrey…

Vaughn's mind, becoming as weak as his body, was barely able to touch Aubrey's.

The black guy: "Didn't have to be like this."

Vaughn's heels kicking against the floor, trying to bite it, trying to get hold, just leaving skid marks for all the effort.

… Aubrey…

"We'll fight, but not your way. Revelation is coming…"

The edge of Vaughn's vision went soft. Blackness closed in. At the center of it, a hand that burned blue.

"The truth will set us—"

"Aubrey!"

Aubrey's eyes came open, were vacant. His mind was Vaughn's. Vaughn reached out Aubrey's hand. Vaughn touched Aubrey's hand to a play thing, to metal. At the moment of contact the metal expanded, shot forward: a slicing blade that cut clean the metanor-mal's extended arm.

From him, in the dark, a sick, sick wail. The hand kept squeezing at Vaughn's neck—spasms before it fell to the ground, thudded on the floor.

Vaughn changed focus, reached into the angry girl's mind. Her anger: her mother killed by cops before her eyes.

And she still picked protecting normals over joining Vaughn? Vaughn turned the girl's hand, touched it to the black guy.

A vicious pop of electricity, the stink of burnt flesh. The black guy got launched across the loft, bounced and slid over the floor.

Aubrey awake, babbling something.

Vaughn ignored him. The angry girl had his attention. He said to her, using his voice, digging the sound of his voice: "All that energy just raging inside you. Pumping in you, pumping in you. Your energy's like your anger, isn't it?"

Her irises, on their own, the only part of her free to do as they pleased, dilated with fear.

"It's gotta be so hard to keep it all in you. Sometimes you must feel like you're losing control. Sometimes you just gotta feel you're gonna…"

Vaughn didn't finish the thought. Not out loud. But he shoved it into the girl's mind.

Small lines, fissures, raced up and down along her flesh, bulged as she was rent from the inside. Energy seeping from her, then pouring from her, then…

A howl.

A flash. Blue.

And then she was gone. Totally. As if she never existed.

And Vaughn looked to the black guy.

Aubrey, babbling: No, Vaughn. Please, Vaughn. Don't, Vaughn.

A thought put him back to sleep.

Vaughn, to the black guy, in his mind: You wanna hide, you wanna be the bitch, that's on you. But they don't murder my wife and walk from it. They get what they give. All that, and worse. And hey: I'm not the one who's insane. You are.

The black guy screamed, grabbed at his head. His eyes rolled back into their sockets where he saw himself grabbing at his head, eyes rolled back in their sockets, screaming, looking at himself, grabbing his head, eyes rolled in their sockets, screaming as he looked at himself with his eyes rolled back…

He'd be looking at that for the rest of forever.

Night was Bo's favorite part of the day, the part he looked forward to. It was his part. Most of the day, the regular clock-punching hours, belonged to MTac. They were hours and hours of endless sitting-around-doing-nothing boredom. Occasionally they were broken up with moments of pure terror. But mostly there was boredom. So an MTac cop had time, lots of it, to think. What owned his thoughts: the next call, which would be completely different than the last call. He always had to think about the next call because for an MTac the next one could real easily be his final one. No two metanormals were alike. Even M-norms with similar fetishes could use them in different ways. Thinking, planning, considering: That's how an MTac spent his downtime.

Beyond that?

For Bo, beyond that was his family. A wife, two kids. That's what dominated his evenings. His children, ten and thirteen, were past the constant-attention phase of growing up. His wife had her late-in-life career as a law clerk to fill her time. Still, there wasn't an evening Bo didn't make his presence felt among them.

It was a lack of presence that had almost wrecked things for him previously. It was a lack of presence that almost sent Kathy, his wife, skipping off with Oliver and Benny in tow.

Not that Bo wasn't physically around. He was. He was there. He'd never been into hanging out at a bar swilling beers and swapping cop talk with the boys. Every evening, soon as he was off duty, home's where Bo was.

Physically.

But his head was still on the job. His head was still thinking on freaks and how to hunt freaks better and how to hunt freaks without getting himself, his element, killed. And while his head was on that, his kids grew up around their dad but without their dad. His wife dissipated in a homebound, unfulfilled life spent watching her husband wrestle nightly, alone, pondering the incredible, the unbelievable and the deadly. Daily they became less of a family. Blissfully self-absorbed, Bo saw none of the decay. Typical MTac. There was a cushion that came with keeping people at a comfortable distance. The philosophy: Our lives have only slightly intersected, so if anything ever happens to me, and something probably will… well, you don't know me, you can't miss me. He'd seen the same philosophy applied by other cops. He'd seen a lot of it applied by young Soledad. It was the way they lived, and they took the way they lived for granted.

It was Kathy in the doorway, bags packed, kids already in the car, that slapped Bo awake to the reality of things.

He woke up fast.

From then on Bo made it a point to be a part, an active part, of Kathy's and the kids' lives. And he shared his life with them. Most of it. He still didn't talk much about being an MTac, and when he did, he edited out things like a telekinetic crushing a couple of cops under a semitrailer, or an intangible reaching into a cop's chest and squeezing his heart till it burst. Other than stuff like that, Bo shared his life. And when Kathy went back to school, then started working, that helped out a lot. When she had other things to do and to worry about, it pulled some of the pressure off Bo. At the end of the day Bo and Kathy were one of the few MTac couples to make something out of their marriage.

And Kathy was among a select group of MTac wives not to be a widow.

So those hours after work belonged to her. To the family.

That only left the night for Bo; his time.

Not even.

With chores, with errands, with all the things that living takes from your life, his time, really, was those very few moments in bed, before sleep came, in the still and the quiet and the dark. His time was those few moments free of family and work and responsibility.

Bo was no different from any guy who had obligations pulling him every single way. Most men live for their freedom, to be able to do as they please, be it running wild in the streets or dumping dirty clothes in the middle of the floor. Whether they ever really had that kind of freedom or not, it's a fond notion. And when the reality or illusion of it's been hacked and hacked and hacked away by every other commitment, a man's kingdom is reduced to a few blessed moments between waking and sleep, when he can think about the should've-beens and what-ifs, sort out the what-have-becomes and the what-will-bes.

Then he sleeps, wakes, starts the cycle of obligation all over again, each day living just a bit more for the night. For what's left of the freedom he probably never even had in the first place.

And even that, the night, Bo didn't own anymore. It belonged to a cop named Fiero. A cop who got dead tangling with a telepath. A couple of times Bo had watched the confiscated news tape of Fiero walking into Valley Bureau, regurgitating the little speech he'd been force-fed, then sticking his gun in his mouth and sending a slug through the top of his head. What Bo had seen was unshakable. It was waiting for him when he closed his eyes at night. He couldn't figure why it got to him so bad. Getting killed was something that sometimes happened to cops. With MTacs it was staying healthy that was unusual. Bo had managed to stay healthy and active and alive longer than any other MTac on the LAPD. The department's very own iron man. Bo was a natural, and it wasn't just glad-handing to say so. When it came to going after muties, when things got hectic, Bo had the ability to move with thought but without thinking. Pure instinct. It'd been that way for him for nearly a decade.

Things changed.

He'd felt them changing for a while. He was sure things had changed in that alley when he turned and saw the shape-shifter, chameleoned into the form of a wall, moving toward him, and too late raised his weapon. He would've been killed if it hadn't been for the sharp eyes and quick triggers of the rest of his element.

That was one of those stories that got edited for his family.

At first Bo chalked the incident to losing a step with age. Who doesn't? Maybe he was a hair slower than his best days, but that's all he was: just a hair slower. He had a lot more good years before he had to sweat over being too old for the job. But truth: It was more than age that had planed his edge. The tremor in his hand was an indicator, but it took what happened with Fiero to convince him of facts.

Bo had crossed paths with Fiero more than a few times and found him as solid an MTac as there's likely to be. Three times BAMF in two years. In the history of the department only Soledad was on track to bust that record. But as good as Fiero was, he was no good against a telepath, against a freak that could crawl into your mind and make it its own. And once Fiero was being puppeted, he was nothing but a sweaty, frightened creature marking time until it put itself down. When Bo saw that, when he felt the torque in his gut as Fiero's husk sank from the picture frame and thudded on the floor, he knew it wasn't age that was slowing him down. He'd lost a step to fear. A small step. A minuscule delay that comes when, before the body moves, the mind asks: Am I going to make it? Am I going to see my wife and kids again? And it was just when the mind's asking questions, during that nanosecond's worth of inaction, that a cop, especially an MTac cop, got himself, got a member of his element, killed.

Bad enough he should die, Bo thought. Worse he should have to live through another loss like Reese. But hadn't he said that before? How many other cops had he outlived?

Couldn't remember.

He closed his eyes.

Fiero, gun in mouth, was waiting for him.

Something had to give.

He looked to Kathy asleep beside him.

Something had to change. Bo knew what. A decision got made.

He closed his eyes again.

Nothing but dark.

For the first time in a long time the night belonged to Bo.

Soledad got the call while she was out running. She ran with her cell phone. Habit. A habit she'd formed when she first landed MTac. An emergency call could come anytime, anywhere. Even when not on shift, an MTac was never fully off duty. Soledad hadn't been on the platoon long enough for her forced habit to have been of any use. Ironic now: Because of the habit, she was able to take a call about her future with the PD. It was Gayle calling.

Gayle said: "It's going to happen Thursday. You and I are supposed to go in and sit down with your lieutenant."

Asking, but afraid to know: "What's going to happen?"

"I'm not sure. But I don't think… I have to be honest, it's not going to be good."

"Is it like you said? Is there something going on? Something else?"

"There's nothing I can find, nothing I can prove. Just what I believe."

At Crescent Heights and Beverly, Soledad sat at a bus stop bench. A young girl, young woman really, who'd moved out from New York and didn't have a driver's license sat there, and a homeless guy sat there as well.

Soledad: "So… what are they going to do? What's… Am I looking at suspension? Am I looking at—"

"Honest to God, I don't know."

And Soledad sat.

"Soledad…"

"I'm here."

"I haven't given up, Soledad. Don't you, okay? I'm coming in there to kick ass. You know I will."

"… Yeah…" Gayle's tough talk didn't much take.

"Okay, so don't give up. All right?"

"You're doing this for you. But this is my… it's all I've got."

"And I'm still going to kick ass. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Okay. Just hang in there. Thursday. Okay?"

"Yeah."

Gayle hung up.

Soledad hung up.

An RTD bus pulled up at the stop. The young woman from New York got on.

The homeless guy and Soledad stayed where they were.

It was getting to the point when Ian and Soledad had sex, it was like they were having sex with each other and not just lying in bed masturbating with a stranger. It was getting to the point they were as concerned with the other's gratification as their own. Queer as it was for a measuring stick, it was getting to the point Ian and Soledad were starting to get intimate with each other.

Starting to.

But they were still in a place where, when they were done getting hot and sweaty, that's all they were: hot, sweaty among tossed sheets and with messed-up hair. Intimate, yeah, but they were intimate strangers. Strangers who shared sex. Strangers who shared empty talk.

Usually that was the way of things.

She figured it would've been Ian first, but Soledad was tired of empty talk.

Soledad asked: "Your friends who died, is that why you don't get close to people; because you're afraid of losing someone else?"

"I guess." Ian's answer was that simple.

They lay in bed some.

Soledad, asking again: "Are you curious why I don't let myself get close to people?"

"I suppose."

"Then why don't you ask me?"

"Because we don't talk about that; about personal things. We don't talk, so I don't ask."

"Then what are we doing? Besides screwing, what are we—"

"You're the one who wanted it this way."

Sweat evaporated from their bodies. Cooled them. They grew postsex tired. Soledad grew more relaxed. It freed her to say things she felt.

She said: "I did. But I don't want this anymore. I want… I need—"

"Need?"

"I feel like I'm going crazy inside myself." Soledad clutched at her own chest."I feel like I'm rolling around a padded cell in here. I'm facing some hard issues, and I need to talk to somebody."

"Need or want? Do you want to talk to me, or do you just need to yap to the first person who'll listen?"

She had to think about that. She had to be sure."Want. I want to talk to you."

"Okay."

She said nothing.

A little laugh, laughing at herself: "I can't. I've been keeping things in for so long…"

"Just say what you want to say."

"I like you, Ian. More than just being around you and having sex with you. I like you, and I'm afraid if I tell you… I'm afraid…"

Under the covers Ian's hand found its way over to Soledad's, gripped it tight.

Soledad's mouth opened and closed. A couple of times."I've been having trouble at work. Trouble's the nice way of saying it. It's been going on for a while, since just before I met you." A breath, deep."I'm a cop… you know what MTac is…"

Ian's grip went slack.

Soledad nearly bust with regret."Fuck. I shouldn't have told you."

"Jesus…"

"I knew—"

"Jesus Christ… Why didn't you… You waited this long to—"

"We never talked before."

"You didn't talk! A thousand times you could've told me, and you didn't!"

Soledad rolled away, turned to her side."Vin was right."

"Who the hell—"

"Another cop. He says cops and civvies never mix, can't be in relationships; you'd always be afraid I'm gonna get killed."

"That's not it."

"Then what is? Because I've been hit on by enough guys, seen how they react when I tell them what I do to know that's usually how things are. That, or maybe you're soft for freaks. Some people are like that. Or maybe you really are just afraid of a girl with a gun. Which is it, Ian? I mean, just so I know."

"What's it matter?" Ian stared at the ceiling. Stared past it."What's it matter?"

In her hands the bed linens got gripped and twisted."I told you I need someone to talk to. I want to talk with you, Ian. And I…"

"You and me should've started off differently. I'm not blaming you, but as it is one of us should've ended things before they got so far. It was stupid to think we could make a relationship out of—"

"I love you."

That brought on a lot of stunned silence. Ian was stunned to hear it. Soledad was stunned to have heard herself say it.

"I do. I love you, and… that you've put up with me this long, I don't just want us to be two people who sometimes talk and sometimes have sex. I want us to be two people who… who've got each other."

"… Christ…"

"I want to be with you. Ian, do you want to be with me?"

Did he want to be with her?

Did he?

Did he want…

Yes or no?

In or out?

No choice, really. Really, no other decision."Yeah, Soledad. I want to be with you."

And then Soledad let herself go. More than just talk, she communicated. She told Ian in massive detail about her childhood and her upbringing. Mostly that was just self-preparation for everything else she had to say. She explained what had happened—for her personally—on May Day; the guilt she carried and how it informed every decision she made every day following. She went on about the gun she'd put together, the trouble she faced, and when she got to that, she cried from exhaustion. She'd held so much in, so long, the rush of release made her weak. The fighting made her weak, battles on so many fronts—hot wars and cold wars and wars of subterfuge—that the competing desires of fighting back to win or sitting down to quit made her just want to lie down and die. Soledad truly wanted things to be over, one way or the other, no longer caring which, that badly. A sense of duty and obligation had degraded into helplessness, self-doubt and a death wish.

Ian pulled Soledad close. They wrapped themselves in each other, they held each other. Almost a warm moment. Would've been except for the trepidation of their new relationship that held them as well.

There was a reason, Soledad found out, why executions—in civilized nations that put people to death—were held top of the morning instead of end of the day. You're going to die, you're going to die. No sense sitting around hoping the day's going to get better when clearly it's not. Soledad came to the realization on the Thursday she and Gayle were to have their sit-down with Rysher. She had to put in a full day, worked a full shift, prior to the meeting. It felt like she had to do chores, clean the rifle or knit the noose, before her own termination. The end was coming. It was going to be a bad end.

Maybe.

Or maybe her pessimism was being fueled by Gayle's paranoia: conspiracy talk and secret plans against her. She had used a gun she wasn't supposed to. Didn't the brass have to at least make a show of putting IA on the case? Hadn't Rysher backed her all the way to MTac? Hadn't he stuck his neck out for her plenty? And the looks she was getting—she thought she was getting—from the other cops: guy bullshit, or uniforms jealous they'd never make MTac? And didn't…

Did it…

Did it matter? It was over. Today, one way or the other, it was going to be over.

Soledad checked the time. Gayle was typically late, and Soledad cursed at her. Gayle wanted to be late most times, fine. That was her style, okay. But when it counted, when it mattered? Soledad thought about heading on to Rysher's office. But she didn't want to sit alone, wait alone and unrepresented. Still it was better than letting Rysher wait, letting any compassion he had sour to resentment.

And then she knew.

The confusion she had, the anxiety, the twist Soledad had in her gut told her she didn't want things to be over. Over to the negative. More than anything she wanted to walk out of Rysher's office an MTac again. Crazy as the life was, she'd wanted it. She'd earned it. She'd leave it, when the time came, on her own terms. Not, God willing, stretched out by a freak and not pushed out by politics.

And then Gayle was there. Only six minutes late. Felt like so much more. She apologized to Soledad without breaking stride for Rysher's office.

All day, and Soledad hadn't hardly gotten herself ready for what was coming. She asked Gayle if everything was going to be okay, but Gayle was already making her way into Rysher's office and either didn't hear or just didn't want to answer the question in front of the lieutenant.

Rysher was without expression.

Tashjian was in the office. The guy nearly blended with the paneling.

Some perfunctory pleasantries were passed back and forth. Gayle and Soledad sat. Rysher sat behind his desk. Tashjian stood a little to the side, a little behind Rysher. It was like he was working backup.

There was a pregnant pause.

Gayle said: "It's always hard to know where to begin in delicate matters like this. So let me make the first gesture. I was thinking," smiling to Rysher,"you could just apologize to my client, give her her position back. That's all we're asking for." To Soledad: "That's all you wanted, right?"

Rysher's expression frosted over into a cool stare."Miss Senna, it's not your place to ask for anything."

"I'm being nice up front, and believe me, that's not easy. So let's close things out while I'm still in a mood to be civil."

"You're not helping the situation by being snide, Miss Senna."

"I don't need help, and you calling me Miss is just pissing me off."

Tashjian smirked, appreciative.

Soledad's head dropped.

Things were going south, were headed that way fast.

"I think, for your own sake, you might consider some other representation." Rysher was talking to Soledad, concern loaded in his voice."The fact is the situation… I'm sorry, but it's going to be very serious. If your counsel doesn't take it seriously… well, for your own good I'm telling you to make considerations."

From Gayle that got a laugh."Now you care about her well-being?"

"I care about the well-being of every officer in my command. I especially care when their lives are put in danger by cops who don't seem to give a damn about how things work."

"And, gee, you'd be meaning who?"

Rysher, talking past Gayle, talking right to Soledad: "Is this who you wish to have representing you?"

Gayle: "Representing her for what?"

"O'Roark, is this the counsel—"

"Hey, Rysher!" Gayle's voice cracked like a whip."Do not ignore me. I'm not one of your cops. I'm one of the taxpayers. You make your living off my dollars. You work for me, not the other way around. I asked you a question."

Rysher said nothing. The fingers of his right hand drew up some. Going on, talking as if he hadn't been interrupted: "Where we go from here depends on you, O'Roark." Softening: "Soledad…"

First time she'd heard him use the name in… how long had it been? The way he used it was tender. Tender like the fake soft touch of an abuser compared to his punch. It came to Soledad that Gayle had been very correct concerning things about Rysher.

"If you're willing to cooperate, if you're willing to accept your responsibility in the death of Officer Bannon—"

She was up, moving toward Rysher's desk. Gayle's hand grabbing her arm, pulling Soledad back, sitting her back down. Her voice, though, her voice kept hard-charging at Rysher."… Such bullshit! No! No fucking way are you going to—" The death of Reese? They were going to put Reese's death on her? Everything else, every other possible eventuality for the conclusion of things Soledad had prepared herself for, was ready to take. A reprimand, getting kicked off MTac, out of the LAPD: Any or all of that would've been fine. Not wanted, but handleable. But what she could not take, what she would not allow, was for them to blame her for what happened to Reese."She saved my life. I would never…" To Gayle, frantic: "Tell them it's bullshit!"

Still tugging at her arm: "Soledad…"

"I had nothing to do with her dying!"

Rysher, all full of lament: "Soledad, I… I did not want this."

Soledad to Gayle: "Do something!"

"If you would consider stepping aside quietly. I could still… we could still work something out. Otherwise…" Rysher extended a hand toward Tashjian.

Tashjian put in Rysher's hand documents collected in a file. He took out a stick of Big Red, popped it in his mouth.

Tears in her eyes, now Soledad was grabbing at Gayle's arm: "Do something!"

If Gayle did anything more than remain where she sat, you couldn't tell by looking at her.

With all the mournfulness he could pull together Rysher said: "Upon completion of an exhaustive investigation conducted by Internal Affairs Division, it has been concluded that you were grossly negligent in the execution of your duties. Based on these findings, I regret I have no choice but to turn the matter over to the District Attorney's Office with the recommendation—"

And Gayle said: "How many contracts does the city have with gun manufacturers?"

Rysher stopped talking but didn't respond to Gayle.

Gayle said again: "How many contracts to purchase weapons does the city have with gun manufacturers?"

"What difference does it—"

"Heckler and Koch, Benelli, Smith and Wesson, Colt, Remington, Robar… And that's just the hardware MTac uses. All very specialized weapons. Expensive weapons."

Turning toward Soledad, Rysher shut out Gayle."Soledad, I will personally contact a PPL lawyer if you need—"

Again, Gayle: "They are very expensive and very specialized weapons, right?"

Same as flesh-eating bacteria, Rysher couldn't ignore Gayle."You want MTacs to make calls with their empty hands?"

"Now, how are you going to kill innocent metanormals without guns?" Gayle quipped.

Rysher started to say something.

Gayle cut him off with: "Sometimes I let my politics get the best of me. But fact is, the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing weapons each year, every year. Over seven hundred thousand. And that's just in Los Angeles. Add up all the contracts from every PD in America, its tens of millions of dollars."

"It's a fact, yes." So what? was Rysher's subtext.

Soledad, missing it too, prayed Gayle had a" what." She looked to Tashjian. He chewed his gum. The finger of his right hand swept back and forth, slowly, across his left palm. He was bored.

"The point," Gayle talking,"is these manufacturers are probably real thankful for their big green PD contracts. The point is these manufacturers know how to show their gratitude to the guys who keep their coffers filled. I'm not saying they're kicking back money. I'd never say that about people who make things to kill other people with. And most everybody's too wise to payola anyway. But maybe when, say, a guy who was really helpful to one of those com-panies retires from a PD, he could pretty easily have himself a very nice consulting job waiting for him to help pad out his pension."

Rysher had nothing to say.

Gayle kept on."Only, one day, you, the department, start getting submissions from one of your own about a garage-built modification of a specialty market weapon designed for killing metanormals. And on paper the thing looks like it could actually work. Problem is, you start using that gun, HK, S&W, Benelli and the rest, they lose their contracts, lose all that money. And I'm guessing these companies aren't going to want the guys who've lost money for them around as consultants. But having a gun look good on paper is nothing. Papers have a way of getting lost. Or tossed in a shredder in the middle of the night. And nobody has to hear about the gun. Except the person who modified the gun—I like to call her Soledad—ends up on MTac. Then she actually has the balls to ignore regulations and use her piece. And that's what screwed things up, isn't it?"

Rysher had nothing to say.

Tashjian had quit drawing lines on his hand, was listening intently. He wasn't bored anymore.

Literally Soledad was gripping the edge of her seat.

"You really going to make me step this all out?" Gayle said to Rysher.

Rysher picked up a pen off his desk, kind of played with it some. He replaced it. That's all he did.

Turning to Soledad, Gayle leaned in toward her, lowered her voice, reducing Rysher and Tashjian to a supreme state of nonrele-vance. Every bit of her body language said: Never mind the boys. It's just you and me, babe."Do you know what this is about, this little witch-hunt? It's not about using a gun that wasn't approved. It's about using a gun they didn't approve years ago."

Soledad's look was: I don't follow.

Gayle smiled an" of course you don't" smile."First day on the job, what do you do? You murder a metanormal."

"I didn't murder that thing. I enacted an Executive—"

Gayle waved her off."Semantics. You took him out, a particularly nasty piece of business this metanormal you enacted an Executive Order on. Your weapon, the bullets: They work. How many cops' lives do you think would have been saved if they'd" — head ticked toward Rysher—"started using your gun when they first got your specs? But they didn't. They had the facts, they had your work and they ignored them because they didn't want to queer their money deal. They took thirty pieces of silver over people's lives. So after you take out the metanormal, some ass-covering's got to be done. They've got to make it seem like a big thing that you broke regulations. Start an IA investigation, start digging around in your background. Start planting speculation about whether or not a black woman can handle the job. Maybe you're not just a bad cop. You're incompetent. Maybe you're a crazy bitch too, with all kinds of psy-chodrama."

Everybody looked over to Tashjian. Tashjian'd made a sound like a laugh.

Again, Gayle to Soledad: "Smoke and mirrors; they make enough noise about you being useless, nobody asks about your gun. Except you're not useless. You're not a hysterical little girl. Out on your own, on the street, regulation side arm, you put down another metanormal. All of a sudden you're just about a hero. All of a sudden if somebody doesn't do something, people are going to be throwing you parades, and you and your gun're going to be front and center again. So what does somebody do?" Talking to Soledad, looking at Rysher, Gayle gave it to him with both barrels: "He tries to pin a cop's death on you, the lousy little weasel."

"Who do you think you are, coming into my office—mine—and accusing me—"

"Did I use your name? I don't think I used your name. Somebody open a window. It's getting guilty in here."

Muscles so tight Rysher could barely move his jaw."That you would even believe you could question my integrity. I have spent more years in this department, protecting citizens, fighting those freaks than you have ever—"

"Freaks? That what you call them?"

"That's what they are."

"Really? And are black criminals niggers? Hispanics spies? You know, even in trying times, political correctness has its place."

"I've got a name for you. It rhymes with cunt."

Gayle's smile in reply said his slap had no sting."You sit there pretending to be a man of law and order, but your stripes don't hardly fit. This really how you want to do things? You want me to start making the rounds to the media?"

"And, and do what? Talk about your, uh… it's nothing, but, uh…"

"You're stammering."

"It's speculation."

"Journalistic careers are made on speculation. All those twenty-four-hour cable news channels? They got a lot of time to fill, and they know how to speculate the hell out of something. I know the LA Times'll eat this up. I'm betting they can speculate you from behind that chair right onto the street."

With all the admiration Tashjian owned: "You have to like this one. You really have to like her."

"Thank you," Gayle said to Tashjian. To Rysher: "At any rate, this is your last chance."

"My last…!"

Soledad thought if he could, if he could get away with it, there was a very real possibility Rysher'd yank out the service piece he hadn't drawn in some eight years and open a hole through the center of Gayle's head.

Rysher's counter was simple."What kind of speculation are you going to get out of the fact O'Roark" — back to O'Roark—"was carrying an unauthorized piece?"

"Actually she was field-testing a new side arm under the auspices of the Governor's Office and the state police." Gayle took docu-ments from her bag. She held them for a second, for one dramatic beat like she was holding a loaded gun. She tossed the documents onto Rysher's desk. The slap of the paper to wood catching everyone like a thunderclap.

And for a long moment, even in the smallish office, the noise seemed to echo off.

Gayle noted, she noted with the glee of someone who enjoyed handing another person a fatal beating: "Yeah, that governor. Our governor. All approved. Retroactively, but, you know…"

On the top document: the official seal of the state of California. It was unmissable. It was also, very much, undeniable.

"Thi—this is a municipal matter." Rysher, not even looking at what lay before him. Afraid to look at it, same as a guy facing a firing squad would rather take a blindfold than see what's coming."It's outside the governor's purview. It's not his concern."

"The governor's purview is the state of California. His concern, for the minute, is that no more citizens get killed."

"And you don't think that's my concern? We've just lost four men."

"He lost a wife, two sons and six hundred thousand people. You want to give him a call and talk about loss?"

No, Rysher didn't. No right-minded person wanted to compare losses with Harry Norquist.

Flipping a hand toward Rysher's phone, Gayle asked: "You want to give him a call and tell him why you're going against his orders?"

Rysher went back to handing out some quiet contempt.

"I've got a direct dial. Let's make the call." Gayle was eager with her gloating."Let's do it. I promise you, all the favors I had to pull, the mountain I had to climb: He did not like having to get into this. I promise you more, he will not like having to explain things to you."

And Rysher looked at what lay on his desk. He didn't pick it up, didn't read it. Didn't need to. From where it was, a few ex officio-sounding phrases jumped out at him, told Rysher plainly how things were. He was against a wall, hard and cold. He knew it. It was obvious all around. Still, Rysher kept looking for a way out.

Soledad, real carefully, tried to give him one."I don't care about anything else. I'm willing to put aside what got us where we are. What I care about…" Mindful of Gayle, mindful people beyond Parker Center didn't know the full truth of things: "This is about what's going on out there right now; what we're all about to face down. I'm willing to let everything else go if it means no more good cops get killed. If I don't have to sit on the sidelines while—"

"I'm not letting officers under my command run around with that," his contempt no longer quiet,"contraption!"

"You let them run around long enough without it and all your cops got was dead." Before Rysher could cut her off, Gayle kept on with: "Just Soledad; that's all the governor's stipulating. A field test goes on, she keeps the piece, she's back on MTac." Gayle brought it all home with: "You act right, you can still get out of this with your pension."

A threat heaped on the bargains and deals didn't matter. Rysher wouldn't convince."And you can just get out. I don't care if you do have the governor in your pocket. G Platoon is still mine to run. These are still my cops. I have a right to impla—"

Rysher noticed, just then got around to noticing, that at some point during the squabble Tashjian had moved away from him. He'd moved to the other side of the room. The side with Gayle and Soledad and, in absentia but very much present, Governor Harry Norquist.

It was done. Rysher'd lost without even being aware of the moment the loss had occurred."The only… It was never about…" Right there's where he let it go.

Gayle made a broad show of checking her watch."Well, I've got a Pilates class to make." She smoothly raised up, held out a hand to Tashjian."Very nice meeting you."

Tashjian took her hand."You've got a way with things, Ms. Senna."

"Gayle. Call me Gayle. Or just call me."

She was not flirting with… Was she flirting with Tashjian?

Soledad, off a shake of her head: "Jesus Fuc… Christ." Then she gave a little smile.

Sitting, fuming, Rysher watched the exchange, watched how easily Gayle flowed among people. Rysher knew then, from first off, if he'd ever had a chance it wasn't one in a thousand.

"Good luck to you, Soledad." And Gayle left the office.

Soledad darted after Gayle, calling her lawyer's name.

Gayle stopped, turned.

"I just wanted to thank you for everything. I don't know if you want to… Why don't we go out and have ourselves a—"

Gayle smiled."Don't thank me."

"I mean it. I could have taken a lot, but them saying I had anything to do with what happened to Reese…"

Still smiling."And I mean it too. Don't thank me. What I did, I did for my reasons; I did it because it serves me. I meant it when I told you that. But the next time you and I meet up we're not going to be sitting beside each other, and what I just did in there is nothing compared to what I'm going to throw at you and every other cop who lifted a finger against innocent people. Same as I did to your lieutenant, I promise I'll do to you."

Gayle walked on. Talking while she moved, tossing back over her shoulder: "My office'll be in touch about your bill."

You could say, and it would be the truth, that the governor of the state of California saved my life. Being a cop, an MTac, is all there is for me. I know in a way that sounds pathetic. I don't care. I'm wired the way I'm wired, my job is my life, that's the way it is. And, yeah, I have Ian now. Sort of. But neither of us knows for certain what we're really about. So if I didn't have my job, if I couldn't fight for the things I believe in…

But that's what Harry Norquist was about: saving lives. He was flying back to San Francisco when Bludlust took the city hostage. Most people didn't even pay any mind to what was going on. Bludlust? Oh, Pharos will handle him. Nubian Princess'll take care of things. Scalawag will save the day.

Harry Norquist wasn't depending on anyone else. Harry Norquist hopped the first plane from that Mayors' Conference in Washington to get back to San Francisco, to do… something. Like there was something he could do Pharos couldn't. Probably not. Definitely not. But unlike the rest of us, Harry Norquist wasn't satisfied sitting on his ass.

He never made it back to San Francisco.

Lucky him. If he had, he probably would've been among the 623, 316 who were killed when Bludlust's whatever went off.

Unlucky him. Among those 600, 000-plus were one woman and two children who were Norquist's family.

Guilt. Guilt like nobody ever knew. That's what Governor, then-Mayor, Norquist felt. He felt guilty because he wasn't there when his city needed him most. He felt guilty because early on, when Nightshift first appeared, Norquist made him welcome; deputized him, gave him special judicial powers, called him in on all the tough cases. Norquist thought he was doing some good for the city. He thought he was giving aid to a new breed of

crime fighter and peacekeeper. All he was doing was making the rest of us lazy and putting power in the hands of a bunch of freaks. Easy to second-guess him now, but none of us saw things any differently. Back then that was the dawn of the age of the supermen, and we all waded in their glow.

Not anymore.

And Harry Norquist was the first to take the blame, the first to condemn them and the first to pledge to stamp the freaks out. He got swept into Sacramento on a vow to make California a metanormal-free zone. And as always, as goes California, so goes the country.

Events dominoed: The EO, the MTacs were formed, the freaks went underground or to Europe.

You know, I really hate those Europeans.

So now I get to go back on the force. So now I get to hunt freaks, maybe get killed, so that the rest of the normals, the rest of humanity, has a shot at staying alive.

Wouldn't have it any other way.

The governor of the state of California saved my life.

There're a lot of tattoo parlors on Sunset Boulevard. East of La Cienega're all the ones for the rock 'n' rollers and night crawlers who got body art as a form of self-expression: rage against culture. Even though body art had become pop culture. West of La Cienega were parlors for all the Hollywood industry glamourbots who got themselves tattooed because Maxim or Vanity Fair or Details magazine told them they should either get a tattoo or start taking yoga.

Soledad went for an east-of-La-Cienega parlor. The guy at the counter was thin, white. A walking billboard for his business. His head was shaved. He looked like he might've been front man for the White Aryan Resistance, except that his voice and manner seemed like they'd just come off a limited engagement on Broadway.

"Helloooo," he said to Soledad.

Soledad was to the point."I want a tattoo."

"And you've got the skin for it, honey. That's what I call canvas."

The gay skinhead started to reach out for Soledad's arm.

Her look told him to do otherwise.

Soledad took out a couple of photos. Showed them to the guy. Asked: "Can you do this?"

Screwing up his lips: "Uhhh. You want to talk about bad skin? Sweetie, you need to get your friend to Malibu."

In the background was the buzz, hum-hum of tattooing equipment and the low moans of someone getting etched.

"The tattoo: Can you do it?"

The man flipped his hands in the air as if all Soledad was asking him to do was breathe or blink."I'm sure."

"I want it to look just like this one."

"I should color it in a little bit. And how about…" He looked behind himself to the wall. Art samples hung there."How about twenty-three? A nice skull. That'd look killer."

"I want what's in the picture."

"Every letter should be a different color, like a rainbow thing."

"I want—"

"A rainbow, or bloodred. But I don't know if bloodred is going to read so well on you."

"Hey!"

The man shut up, quit trying to sell. The man listened.

"What'd I say?"

"You said you want a tattoo like the one in the picture."

"What do I want?"

"… A tattoo like the one in—"

"What are you going to give me?"

"I, uh… I'll go get the ink ready."

Over the years the bald-headed gay guy had etched somewhere near twelve hundred tattoos. He'd done so many that for him the job had gone from making individual pieces of art to doing punch mold assembly line work: want something that'll show your fierce inner strength as well as your passion for nonconformity? Sure. Number thirty-eight in blue. Stick out your arm and let's go.

The bald-headed gay guy wasn't like that with Soledad. Everything about her said, quiet but very firm: Get it right.

Yes.

Using the photo as blueprint, working intently, Baldy copied in exacting detail the tattoo of the person with the ashen skin. Not much tattooing to be done. Just some letters. But the bald-headed gay guy took his time in re-creating them. The bald-headed gay guy got it right.

He wiped away the last of the blood from Soledad's shoulder. He said: "I'm done."

Soledad checked the tattoo in a mirror, checked it against the tattoo in the photo. Reese's tattoo.

It was the same. A bunch of letters. Five words.

Tough words. BAMF words. For Soledad they were a way of life and a memorial to a fallen comrade. For every freak left in America they were a warning.

The words, the tattoo: we don't need another hero.

Soledad welcomed herself back to MTac.

Yarborough couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Yar said: I don't believe this."

Bo smiled at that. Yarborough's disbelief was amusing to him. Things in general were more lighthearted for Bo. Life was good. Bo said again for Yarborough, for Soledad and Vin, who were also sitting with him in the ready room—Whitaker, upon Soledad's return, had been transferred to Valley MTac, the new Valley MTac—"I'm leaving G Platoon. I'm leaving active duty, at least."

Yarborough still wouldn't convince."This is… You're quitting?"

"I'm not quitting. I'm just not going on the street anymore. Taking a promotion, getting a desk."

Vin asked: "What brought this on?"

"The years brought it on. I can't keep doing this."

"Hunting freaks?" Soledad wanted to know.

"Beating the odds. I've been lucky a long time—"

"You've been good," Yar added in.

Bo gave a modest shrug."Maybe I've been a little of both. Maybe. I used to be. But I've lost it. Simple as that. I've lost it and…" Bo hesitated, started again."I shouldn't say this, I know you don't want to hear it, but I'm scared."

Yarborough laughed a little: the idea of Bo being afraid of anything. But then he saw Bo wasn't making fun. He was serious. He was scared.

Bo: "Better off to leave upright than stretched out. And I'm sure as heck better off moving on before I get one of you killed."

Vin asked: "And there's no talking you out of it?"

"You could, but I'd still end up dead. Only difference is it's Kathy who'd do the killing."

Bo laughed, and they all knew it was okay to laugh with him, so they did.

"Never seen her so happy," Bo went on."Not since we had our second. Not since before I went MTac. Good time to step aside anyway. Soledad's back. She can more than take up the slack."

Soledad tried to stay stern-faced, serious and professional, but Bo's vote of confidence put a little light in her.

"It's time for the new. It's over for me." A pause."And I'm glad for it."

There was a moment where everyone worked at accepting the facts.

Vin asked: "Now what?"

Bo answered: "Now we reorganize a little." Turning to Yarbor-ough."I've talked to Rysher. I've given you the recommend for SLO. It's yours if you want it."

SLO. Did he want it? Paperwork. That was a consideration. Lead officers had to do all the write-ups and reports from each call. They had to track bulletins from every other MTac both in and out of state. And if a call went bad, if people got killed, the blame got tossed squarely on the SLO's shoulders. Fingers very clearly got pointed their way. Yar knew, and would admit, he wasn't the highest-velocity bullet in the clip. The paperwork, the responsibility: Yar could go the rest of his life happy without being touching distance to any of that. But…

Having the chance to be the first guy through the door when it came time to drop a mutie…? And didn't chicks dig top cops? Sure they did.

"Yeah," Yar said."I want SLO."

And that was that.

Soledad and Vin gave Yarborough some goodwill and backslaps. Bo was proud father in his look. Yar was swimming with smiles.

And then all the good-naturedness went away. Everybody went quiet. The guard was changing. Change is scary.

Yar asked: "What about the fourth slot?"

"TOL. Out of the academy."

Soledad didn't like what she was hearing."Out of the academy?"

Bo said: "You were academy once."

"And I spent time in SPU before I went MTac."

"We're shorthanded. We just lost four cops." Sheepishly, almost like a guy sneaking off a sinking ship: "Five counting me. Most of the blues, even SWAT, have no desire to step up to MTac, especially knowing there's a telepath out there. We got to take 'em like they come. Her marks are high." Sly smile from Bo."Higher than yours."

Soledad handed the smile right back. Hers said: Don't think so.

"Guess I ought to get things started." Bo got up, headed for the door.

Yarborough was moving right with him."Bo…"

He turned.

"I'm sorry you're leaving the element. I've got nothing but respect for you. Nothing but. It's… it's an honor you should let me take your slot."

Bo got a laugh out of that."An honor? You have a good sleep last night?"

"Last night…?"

"Let me tell you how your nights're going to be from here on. Every one of them's going to be spent sweating over the day: Did you make the right choice? Could you have done something different? If you had another chance, would things turn out some other way? Would one of your operators still be alive instead of a body on a slab? Bodies will end up on slabs, Yar. And all the should'ves and could'ves in the world doesn't change the hurt you'll feel. Know that. Believe that. Ask yourself if you can make up a duty roster knowing writing a name is no different than pointing at a man and saying: You get to come home in a bag today. And even when you think you don't care anymore, when you think you could send your mother on a call and still whistle Dixie, along comes the night. In the night you're alone. You remember names, you see faces. You care. If you're only one-quarter part human being, you care, and the distress and regret and pain is a big white light that won't let you have one moment's rest. So tell me, how'd you sleep last night, Yar?"

"Okay."

"Sorry it wasn't better."

"Anything else?"

"Yeah," Bo said."Congrats."

Aubrey was scared. The quiet made him scared. Quiet was hard to come by in the city. Normally. But where he and Vaughn were now, out of downtown, hidden away, there was a good amount of quiet to be had. Enough, at least, to give Aubrey scares.

Really it was the sometimes sounds, standing out in the silence, that ate away at him. Every rustle was police people closing in. Every creak of wood was an MTac cop taking aim with his gun.

Vaughn needed the quiet to let his mind seep around where he and Aubrey hid. He really needed it now that police people and the others were looking for them. But why, Aubrey thought, did it have to be so quiet? And was hiding alone together better than being in the middle of downtown, getting lost in and around all the people of the city?

Only, Aubrey knew the crowds and chatter wouldn't change anything. He'd be scared all the noise'd just make it hard to hear the police people coming. Under the sounds of the city they could kill Aubrey without him knowing they'd done the job. The thought of sudden, silent death made Aubrey all the more scared.

Aubrey knew. No matter what, he was scared.

But why should he be? Over there was Vaughn. Sitting. Thinking. Vaughn wasn't scared. Vaughn'd know if the police people were coming. He'd known the others were coming. He'd known, and when they showed up, Vaughn… Vaughn killed… Wrapping his arms around himself: "Unnnnnn. Vaughn…?"

Yeah?

Vaughn's voice in Aubrey's head. Aubrey didn't like it when Vaughn made words go in his head.

"We're in trouble, huh?"

No trouble.

"'Cause, 'cause, what you did to the others, and the police people… we're in trouble, huh? The rest are gonna be mad. They're gonna be mad 'cause of what you did. They… they're gonna think you made things worse, Vaughn. And, and they're gonna—"

They're not gonna do shit but keep on hiding. They're scared of the cops, and they're sure as hell scared of me.

Aubrey stared at Vaughn. Vaughn just sat listening for thoughts sailing on the otherwise empty air. He didn't look at Aubrey, didn't acknowledge him.

Vaughn's nonreaction, his counterpoint calm, jacked up Aubrey's fear."They won't help us. They won't help us if the police come."

When. When they come.

"Unnnnnnn…"

And they're gonna come for us.

"Stop putting words in my head! Vaughn…" Aubrey went to him, gripped his arm tight and hard."Let's, let's go! Let's go now! We could go… we could go to that other city!"

Europe's not a city.

"We could go there!"

Vaughn looked at Aubrey. Aubrey was crying. The last time Aubrey cried Vaughn took him in his arms, held him, comforted him. That little bit of nothing had used up all the compassion Vaughn had. He couldn't find any to hold and comfort again.

Instead: "You can go if you want."

Vaughn said that knowing what Aubrey's answer would be. No mind reading required.

"I… can't."

Aubrey wouldn't leave no matter the fact staying was a good bet to get killed. Vaughn had murdered police. Police don't take to their own getting slaughtered. They would come and come and keep coming until they could notch up a couple more freaks on their guns. And Vaughn had murdered metanormals. Regardless of what he'd told Aubrey, God knows what they would do.

But even if he fully understood the risks, Aubrey wouldn't take off on his own. He'd mumble something about staying out of loyalty. The truth: Aubrey was too frightened to be on his own. Frightened of the unknown, of having to make decisions for himself. If he could make decisions for himself. Frightened of dying in an alley alone. At least he'd been there for Michelle. At a distance. Hidden in a crowd when she…

Aubrey would stay. Loyalty was a cover. Fear held him in place. By offering to let Aubrey go, Vaughn had offered him nothing except to keep sitting where he was and wait for bullets to come their way.

Aubrey said: "I'm gonna stay, Vaughn."

Good. Then you can help me. Want to help me, Aubrey?

"Bad… bad things are gonna happen if we hurt more people."

Listening, listening for thoughts.

Aubrey said: "Michelle, Michelle wouldn'ta hurt no one back."

That's… what is that? Ironic?

A bitter lightness to Vaughn's thought.

"… Wha…?"

Ironic. The one of us who would've forgiven them is the one they killed.

Eddi Aoki said she was confident. She said it without saying a word. She said it in the way she sat, self-sure. Straight up, shoulders back, chin high. But not too high. There was plenty of confidence in the way she locked eyes with whomever she was speaking with. And questions always got answered with a" sir" or" ma'am" attached. It was a little bit of modesty. Just a little. It said: A good cop respects her superiors. A respectful cop gets the promotion.

Eddi Aoki was real confident of getting promoted to MTac. That she told to Yarborough, Soledad and Vin—in actual words, not just body language—as they interviewed her.

"And why is that?" Yar asked."Why you think you're ready for MTac?"

Eddi's answer was simple: "Because I'm the best."

When it came to officers being transferred among elements, the other cops had no say. They took what they got; whoever was available. But a new officer who was Top of List of available MTac candidates always had to go through an interview with the other members of the element they were going to be slotted into. No way MTacs were going after a superpowered whatever with a cop who didn't fit in, a cop nobody trusted their backs to.

"Please don't take that wrong," Eddi said, modifying herself and adding just a touch of humility to her hubris."I don't mean that offhandedly; I just feel as though I'm better than other candidates. My scores are outstanding both in text work and field tests."

"There's a difference," Soledad dismissed,"between being able to wing a few targets on a range and keeping your head when there's a flying freak swooping for you."

Yar had nothing to add at the moment. Technically, as SLO, it was his interview to lead. Technically. But two things: Conducting an interview was like doing verbal paperwork. Paperwork of any kind held zero interest for him. Thing two: Eddi was seriously cute. Her marks were good, that Yar knew. She'd been rabbied with strong recommends. She was good cop. Beyond that, Yarborough cared more about what was in front of him than what was in Eddi's jacket. He took another bite of the apple he was working on. He let Sole-dad do the talking.

Eddi rejoined Soledad with: "And there's a difference between target practice and actually having to exchange fire with an armed perp. You train as best you can, then one day it's time to take what you know to the streets. Whether patrolman or MTac, it's the same with any police officer."

Soledad noticed that Eddi always said" policeman" or" officer." Never" cop." Always respectful. Annoyingly respectful.

"No, ma'am," Eddi went on,"I've never actually engaged a metanormal. If I had, I wouldn't be going through this interview. However, I feel I'm more than ready for my first call."

One word got written on the paper Soledad was using to take notes: cocky.

Vin wanted to know: "Where you from originally?"

"Philadelphia, sir."

"How many MTacs in Philly?"

"One platoon, three elements, sir. Good ones."

"If they're so good," Soledad asked,"how come you didn't stay in Philly?"

"One platoon and not a lot of metanormals, ma'am. It's hard to get a slot." Eddi paused, smiled, took in all her inquisitors. Like she was hanging medals on their collective chests: "Besides, there are no MTacs as good as the LAPD's."

Vin returned the smile.

Yarborough ate at more of his apple. For the fourth or fifth time he gave Eddi the once-over.

Soledad started to ask: "How long have you be—"

Eddi cut her off with: "That's not unusual, is it, ma'am?"

"What's not unu—"

"To relocate for the opportunity to be on the LAPD's MTac."

"Did I say it wa—"

"You're from Milwaukee, aren't you, ma'am?"

"Stop calling me ma'am!"

"Should I call you Bullet?"

Soledad snapped the pencil she was holding.

Yarborough about choked on his apple.

Vin grinned harder. Fun was coming.

Soledad constructed an expression out of contempt and anger."No, you can't call me—"

"This may be inappropriate. I don't want you to think I'm trying to sway you…"

"Oh, we don't." Vin, grin big as ever.

Eddi went on."I'm very much an admirer of yours, Bullet."

Soledad's face looked freshly smacked. Her hands looked like they wanted to throw a smack back.

"Of course, I'm not the only one. You got to be the talk of the academy. A lot of time got spent trying to better your marks, Bull—"

As she said whenever she wanted the world to quit spinning: "Hey!"

Eddi stopped talking, listened.

"Officer O'Roark. You call me Officer O'Roark."

"Yes… Officer…"

Casually Yarborough asked: "You single, Aoki?"

"Yes, sir. There, uh, isn't a lot of time for outside socializing when you're in the academy. I imagine there'll be less when I make MTac."

When. When I make MTac. More of Eddi's confidence.

Soledad drove a fist through it."If you make MTac."

Vin nodded at Eddi's belt."That a knife?"

"Yes, sir." Eddi withdrew it, saying as she did: "It's a Hibben Bowie," giving it to Vin handle-first. Big. The blade was polished until it kicked light. It kicked it hard."Never know when a little extra stopping power might come in handy."

Soledad: "Not exactly reg."

"Can't always go by the regs," Eddi said back.

Vin returned the knife."Nice."

"My daddy always said all a man needs is a good watch and a sharp knife."

Daddy. Soledad picked up on that right off. It was the first time Eddi sounded like a kid and not a suck-up. It was the first chink in her armor. Like a street fighter, Soledad went for the opening.

Soledad, snide: "Daddy?"

"Yes. My daddy."

"And did Daddy give you the knife?"

"It's his."

"Daddy back home in Philly?"

"No. My daddy was in San Francisco when Bludlust turned it into ash. I carry this," her hand on the hilt,"because one day I'm going to take Daddy's knife, slam it into some freak's chest and twist it until I carve its fucking heart out."

The quiet that followed was filled by Soledad's self-conscious discomfort.

Finally Vin helped everyone out of the wreck."Thank you, Officer Aoki. We appreciate your time."

That said, Aoki stood, thanked Vin and Yarborough and even managed a pleasant good-bye to Soledad and left the ready room.

Once the door had closed, Yar: "Well, ask me she's got what it takes. Wants to jam Daddy's knife into a freak's chest? She's on her way to BAMF." Yarborough tossed out what was left of his apple."Easy on the eyes too. No, sir, she don't hurt a bit. Maybe I should make sure she gets out okay."

"Yar…"

Without slowing down on his way out: "She's got my vote."

Vin to Soledad: "So where do you fall?"

"She's no good for MTac. Maybe one day, but—"

Vin's laughter cut Soledad off."You interest me to no end," he said."What's under there?"

"My clothes?"

"Your skin. You had it in for the girl the second she sat down. You swing at her trying to draw blood, and the second you did you guilted off."

"I'm doing her a favor. Let her get a little dirt under her nails."

"Listen to the old man talking."

"Screw off. The girl is cocky, hardheaded, she thinks she's God's gift in blue."

"Okay."

"Okay what?"

"Okay, I get it. I get your problem. She reminds you of you, and that's what you've got against her. She reminds you of the mistakes you made, of what could've happened and how bad things could've been."

"Should I be taking notes?"

"Things worked out with your gun, but real easy they could've worked out another way. You were lucky."

"Luck doesn't keep you alive where muties are concerned."

Vin got with a smirk."You are like her."

Soledad ducked the jab, came back with: "Tell me, Vin: What is it you don't like about me? You really take me blowing you off that bad?"

"Who said I don't like you? You and me going back and forth like we do, that's what the movies call attraction."

Soledad stalled. Wit, she wasn't ready for.

Vin picked up the slack: "Aoki's cocky, yeah, but her marks are solid. Sooner or later the girl's going to make MTac, and when she does, she's going to get herself killed and maybe take a few people with her. Instead of waiting for that to happen, we put her on our element."

"To what? To give the freaks a fighting chance?"

"To teach her. To help keep her humble without dulling her edge. Most important: to keep her alive."

"Fine. You want her, vote her on."

"It's unanimous, or it's not at all. Especially in this case. You learned a lot in a little time, and Aoki's going to have to do the same. She could be a hell of a freak hunter. One day. But she's not going to get there without you."

Soledad read between the lines of Vin's" without you" capper. He was feeding her ego. The unspoken challenge: You think you're something, then show the girl how it's done.

Only, Soledad was too sharp to fall for psychology. She had too many other things to think about, worry about, besides some hotshot, high-on-herself little girl.

Little girl.

Soledad felt at her throat and the scars that were given to her, months ago, and would be with her forever. She'd come into things thinking she was special. Only thing special: She had been more lucky than good. She was alive and still an MTac only by the grace of God and the sacrifice of others. Truth: At the end of the day she owed it to Bo, she owed it to Reese to do the same for the next hotshot who came along as they'd done for her.

A pause for thought, to be sure of things.

To Vin: "Okay. We put her on the element."

A strategy's what they needed. Usually, for MTacs, their strategy was built on a simple frame: Some freak somewhere would raise up its head, MTac would go pound it down.

This time was different. This time a little thought was required. Thought. Refinement. That's what Rysher, Bo—Sergeant of MTac Operations Bo—Yarborough, SLOs from the four other MTac units, some officers, including Soledad, were trying to hash out in the Em Ops of Parker Center.

Em Ops—Emergency Operations—was the crisis command of the PD: dedicated voice and data lines, feed from surveillance cameras around the city, maps, blueprints, schematics computer indexed and ready to be displayed on the high-res monitors in the room. When there were riots or earthquakes, when the city was going crazy with itself, Em Ops was where cops went to deal with the situation. At the minute it's where the cops went to figure what to do about a telepath who'd started offing their own. Ostrander was going to lead the figuring.

Ostrander was from DMI. He was a suit, like Tashjian; an investigator. Unlike Tashjian, Ostrander investigated freaks not cops. And where Tashjian was merely creepy, Ostrander was downright Gestapo-like. Maybe he was a jackbooted thug at heart, or maybe it was just his look that made him seem that way.

It was a frightening look.

Actually he had a good look to him. Just about handsome. A dark-hair, blue-eye combination set around angular features. Sinatra in his early days. Really, quite handsome.

The left side of his face was.

The right side was the fright. The right side featured three long scars that ran from Ostrander's hairline—what was left of his hairline—crossed where an eye once was, now replaced by a white orb that spun free as it pleased in its socket, over his mouth, and ended along his Adam's apple.

The scars were bad, both the scars from the maiming and the scars from the reconstructive surgery that preserved what was left of his eye and lips and throat.

Maybe Ostrander had just gotten himself messed up in a car wreck or something.

Maybe.

But around MTac, scars meant muties. And when the person with the scars was alive to display them, it usually meant the freak had ended up with the bad end of the deal.

Soledad fingered her throat. It was becoming her absentminded habit.

Ostrander stood, moved with a shuffle to the middle of the Em Ops.

He said: "His name is Herbert Lewis."

Everybody in the room looked at a surveillance photo on a monitor at center wall. The guy in the photo: middle-aged, white, trim. Very trim. Other than that, he was just a guy. He could've been the neighborhood pharmacist. Could've been the coach of the Pop Warner team. He was so normal-looking he could've been just about anything.

"What Mr. Lewis is," Ostrander explained to the group,"is a freak. He is in possession of hyperkinetic abilities. In other words, my dears, he is a speed freak able to move with a swiftness several dozen times that of a normal human. Under surveillance, he has shown bursts of speed clocked at more than three hundred ten miles an hour. Calculated time of zero to sixty for Mr. Lewis is about two-point-some seconds. He is fast."

DMI made a practice of letting some freaks go unhunted but carefully watched. Freaks they considered to be a less-than-extreme threat; troublesome but not particularly dangerous. Not dangerous like a firestarter, a mass enlarger. A telepath.

Ostrander: "We believe he is a messenger. His abilities, his speed allows him to avoid police surveillance as he travels among other metanormals. So he thinks. If we are fortunate, he has, at some point, had contact with the telepath. If not, it is more than likely he knows of a metanormal who has. Of course, we have to apprehend him before we can determine what kind of information there is to be extracted."

Soledad noticed that Ostrander was real dry, real clinical. Detached from the words he spoke. She made a bet with herself there was nothing he'd rather do than get a freak alone in his basement and get to dissecting.

Fine with her. Not much Soledad would rather do than bring one in for surgery.

One of the other MTac SOLs said: "Nothing easy about serving a warrant on a speed freak."

"No," Ostrander agreed."And the least desirable thing would be a protracted manhunt. For our activities to be made known would allow the telepath to either escape capture or become aware of our plans and therefore alter his. This speed freak, if you will pardon the turn of phrase, must be apprehended quickly."

Ostrander took a limping step back, gave up the floor to Bo.

Bo, jerking a thumb at the photo on the monitor: "It has a dog that it walks twice a day in Griffith Park. Oh-six-thirty, and again at about sixteen. Routine. It doesn't particularly vary. In the morning's when we go. Fewer people in the park. Here's how we work it: After the freak goes into the park we have uniforms move in. Set up a perimeter here" — he pointed at a map of the park—"here and here."

Somebody, one of the officers: "This thing sees blue, it's going to take off running, and that's the end of that."

"Hyperkinetic freaks can only maintain their activity for short bursts. The calories required make prolonged high-speed movement prohibitive." Soledad spat out information, appreciative of Bo's planning, like a professor of freakology giving a dissertation.

Bo said: "Once we move in, it'll see the cops, start running and run into more cops. So it'll go another direction. More cops. Cops everywhere it looks. We pinball it around, wear it down until it's got little or no speed left. Then we bring in the MTacs to close things out. The uniforms are like a bullfighter's cape, softening the beast up. The MTacs are the sword that's going to put it out of its misery."

"We would prefer it alive," Ostrander reminded."Alive enough to answer questions."

"That's the objective. But not to the exclusion of our people's safety."

"How many elements?" Rysher asked.

"Four. One for each side of the box. One element from each unit. That way, if things go south, we're not going to lose a whole unit."

No matter Bo was talking about contingencies for people getting killed, real quick Yar volunteered Central to be one of the elements going in.

Bo said, plainly, showing no favoritism to his old element, he'd draw up a unified duty roster later.

"Yes, sir. Just want to remind you Officer O'Roark is continuing her field test of the O'Dwyer, and she has ordnance that could be very useful in bringing in this particular kind of freak." Yar stretched to sound objective about offering up Soledad and her piece. Reality: no way he wanted to miss out on this hunt.

Rysher: "We'll take that into consideration." He was fronting like he still had authority over Soledad's weapon. A signed piece of paper from the governor said otherwise.

"Any other questions?" Bo said to the group."Comments?"

None. The plan was simple but solid. As long as… As long as the speed freak was as harmless as DMI thought it was. As long as it was just the speed freak they encountered and not some other freaks, a telepath in particular. As long as something unexpected, no matter how prepared for, didn't happen that cost some people their lives. As long as…

"Then it looks like we've got ourselves a job. We'll work up a perimeter, a grid, and have the elements ready to converge at… oh-five. Let's all go home and kiss our wives."

Soledad was on her way from the room when she heard:

"Soledad."

She turned.

Rysher. Back to using her first name."Soledad," he went on,"I am going to take your piece into consideration putting together the duty roster. I think it… I know you can do good work. I know you can, and I'm glad to have you back."

And he smiled to her. Rysher looked right at Soledad and smiled same as if he were grinning to his best friend. Never mind the investigation, the subtle swipes, the bitter conclusion… it was like the past hadn't happened. Or at the very least, it paled in comparison to Rysher's need to glom, to leech himself to whatever could carry him to the next plateau of his career.

Soledad wondered if he'd gotten around to replacing the photo of him and her in his office.

"I don't need your happiness," she said."I'm working toward some of my own."

She left things there. Anything more would have drifted toward violence.

Ten of seven.

The morning was getting warm. The APC was getting hot. Yarbor-ough and his element—Soledad and Vin and the probee, Eddi— ignored it and sat and waited for a freak named Herbert Lewis to get flushed out into the open same as an animal from the brush.

Yarborough had put Eddi on an HK. Her marks were high with that weapon. Her shots were accurate. Her groupings tight, which is a mean feat when your gun is spitting out five rounds a second.

Soledad was curious how Eddi would handle her first call. Unlike Soledad on hers, Eddi, cocky as always, was going into the op low on body armor. No helmet. No Nomex on her upper body. She had on a chestplate, but only because Yar ordered her to wear it. Beyond that, it was hard for Yar to enforce regs he didn't follow himself.

Soledad remembered her first call, the others in the APC making fun of her for being buttoned up tight. Now she, like most MTacs, responded to a call with no helmet, little body armor and Nomex. Soledad looked like she was on her way to a water gun fight, not out for a morning of freak hunting. If nothing else during her time on MTac, she'd learned if a freak wants you dead, all the gear in the world doesn't go far toward stopping it.

"Command to Central." Bo came in over the radio.

Yarborough back: "Central. Go ahead."

"We picked up the target. It's heading into the park."

"Read that, Command." To his element: "It's on its way." Yar shook his head."Just a guy heading into the park, walking his dog… and it's a freak. You'd never even know it."

Soledad checked her piece, checked the clip, the blue-marked one. Something special for speed freaks.

"It's like there's more of them all the time. You ever wonder where they come from?" Yarborough questioned out loud.

"Genetic mutation at the recombinant level," Soledad said. She holstered her piece, looked up, saw everyone was looking at her, waiting for her to go on."You're MTacs, and none of you ever studied metanormal physiology?"

Yarborough started: "We got that pamphlet in the academy… Look, I know you put a bullet in them, they go down. Most times."

Beyond that no one had anything to say.

Soledad said to the others, but said at Eddi: "And here I was thinking you knew everything."

Eddi smiled.

Soledad smiled.

A couple of cats hissing at each other.

Soledad: "There are people walking around out there with latent metanormal genes; the one that gives a person special powers. Maybe one person in ten million has it but can't use their abilities. Then over time—ten years, a hundred years—just on the odds, two people with latent genes meet, screw, have a kid. Now you've got one person with an active M-gene. Eventually, a hundred years later, on odds again, a descendant of the kid meets someone else with an active gene. They have a kid, and every generation the pool gets larger—more of these things, more active genes—until pretty soon there's a freak on every corner."

Yarborough summed up: "So it's like freaks keep having freaks, keep passing on the gene."

"They got a name for it, Yar," Vin said."Assortative mating."

"I know what… that is. Don't go thinking I'm stupid."

"I don't think you're stupid," Eddi said to Yarborough.

Eddi got a smile for that and, unlike the one she'd gotten from Soledad, this one was nothing but nice.

Over the radio, Bo: "Central, we're rolling in the blues."

"Copy."

The blues in, Soledad thought. The freak would see them, then… It was just a matter of time now.

"So what about," Yarborough asked further,"like witches and vampires, werewolves and stuff like that? Where do they get their powers?"

"Those would be paranormal-based abilities derived from magic or the supernatural, not metanormal or genetic."

"Wait a second." Eddi wasn't believing what she was hearing."You telling me there really are werewolves and vampires?"

"No." Soledad laughed at the girl's naivete."That stuff is just in storybooks and make-believe. But freaks that can fly, muties that can pass through solid objects and shoot heat beams from their eyes… that's as real as it gets."

One of the blues came across the radio: "We see it. We're moving in now."

Vin said: "You ever think that if it's evolution, if freaks are the next step up, that… maybe they're not freaks, you know? Maybe they're just… different than us."

Soledad's eyes went to Vin and harsh words went with them: "You going soft on freaks?"

Over the radio: "Close… close… We've got conta— Shit, man, you see that? You see it go? Heading west."

"I'm considering the reality of things. Nature. I'm thinking about Kilauea."

Different voice, another blue: "We've got him. He's… he's gone, he's gone! Southeast now. Jesus, I've never seen anything like it."

A shake of Soledad's head. Blues. When it came to dealing with freaks, they were strictly rank.

Answering Vin: "Little as thirty, forty thousand years ago there was another hominid species coexisting with us Homo sapiens. The Neanderthals. Nothing but Homo sapiens now. No more Neanderthals. Why? We evolved, they didn't, we pushed them out."

"That's debatable: that they were overrun by the early moderns."

Yar felt like he was watching a wrestling match between PBS and the History Channel, and here he was with no way to switch to Fox.

Soledad: "Well, I'm with the 'out of Africa' theory. And one thing's for sure, however it happened: Neanderthals aren't around to give their side of the story. They're dead, they're gone, they're extinct and I'm not looking for some of the same. So if it comes down to us or the freaks for who gets to inherit the earth, I vote for us."

More radio chatter: "Got it coming across… Forget it, it's gone."

"I think… picked it up, north grid heading… Damn it!""Think it's slowing down. Not much, but…""We see it. Slower, but goddamn, it can still haul ass…""Command to all elements. Get ready to move out.""I'm with Soledad. I'm not trying to end up part of a history exhibit." Yar hefted his HK."Let's go do something about the competition."

Griffith Park had been cleared out by the uniformed LAPD cops. Amazing how quiet a big-city park can be top of the morning once gutted. Amazing the park could be gutted at all. Only things there were four MTac elements and a slowing but still very fast-moving freak named Herbert Lewis.

Central MTac, making up one square of a collapsing box, moved through the bushes and foliage like they were trying to flush Charlie from the rice paddies.

On Soledad's left hip hung a Colt. 45. Part of the compromise. She had to wear a reg piece. But on her left hip where she couldn't get to it and couldn't much use it, the gun was vestigial. Technically, as SLO, Yar should've had the Colt anyway. Yar preferred the rapid fire of an HK. He bent the rules, let Soledad have the Colt. Who was carrying what were just details to Yar. They had guns; what they needed was a mutie to stick in their crosshairs.

In all their earpieces, a frantic" Valley to elements. Officer down. We've got wounded!"

"Say again!"

"We have an officer down! The freak shot—"

"This is Harbor. We got it! It's—it's gone, heading south!"

Yar: "Is it armed? Valley, is the freak armed?"

"Negative. Shot my man with his own weapon, but he didn't take it."

"Pacific to Central. It's bouncing your way, Yar."

Into his throat mike: "Tighten up, Central. It's coming."

Soledad took up a two-handed grip on her O'Dwyer, set it to single fire. The other MTacs did likewise with their weapons. They waited…

Waited…

There it was. Not there one second, the next it was standing before them looking rabbit scared.

Yar shouted at it: "You are in vio—"

"Nopleasedontshoot!" Gone. That fast. There and gone.

Yarborough, again into his throat mike: "This is Central; we had it. It bounced off." To the element: "Central, let's go. Close it up!"

Flanking him, Vin and Soledad moved into view. From across the way came Eddi. Yarborough signaled them to hold steady. They formed a wide semicircle.

"Harbor to Central. Coming back your way."

"Copy," Yarborough said."Get frosty. Fire on my command only."

Slides got worked, rounds chambered. Safeties unlatched. An audible confirmation from Soledad's piece: single fire. The element tensed. The element got itself ready.

Yar: "Hold steady."

Vin pressed the butt of the Benelli squarely into his shoulder.

"Hold…"

Eddi's finger brushed the trigger of her HK.

It, the freak, was there. Quick as it had disappeared, it was there again.

"Whyareyoudoingthistome?"

Eddi: "I got it!"

Yar: "No!"

Eddi tapped back the trigger of her HK twice, squeezed out two rounds. In less than the nanosecond it took the thought to travel from her brain to her hand, in less than the millisecond it took the bullets to travel the muzzle of the rifle, Herbert Lewis was gone again. In his place was empty air… and Vin, who now stood directly in Eddi's line of fire.

The two slugs zoomed for him, hit him square in the chest, hit him hard and at full velocity, undiminished by the short distance traveled. They also hit him in the body armor he'd, in hindsight, made the good choice to wear. The double impact picked Vin up, kicked him back like a discarded rag doll, slammed him against the ground as rough as gravity would allow.

Yarborough: "Vin!"

Eddi: "Shit!"

Soledad: "You stupid little…"

Vin's back arched, violent. Eyes bugged and teared, his body spasmed, fought to get control of his breathing, fought to suck in oxygen that'd been punched from him.

In an instant Soledad was next to him, kneeling, lips pressed to Vin's and forcing air into his lungs."Calm down!" she coached."Calm down and breathe!"

"I'm sorry," Eddi cried."He… he was there, I had the shot—"

"Shut up!" Again, Soledad's mouth to Vin's. Again: "Come on and breathe!"

More spasms. Vin's body went tense like steel. Muscles flexed so tight his joints popped. Shook. Shook hard… shook…

And then his nervous system kicked back in. His involuntary muscles went back on-line. Vin sucked a breath deep and loud. It sounded like a vortex collapsing. Let it out, sucked again. Each breath after, by degrees, got a little more regular, a little more normal.

"Gonna make it, chief?" Yarborough asked.

Vin clutched his chest by way of his thoroughly used body armor. When he could, he said: "Juh—Jesus, Soledad. Finally get you to put yuh… your lips to mine, I can't even enjoy it."

"Asshole," as she got herself up. Still, Soledad had to admit to herself: a guy who could take a couple of slugs to the chest and crack wise about it? Impressive.

"Soledad, can you drop this thing?"

"Orders were to take him alive," Soledad reminded Yar.

"Orders were to try. That was before he started getting cops shot up. Now we'll take him any way he comes."

Okay.

Soledad said: "Get down."

Eddi and Yarborough didn't move.

Soledad said again, respectful to Yar but stressing: "Get down."

Eddi, Yarborough, they crouched near where Vin lay.

Alone, in the clear, it'd be just her and the freak. Soledad was good with that. If anything, she eased up some. The ease that came with the feeling of control. Her right hand down at her side gripping her weapon, she came off like a gunfighter waiting for the last toll of the noon bell.

She waited…

She waited…

Just the trees, the openness of the park. A morning breeze.

A breath held, released.

A little radio chatter. Background cop Muzak.

Her hand opened a little, closed again around the gun.

"Pleasedontshootmeldidntmeantohurtanyone."

The freak.

Soledad swung up her arm.

Soledad fired.

The bullet from her gun streaked forward but struck nothing. The freak was gone again.

The freak reappeared directly behind Soledad.

"Whyareyoutryingtokillme?"

Soledad looked behind her, saw the freak."Oh, shiiii…" By the time she'd realized she had less than a second to do something, Soledad was already moving, springing backward, going parallel to the ground as the bullet she'd fired off whipped around, homed in and sped for its target: the freak who was right in back of her. She felt the chop of the air as the slug cut across her, over her, past her, and slammed into a guy named Herbert Lewis.

Herbert Lewis hit the ground about a half second after Soledad.

Different than Soledad, he'd be staying down some.

Freaks.

They're faster than us, stronger than us… That's just for starters. Throw in some of them can fly. Throw in some of them can expand to six, seven times their regular size. Throw in that some of them could be sitting on top of a nuke when it went off and it wouldn't hardly muss their hair… That's what we're up against.

So if we can't outrun them, if we can't outfight them, and since we sure as hell can't outfly them, we have to outthink them. We have to be smarter than them. We've got to outscience them. And since that's all we've got, that's what we use.

That's how it is with my O'Dwyer. When you get down to it, there's nothing fancy in the basic technology. Just in the way it's applied.

The bullet I used on the speed freak: BLAM technology. Barrel-launched adaptive munitions. Each bullet has a nose on a ball joint that's swiveled by small piezoceramic rods. Changing the angle of the nose, even slightly, at supersonic speed creates massive amounts of lift. Steer the nose toward the target, the bullet follows. Thing is, for the bullet to work, the target has to be" painted." The bullet has to know what it's supposed to hit. Not hard. Lots of ways to paint a target. Laser. Radar. Flir. Sonar. I used a variation of sonar. Firing the slug activated an IMP which is set to scan for Meta emissions, then it locks on the highest-resonating reading. Since speed freaks' molecular structures are always in a state of hyperkinetic motion… BLAM. Target lock and the bullet flies to wherever the freak is. The real magic is a small—I'm talking microchip small—sensor behind a quartz window that catches the signal and controls the piezoceramic rods that direct the bullet. Couldn't do that with a conventional slug, one from a weapon that uses a hammer to fire the bullet. But that's the beauty of an

electronic gun. Sure, eventually the slug itself'II run out of sufficient kinetic energy, and a moving speed freak could probably outmaneuver the bullet. None of it's a hundred percent solution. It's a start. It's science. Science and good thinking. For every freak, there's a way to stop it. The fliers, the expanders, the terraformers. Even the intangibles and the telepaths. I'll figure out something for them.

One day I will.

Same as in myths and stories they found wooden stakes for vampires and fire for the Frankenstein monster, I'll figure out something for every kind of freak there is.

Only, I won't use silly, make-believe mumbo jumbo; garlic and wolfsbane. I'll use real science and real good thinking.

Technology is my silver bullet.

The last of her gear packed away, clothes changed, Soledad's head was full with thoughts of nothing else except how good it would be to get home, take a bath. Maybe give Ian a call. Definitely give Ian a call. She thought of Yar. She thought of Yar having to write up the op, make copies, distribute them, file them… How long does it take to even get down on paper craziness like going after speed freaks? Long enough to keep you from getting straight home, taking a bath and calling the one you love.

… Love…

She felt bad, for Yar: having graduated from hunting freaks to hunting freaks and pushing paper. Not much she could do about it other than remind herself if she ever had the chance to move up, don't.

Closing her locker, Soledad started from the ready room. A few rows over, sitting on a bench, helmet in hand and head down, was Eddi. She looked up. She saw Soledad giving her a stare and gave one right back.

The two women went a while not talking, staring.

Finally Eddi broke up the nonconversation with: "I'm sorry."

"Sorry's what you say when you spill a glass of water reaching for the salt, not after you put bullets into a guy's chest."

"Then I don't know what to say."

"Who asked you to say anything?"

Eddi put down her helmet and stood. She gave off a heat that held none of the nervous" I screwed up" little girlishness she'd owned a minute prior.

Soledad's fingers made a fist thinking on their own they might be called to do work.

Eddi: "You hate me. You have since first we met."

"Hate's a strong word. How about: I don't like you as much as I can."

"Why?"

"You're an arrogant little bitch."

"So are you."

"You think you're a badass. You think you can take down every single freak there is by your own self, no help from anyone."

"Just like you. I could've been same as you only better." Eddi gave a delicious simper."And that's what's got the bug crawling in you. You want to be freak hunter number one. You can't stand to see anybody take your place."

Soledad, laughing, laughing spiteful: "You want to be the biggest, nastiest MTac on the block, go ahead. Take out every freak in the state. See if I care. There're plenty of 'em to go around. I don't hate you because you think," hitting the word for all it was worth,"you're better than me. I… you want to call it hate? All right. I hate you because you want to be me." That wasn't said angry. That was said hurt.

Eddi's face twisted, her expression jumped, confused, as she tried to wrap her head around what Soledad'd said and the emotion she put with it.

"You strut in here knowing all about me, where I came from, how I did in the academy. You come around wanting to be a BAMF like you think I was on my first call. Only, you know what I was that night? A screwup. I broke rules, and that almost cost me my job. I got careless, and that almost cost me my life. Look at it." Soledad craned her neck, let Eddi get a clean look at her throat."Look at it!"

Eddi did. Eddi gave the scar tissue a long stare.

"That's my good-luck charm. You get touching-close to a freak that's trying to kill you and you don't die, that's as lucky as it gets. I

used to hide it. Used to be ashamed of it. Just showed how stupid I was. Not anymore." As if to prove the fact, Soledad ran a hand gently across her burns."I fucked up, I lived to tell and I sure as hell'll never fuck up again. Not same as before. I learned my lesson.

"And you want to be me? I don't need that; I don't need any hero worship. I had heroes. My heroes wiped out half of San Francisco."

Quite suddenly Eddi was hit with some wisdom."… And that's why, isn't it?"

"Why…"

"You don't want to be called Bullet. You don't want a nickname." Eddi nodded at Soledad's tattoo, finally digging its full meaning."They had nicknames, and you don't want to be anything like them."

Soledad went quiet. Truth. She couldn't do anything but say yes to it, then: "I'm going to talk to Yar."

"Ma'am?"

"Nobody died. The cop who's made a mistake is two times as sharp as the one who hasn't. That I know for fact. So I'm going to talk to Yar about keeping you on the element. Hell, he would've anyway, but he should know I… Vin too; we've got confidence in you." Before Eddi could give a thank-you: "You and me are even on screwups at one. It doesn't go beyond that."

"Yes, ma'am." Eddi almost smiled.

Soledad did. She went for the door, stopped. Turned back."It's not my business, but do you have a man or anything like that?"

"No, ma'—"

"Soledad."

"No, I don't."

"If you're at all inclined, you should think about giving Yar-borough a chance. He's a do-right guy. He'll treat you good. And what they don't teach you in the academy: In this life you need somebody."

Soledad left, hurried to get home to Ian.

Wow. I can't believe you did that."

"She's… uhhhhh… she's good cop. If I'm honest with myself, I've got to admit at least she's got the bones to be good. Doesn't heeel… Right there."

Soledad was stretched out on the floor. Ian was straddling her, rubbing her back. Soledad liked—loved—getting her back rubbed. Deep tissue. She loved it so much it seemed to Ian that he was just about always giving her a massage. Hard as he rubbed, she could always take it a little harder. Made his fingers hurt like hell. Stiff, tight, cramped for a long while after. There was a day the week before, he couldn't do any drafting. He couldn't keep up the pace. Not doing Soledad's back three or five times a week and still have working digits. Ian had a feeling no matter what else they worked in their dysfunctional relationship, Soledad and her needy back were always going to be a problem.

Soledad: "Doesn't help us any to lose her without giving her a fair shot."

"No, I get that. That's not the part I'm wowing. That you'd put your neck out for somebody; that's not very…"

"Not very what?"

"It's not very Soledad."

"Hell of a way to put it."

"Just trying to emphasize your uniqueness."

"Yeah. Good luck making that into a compli—ahhh. That's good."

Ian was getting to know Soledad's back real well. He knew what kind of pressure she liked, where she liked it most. Where she needed it even if she didn't care for the hurt that came with loosening overtight muscles. Ian was earning himself a long-standing gig.

Not all bad, he thought. Not all.

"It's not that big a deal. A little lower."

"I think it's a huge deal. You told me you didn't even want the girl on your team."

"Element."

"Then in the span of a couple of days, you go from hating her to—"

"Little lower."

"Fine. Cool. We'll avoid the conversation. But I appreciate you're, I don't know… whatever. Growing as a person."

Soledad rolled onto her back, faced Ian. She said: "Okay. Now work this side."

Soledad!"

Soledad turned and saw Yarborough rushing the hall toward her. She stopped, let him catch up.

"I gotta ask you something."

"Make it quick. I have to get to the hospital."

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing with me. I'm supposed to go see the speed freak."

"What about?"

Soledad made a look that said she didn't know."DMI told me to go down, I'm going down." Soledad paused, waited for Yarborough to do his asking.

He didn't ask anything.

"Well?" Soledad prompted.

"Uh…"

"What?"

"It's about Aoki."

"Told you: Me and Vin, we've both got confidence in her. I think she can still work out to be—"

"You think maybe she'd go out with me?"

An empty look."What?"

"You think she'd go out with me?"

"For crying… Yar, bad enough I've got to go deal with some freak, and you—"

"Just want your opinion."

"How about this: How about you ask her out, then we'll all know." Just then remembering Yar was now SLO: "Sir."

"I can't do that."

"You can't ask a girl out?"

"Not her."

"Not her? What, is she magic?" SLO or not, Soledad was going to laugh. She was going to but realized: "You afraid of her?"

Yarborough's feet scuffed at the floor.

"I don't believe this. You hunt muties for a living, but you're afraid of some girl?"

Afraid, yeah, but mostly, thinking of Reese, Yar was afraid of not taking a chance.

But to Soledad: "She's not some girl. You see how hot she is."

"I guess."

"You can't tell me she's not hot."

Soledad flipped her wrist, read her watch both to check the time and to let Yarborough know that she really didn't have any to waste."Yar, I'm a woman. What do I know from a good-looking woman?"

"You know a hot chick when you see one. Come on, you see a hot chick and you know it. You don't think any of those supermodels are hot?"

"I'll tell you right now I don't much care for anything that's got 'super' attached to it. Why don't you get Vin to ask—"

"Oh, Christ, I can't ask Vin."

"Can't ask Vin, can't ask Eddi, but me you can ask?"

"Vin told me I was gonna meet a chick like Eddi, a chick that's got my number."

"Here's some, uh, advice, sir: When you do talk to her, you might not want to call her a chick."

"For real? I thought Vin and them were just ribbing me. Chicks don't like that?"

"It varies. Most of the good ones don't care. But why take the chance out of the gate?"

"Soledad, the thing about Eddi, she's hot, yeah, but she's not just hot. She's, she's a lot of things, and I like her. It's… everything is different when you like somebody."

Soledad and Ian; she knew the truth about being fond of someone.

Yar was preaching to the converted. She didn't have the heart to tell him different as things were when you liked someone, they really got messed up when you loved them. Yarborough was already looking more distressed than Soledad could remember seeing him. She believed, right then, if he had a choice between going head-to-head with an invulnerable or having to ask Eddi out, Yar'd be rushing toward the nonkillable freak.

She said to him: "Look, if you're going to move on Eddi, now's the time to do it. I was talking to her the other day and I told her she needed to get with someone; have a guy in her life."

"She hasn't got a man?"

"Nope. And she sort of hinted around she thought you were hot too." A lie, but a righteous one.

"She said that?"

"Not in so many words, but women have a way of talking, you know?"

"… I guess."

"Well, I'm telling you: We do. And she… she said in her woman way that she thought you were hot."

"Wow."

"Yeah. Wow. So why don't you go ask her out?"

Yarborough did more floor scuffing."She say how hot she thought I was?"

"Yar, I gotta go."

Two days after Herbert Lewis had gotten out of surgery he'd recovered enough that he could carry on a coherent conversation. Or finally cared to. A DMI officer, one of a rotating team of three who'd been planted just outside his hospital room, came in tape recorder rolling, ready to collect intel. The only thing Herbert Lewis had to say: "I want to see Bullet."

The DMI officer got his meaning exactly.

Word got sent to Central. Forty-two minutes later Soledad trekked up the hospital corridor. The mediciny smells, the sights of rehabbing bodies: Right away she thought of her own most recent stay in a hospital. Two-plus weeks for burns and a popped knee. She thought of Reese's final stay in a hospital. Months and months of wasting away.

Her hand to Herbert's door, a cop posted one to each side. This was going to be good, Soledad thought. It was going to be good to be in a hospital not because a freak put her there, but because that's where she put the freak.

Herbert was in bed, his right shoulder well bandaged. As Soledad came in, his head turned toward her very, very, very slowly. The sluggishness was courtesy the Versed he was being fed by IV drip, the midazolam HC1 spiked with a double dose of hydrochloride. A special cocktail mixed just for hyperkinetic freaks. Kept them lucid but put their metabolism in near suspension. It'd be enough to drop a normal man into oblivion. Herbert's speech was slowed but hardly slurred.

He smiled when he saw"… Bullet." Words seeping from him gradually."You came."

"I don't like that; getting called Bullet."

"And I don't like getting shot, but that didn't stop you."

"I'm sure that MTac you wounded didn't much care for it either."

Herbert gave a slow roll of his eyes. Only kind he could."He was going to kill me. I tried to grab the gun from his hand." He squirmed a little, worked at making himself comfortable but found he couldn't. A bullet wound—the flesh and bone the slug tears away. The deep-tissue surgeries required to mend the defect— tends to keep you from getting cozy."All he got was a graze to the thigh. I'd trade him any day."

"It's your own fault. We didn't have orders to shoot you."

"No one told me."

"No one told you to run either." To the point: "You asked for me. Why?"

"I wanted to meet you, meet the person who was able to shoot a hyperkinetic."

"Taking your kind out isn't that big a deal," Soledad fronted. Up until the slug found its way into Herbert she had no idea if it would really function, if the science that worked so well in theory, on paper, could perform in fact. There was no need for Herbert to know that. Let the freak think MTacs could take him and his flying, burning, mind-reading and super-whatever friends out at will.

"Don't bother with the bravado. I'm already impressed. We all are."

"We? Other freaks?"

"That's what I like about you police: unbiased, impartial. But, yes, we are impressed by you. By how you handled Clarence—"

"Who's—"

"He was the pyrokinetic you killed."

"Not before he murdered a real human being."

A wave of pain made a run over Herbert. He was doped up, but the doctors had been stingy with the painkillers. Herbert had asked a cop to tell the docs to give him more. The cop laughed. Herbert closed his eyes, waited for the pain to pass. It dimmed but didn't go away."You were able to stop Clarence, and we were glad for that."

That hit Soledad sideways."How's that work?"

"Clarence was an addict, a psychotic and a killer."

"Same as the rest of you."

"Do you know what we are? We're scared people. We run and hide when someone stares at us thinking they know we're different when maybe all they're looking at is just a stain on a shirt left over from breakfast. It's how we live; that frightened. It's the way you've made us. We, our kind, we used to be heroes—"

"Used to be," Soledad was quick to point out."You're nothing but murderers."

"I know a hundred sixty-eight people in Oklahoma City who would say otherwise."

"And I know six hundred thousand people in San Francisco who'd say something against that. If they could say anything. Except they can't. Except they're dead."

The pain came back for Herbert.

Soledad didn't care. Soledad kept swinging."You… you freaks, you're nothing but a bunch of animals. Like pack dogs; less than human. I'll tell you something, if I had it my way, I'd put down every one of you."

Herbert laughed a little. Laughter did nothing to help the hurt.

"That funny to you?"

"The way you talk: We're animals, less than human. You'd kill us all… That's the kind of crazy hate talk they used to throw at Jews, gays." Herbert's sleepy, sedated eyes went sharp for a second. They looked right at Soledad."And at blacks."

Not even a flinch."Gays, blacks, Jews never took out half a city."

For a second it was quiet enough to hear the drip of the IV.

Soledad said: "These freaks that you know so well, all your little freak friends: Let's talk about them."

A couple of tired swings of Herbert's head signified no."I won't tell you anything about my friends."

"Think before you answer. Things don't look so good for you.

Violating the Executive Order regulating the activities of metanor-mals is a—"

"I'll tell you about Vaughn."

"Who's Vaughn?"

"The one you're after. The telepath."

"You don't want to talk about anyone else, but him you'll flip on?"

"Two reasons. He's a murderer. Think whatever you want of us, but those of us who remain have a strict code: We must never use our gifts to take life."

Now it was Soledad who did the laughing."For a bunch of people who don't like to kill you've got racking up a body count down to a habit."

"When I was a child, when I first realized I was… different… well, I thought of myself as you think of me: I thought I was a freak. I thought there was something wrong with me. I never told people about my abilities. I figured they'd laugh, call me names at best. At worst… I thought they would put me in a lab, cut me open and study me. Then one day Pronto made his first appearance. Do you remember? San Ysidro. You're young, but you must… That crazy with the gun in a fast-food restaurant. He would have killed how many people? Except along comes a man who could run faster than the speed of sound. A man who could snatch bullets out of the air. A man who dedicated himself to fighting injustice and serving mankind. Do you know how that made me feel? Can you imagine the joy in my heart to know that I wasn't some kind of mutation, but that I was given a special gift and with it I could help, I could make a difference?"

Soledad didn't have to imagine the feeling. She knew it. Knew it well. It was the same way she felt first time the Nubian Princess went into action. A crew of five bank robbers armed to the eyebrows with automatic weapons, all brought to their knees by a black woman in tribal wrap and Egyptian gold. Just now, remembering the moment, the feeling came racing back. The feeling of a young black girl living in an all-white neighborhood, going to an all-white school. No matter those white people were usually decent… usually… the girl always felt different. Never felt special in a good sense until the day she saw, on television, on the news, someone who looked like her being extraordinary.

And quick as the feeling came back, Soledad chased it off with a mantra: Freaks kill.

"I had always hoped," Herbert went on,"to use my gift to help people, to follow in Pronto's… pardon me, footsteps." He paused."That was before San Francisco."

Soledad said her mantra aloud: "Freaks kill."

"So do normal humans. But we are different from you, Bullet. The difference comes with the responsibility to use our abilities for positive change, not to do wrong. And those like Clarence and Vaughn who cross the line, they deserve punishment. We would have it no other way. There's an old salvage yard just off Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood. As best we know, that's where you'll find Vaughn. Believe it or not, we really hope you stop him."

"How many of you are there? Do you communicate on a regular—"

Herbert made a big show of being in pain and tired, of being unable to answer any more questions.

Still, Soledad had a last few."You said there were two reasons why you'd tell me where this Vaughn is. What's the other?"

"He wants you to find him. Not just the police, but you, Bullet."

"Stop it."

"That's what we all call you. We call you Bullet."

"If you call me that again, I'll—"

"What? What will you do to me, Bullet?"

Wounded, in a hospital, exposed as a freak and facing a life of sedation in a cell. What else could Soledad do to Herbert Lewis?

Nothing.

So she ignored his taunt."Why me?"

"You killed Michelle."

A blank stare.

"The angel. You killed his wife."

Soledad responded to the statement in no particular manner. She remembered that Lesker, her partner at the time, had called the woman, white skin and gliding through the air on wings, an angel as well. All Soledad saw was a freak. And now she saw a conspiracy of freaks. They communicated with each other, knew one another's whereabouts and actions. They even sat in judgment of each other. Forget MTac, the advances in technology, in strategy and skills. The freak problem was getting worse, not better.

Soledad looked at Herbert Lewis, took a second to study his face. She wanted to be able to gauge, after she asked what she was about to ask, any change in his expression no matter how subtle or how quickly it passed. She wanted to be able to tell if Herbert responded with truth or lie.

She asked: "What's revelation?"

"Revelation?" Herbert asked back, as nonplussed as if Soledad had asked him what's water."A revelation is a disclosure or something disclosed by or as if by divine or preternatural means."

Zeiss photographic lenses, of any length, were good. Their long lenses were just about the best in the world. What a longer lens does for you, it provides more subject magnification at a given distance. By moving back, you reduce the magnification ratio between the front and back of your subject because the distance ratio is diminished. So you can get farther from whatever you're shooting without the image ending up too small.

The Air Support Division cops doing a photo recon of a salvage yard in the Valley couldn't keep far enough away from the target they were shooting: the possible locale of a telepath that, if it wanted, could real easy make the pilot fly his 206 Jet Ranger straight into the ground at max throttle. Most photo recons take ten minutes. This one—shot with the longest lenses the LAPD had on hand—took three minutes, and would've taken less if the cops had it their way, before the pilot yanked the stick and peeled the helicopter for Piper Tech.

The photos processed, printed, unspectacular as they were— B&W shots of a ramshackle building center of the salvage yard— were taken to Em Ops for Tannehill and Rysher and Ostrander and Bo and Yar and Soledad to view for all the little the pictures revealed.

Bo, pointing to the building: "This is the only structure on the property. It's been built on a few times over the years. This outer part is all wood, the rest sheet metal."

"And with relatively few people in the vicinity," Ostrander noted,"it will give the freak an advantage in sensing anyone looking for him."

"Able to get any blueprints?" Yar asked.

Bo: "The additions were done without permit, so there's nothing on record."

"So we don't know the layout. Whatever we send in is going in blind." There was a tightness where Tannehill's neck met his shoulders, an aching knot that'd been living there for years but making itself felt with severe pain since the day Valley MTac put itself down. As professional, as detached as he tried to be, had to be, doubt and guilt and stress seeped through Tannehill like a slow-working poison manifesting itself inside him in a thousand ways. A tightness here, a twitch there. Heart palpitations more often than not. Although he believed in the work he did, Tannehill's work very truly, gradually, was killing him."If the telepath's there at all."

"You don't believe the speed freak?" Soledad asked.

"I've learned not to trust where freaks are involved."

Bo: "Why would it say the telepath is there if it's not?"

"A distraction," Rysher answered, guessing.

"A distraction from what? If the telepath wanted to go after cops, it could do that easy enough without dragging them to the middle of nowhere."

Rysher made a point of: "It lured one MTac element out. Why not do the same with another? Lures them out, then attacks another part of the city."

"He could do that without baiting us. Come and go before anybody knew what they got hit with."

The fingers of Yar's right hand did an unending tap-step over his palm. Talk, talk; all this… There was a freak out there. The freak had to be dealt with. How much talk was needed for that?

"He's there," Soledad said, no doubt in her voice."He's waiting there."

Tannehill: "For?"

Soledad: "A showdown. Kill or be killed. He takes out one element to show us how powerful he is. Now he's waiting to see if we've got the apples to ice him."

"If he wants to know if we've got the balls…" Yar didn't miss a beat.

Neither did Rysher."Let's go for a full strike: have all our MTac units hit him at once."

"Remind me to purchase shares in an American flag company. Undoubtedly their price will skyrocket with all the coffins that will need draping." Ostrander had a way of putting pitch-black into dark humor.

"You saw what it did to Valley MTac. It's going to take everything we have just to slow the freak down."

"I promise you he will turn your people against each other, and then the last man remaining against himself."

Rysher gave a cold reminder: "I'm familiar with the MO of these mind freaks."

"Then I'd suggest we take the knowledge and find another way to apply it."

"We could go with nonlethal weapons," Rysher offered.

"Well, that's a good idea." A sarcastic tone made it clear Yar thought otherwise."You can't take out druggies jacked on PCPs with nonlethals, and you want to use them against a telepath? The freak can make the operators choke each other, beat each other to death bare-handed, and they'd have no way to kill it."

"Your suggestion?" Rysher asked, pointed.

"One element. Make it a lightning strike. I'm volunteering Central."

Bo: "It's appreciated, Yar. But cowboy time is still a ways off."

"Yar's right," Soledad said."But for the wrong reason. It should be one element, should be Central. What the freak wants… I killed its wife. It wants me."

"You'd never make it out alive," Rysher said.

"That a fact or wishful thinking?"

A quiet hiss of nasty words came from Rysher.

Soledad ignored them."Look, we take out the freak, problem solved. But if we don't make it, if I don't make it… maybe that's payback enough for it. Maybe it's done and nobody else has to get killed."

Rysher: "So it kills a bunch of cops, and we just let the thing get away."

Yar, talking from experience: "If we can't put it down, you better hope it goes away."

"If we go after it, if we lose out, if the freak's not done killing," Soledad said,"then you don't stand any worse than you do right now."

"With the exception," Tannehill's hand working hard on his neck,"of four dead officers."

"Sooner or later, going against this thing, we'd be dead anyway. This way we just go down first."

"So you're volunteering," Bo, being clear about things,"for a suicide mission."

Soledad looked to Yar.

Yar grinned."To my hearing she's volunteering to get in the first kick to the freak's ass."

And Bo wished, for one split second, he could own that kind of fearlessness again.

Again?

Bo wondered: Did he ever own it? Or was what drove him for so long just the youthful delusion that with enough will you can live forever?

The call was Tannehill's to make. Nothing easy about making it. What was the best way to put down what maybe couldn't be put down; that could probably kill whatever you sent at it? And here, before him, were two cops begging to take the call. How many more in the PD would be happy to stand with them? Where the hell, Tannehill thought, did you get people like this? For whatever their reasons, for whyever they chose to do what they do, where did you find such people?

Tannehill: "I'll put out a warrant. Central gets the call. You go it alone."

Soledad and Ian were having dinner at Soup Plantation, which was their favorite place to have dinner. Not so much their favorite place to eat, but they liked getting the two-for-one special. Soup Plantation didn't actually offer a two-for-one special. What it did offer was an all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar run by college kids and underprivileged illegals working for minimum who didn't much notice or care if one person in a party of two went to the bar and got food that the other person had paid for. More than the okay food, Soledad and Ian dug the" we're getting away with something" pleasure that came with it. Made them feel like they were a couple of kids, like they were back in high school. Even though getting something for nothing was, in this case, illegal. Even though Soledad was a cop. There weren't any freaks involved. No freaks involved, Soledad gave no more thought to scuffing the law for pleasure than anybody else. She chalked that mostly to Ian. Day by day he was making her feel like a regular girl.

Ian said: "You put too much dressing on your salad."

"I like dressing."

"I know, but you put too much on."

"What's too much?"

With his fork Ian reached over to Soledad's plate, lifted some of the lettuce. Blue cheese dressing sloshed from the leaves, the cheese falling like boulders in a goo-slide."That's too much. What's the point of eating healthy if you're going to use that much dressing?"

" 'Cause it's good for you."

"It's nothing but fat."

"The salad's good for you."

"But you've got more dressing than salad."

Soledad speared a forkful of lettuce, lifted it slow to her mouth. Dressing dripped, dripped from her lips and chin. It was funny. Was sexy too. For a sec Ian wished he was the kind of guy, ballsy enough, to slap their trays to the floor, put Soledad on the table and make love to her right there.

They were doing that now. They'd graduated from having sex to making love. From sharing space and screwing to sharing themselves and having something like a relationship. Something like. All that made Ian happy. When it didn't make him scared.

"You just want," Soledad's mouth full of blue cheese dressing and some very little bit of salad,"to eat at Johnny Rocket's."

"I don't want to eat at Johnny Rocket's. I'm just saying if you're going to eat healthy, eat healthy; otherwise… Actually, yeah, I do want to eat at Johnny Rocket's. That crap's good. Life's too short to try and eat healthy and live forever."

"Am I a bigot?"

"We're all bigots." As left field as Soledad's question was, Ian didn't miss a beat answering."I don't care what anybody says, we all carry some baggage in us."

"Am I worse than most?"

"It's all bad, so how do you—"

"Answer me straight. Please."

Now Ian took his time. Thought. Asked: "Why do you care?"

"Served a warrant on a freak. It said I was no better than people who hated Jews and gays. Blacks."

"Hate is hate. So, no, I don't think your hate is any better—"

"You've never talked about how you fall on things," cutting him off, getting a little sharp."You soft for freaks?"

"We're talking about you."

"You are soft for them."

"You asked me a question. Don't take the conversation somewhere else when you don't like the answers I give."

And for a second it was Soledad looking hard at Ian, Ian looking hard right back to her. Then Soledad sat back in her chair, realizing, just then, how forward her little outburst had carried her.

"I think," Ian said,"some of the hurt you have, the reasons you feel the way you do… I understand it, even though it's intangible." Some kind of little laugh from Ian."I shouldn't be—"

"Go on. Say what you're going to say."

"I know why you have it, but I wish you didn't have the hate you do. For what it does to other people, but mostly for what it does to yourself. If I'd known how you felt first off, we wouldn't… there's no way I could've been with you. But I was, I guess I was lucky; I got a chance to see the good in you first. And now, that this metanor-mal would say things to you, that you would care what it said, that you would care what I think… Even in the time I've known you, you've changed, Soledad."

"Well, fuck. Everything around me's changed."

"What? Things aren't supposed to? That's a shock to you they do?"

"Yes, Ian. It is. From half a city being torn away right up to people I thought had my back selling me out." Soledad used a cold, factual tone to make her point."There is no gentle transformation in any of that, so, yeah, I'm shocked."

"Sometimes it's not; sometimes it's not gentle. But however it came, you've changed too. You have. You'll change more. You and me both. And hard as things are for us, for trying to get along in our relationship, or whatever you want to call it… hard as it is, I want to be around when all your hurt is gone. I live for that."

And Soledad smiled. It was a sweet one that warmed across her lips. She leaned over the table, getting dressing on her sleeve and not caring, put her mouth to Ian's. Kissed him.

Yeah. He definitely wished he was a ballsier kind of guy.

And as he thought that, he let himself be.

"Let's go away," Ian said.

"I've got days owed. Maybe we could get lost for a couple of—"

"I'm not talking a vacation. Where would you be happy? Canada? Hawaii? Australia? How far away do we have to be from the rest of the world for you to smile all the time? Just tell me and I'll take you there."

Soledad put down her fork."If we're going to do this, if you and me are going to be together… it won't work with you worrying about me getting killed."

"That's not why I'm… Yeah, I think about that. I'd be lying if I said I didn't. But as I come to know you more I worry less. Sometimes I think nothing could kill you."

"Then why—"

"Look at us: two people stumbling along in life. The only way we even hooked up was by accident. Really by accident. Baggage for days, pasts we don't want to talk about. A world of people we don't even want to know. So, fine. Let's leave all that. Let's… It's like we're no good for anyone but us. And we're no good at all except anywhere but here."

"Here?" Edging forward again: "So get away from here, you mean: get away from hunting freaks."

Ian looked down at the table."From… everything."

"I don't… One second we're talking about salad dressing, then you're asking me to give it all up."

"Give all of what up?"

"My job, my life."

"An obsession as much as a job."

"You don't like what I do—"

"You're the one who said that. Not me. And a job doing what, hunting people down? You sit there asking me if I think you're a bigot, then you go right back to having no problem doing what you're doing."

"Being a cop and being a bigot are not the same thing."

"They are if it's the reason you became a cop: to have a legal excuse to kill the people you hate."

"You know what?" Soledad was already half up out of her chair."This conversation needs to end and you need to get out of my face."

Ian reached out. Ian grabbed Soledad by the wrist, pulled her back down into her seat. In the time that she'd known, yet barely known him, Soledad had always thought of Ian as a sensitive guy. Sensitive a euphemism for timid, but timid not being a pejorative. He was quiet, little on the nervous side. She remembered his panicked look when he caught a glimpse of her off-duty piece the afternoon their cars collided. Soledad remembered his halting, breathy request for a first date. Things that made him more human than the hard guys she mixed with daily on the force.

But all previous concepts of Ian got shoved to the side by the strong hand that latched on to Soledad's wrist with a firm, firm grip. It surprised Soledad. It was unexpected; hard but not harsh. It directed her to shut up, sit down and listen. It also revealed to Soledad an as-yet-undiscovered attractiveness in Ian.

Ian said: "What did your job," again, derisive there,"give you except months of getting slow-roasted over coals? The same people who were supposed to be supporting you were ready to hang you, couldn't turn their backs fast enough on you. Lied, Soledad. They lied to your face."

Ian eased up his grip. Soledad was almost sorry for it.

He said: "I don't want you to give up your life. That's not what I'm asking. What I want… I want you to start a life with me. I want us to start one together."

"What are you saying?"

"What I'm… I'm trying… I'm telling you…" Fumbling, fumbling."I'm saying what people say to people every day. I'm saying what you said to me. I'm saying I love you."

"… Fuck…"

"I tell you I love you, and you say fuck?"

"… Yeah…"

"You told me you loved me. It's only supposed to work one way?"

"No, but… Fuck…"

Ian laughed some."Sucks, doesn't it?"

"Yeah."

"You love somebody, it's nothing. Easy. All you've got to do is sit there and love them. Somebody loves you… that's obligation you're feeling."

"Fuck. Thought love was supposed to feel good."

Ian shrugged.

"This how you felt when I said it to you?"

"I felt kind of like all the oxygen suddenly left the planet. Lightheaded, like Goodyear just bought my skull and was using it to sell tires above a sporting event."

And Soledad laughed.

"Can't believe," Ian said,"this is new to you."

"It's new to you."

"I'm me. You're, you know, pretty. You should've had lots of guys after you."

"Should've." Soledad picked up her fork, moved around the food on her plate. That's all she did, move it around some. Didn't eat. Put the fork back down."High school. But that doesn't count. That never made me feel… I'm a pain in the ass. You ought to know that by now. Guy's don't… I don't even like talking about this shit."

"But we are talking about it. So…?"

"So…"

Soledad's brain did a thousand calculations in a single second. What had the LAPD done except try to lynch her? What would being an MTac get her except dead? Eventually. Why was she doing what she was doing? Because the law said to, or because guilt told her to? Didn't know. She didn't know. And what were the chances of ever in her life finding another man who fit her as snugly as Ian did? Zero.

But…

There was the telepath. There were two ways to stop it: by ending its life or by, maybe, it ending Soledad's. And could she share that with Ian? How would he take, how would anyone take, the person they love going kamikaze with their life? And if she hid it from him this time… call it what it was. A lie. If Soledad lied to Ian this time about the whys of her life, what was to keep her from lying next time? The time after? What was going to keep her from protecting him from her life same as she felt she had to do with her parents as long as she was MTac?

Nothing.

But…

But that was a discussion to have with herself later. In a day. If she was still alive.

Now?

There was responsibility. For whatever her reasons, there was obligation. No matter how the cause was viewed, right or wrong by any sense, any form of measure, Soledad was at the start of Vaughn's rampage. She was at the start, so…

"I have a thing I have to finish first."

"Soledad—"

"Just one, and then we can talk about—"

"I don't want to wait. Let's go now. Let's you and me get up and go and keep going and never talk about our lives up till now again."

"You said you weren't afraid anything was going to happen to me."

"I'm not."

"Then please let me finish this because…" Now her hand was taking his, holding it strong."Because there's no other way except for me to finish things."

Ian looked to Soledad, looked her in the eyes: determination as solid as his disappointment. He mouthed" Okay" but didn't really make a sound.

He and Soledad went back to eating their salads. She hurried her meal because she just wanted to get home and get in bed with Ian and hold on to him until four in the morning when she and the rest of the element would assemble to serve a warrant on the telepath. And when they were done eating, this time, going, Soledad left enough cash to cover what she'd taken for free.

Soledad had a pair of Bushnell's focused on the salvage yard. Junked cars, junked appliances, plain junk piled all around. A rambling shack, built on piecemeal over the years, until it was a study in sprawl. Part wood. Part sheet metal. All quiet.

"See anything?" Yarborough asked.

"Nothing."

Different than their last call, different than most, the four MTacs were head-to-toe in full reg body armor. Fritz helmets, Kevlar, Nomex, knee and elbow pads… Part of the return to by-the-book dress was in response to Eddi accidentally just about putting down Vin. Part was in response to the fact they were going up against something that could real easily make them try to kill each other.

"Maybe the freak's standing right in front of the place," Eddi pointed out,"and it's just puppeting us not to see it."

"Except," Soledad said,"none of us are bleeding out the nose."

Vin: "Or maybe it's just making us think none of us are bleeding."

"Or maybe we're all on a beach in Maui and he's just making us think we're outside a junkyard in North Hollywood." Yarborough was heavy on the sarcasm."Getting paranoid does us no good. When you get puppeted, you know it. There's a few seconds of queasiness, light-headedness, and you get the nosebleed just before" — he touched the scar on his temple—"the freak takes over. Feel any of that, let one of the others know before it's too late."

"So they can do what?" Vin asked.

"So they can shoot you before you take out the rest of us."

Soledad was pretty sure Yar was being hyperbolic. Sort of sure.

"You all knew the deal, and we all took it. We're alone on this, and we got better than our usual bad chances of not walking out. If you believe we're good as dead, however things happen, you won't be disappointed. Going against a telepath, best we can hope for now, one of us dies last."

Pep talk over.

Yar gave the sign and the element moved on the building, paired off and keeping low. It was Yarborough and Soledad, Vin and Eddi.

The closer Yar got to the building, the more clearly he recalled the night he'd mixed it up with a telepath: Three other cops put bullets in themselves. The feeling of being trapped in his own body, buried alive, the muzzle of his gun pressing against his head. Thought it would feel cold. It didn't. He remembered that very much: the warmth of the metal on his flesh. Then Yar felt nothing. Then he woke up in a hospital. The doctors told him, miracle, a slug had passed through his brain and done no damage. See, Yar had joked. Pays not to use your brain. Or sometimes: Pays to be stupid. Sometimes he said: All the beer I've drunk, didn't have any brain left to damage. In public he joked like that. Attitude was his cover. In private, when he thought about the incident, if he was lucky he made it to the bathroom. Otherwise he just puked on the floor.

Yarborough asked: "Soledad, any chance you figured out a bullet to take care of one of these mind-control freaks?"

She answered, flat: "There is none."

The convergence was measured but not tedious. Slow going only in the care and caution the pairs took. Movements forward followed by moments of stillness, of listening and looking. Looking for something that could strike without showing itself. Self-analysis for bouts of nausea or dizziness. When all that came back negative, the pairs would move again, then stop and one more time run their checklist.

On the metal side of the building Soledad and Yarborough made a window. Vin and Eddi arrived at a door around a corner perpendicular to it. The window was unlocked, the door open. Both parties gave a serious visual check to the inside of the building, then eased their way through the ingresses.

"Nothing," Yarborough said, hushed."Probably got himself holed up near the center of the place."

Eddi, fast: "Let's check it out." She caught herself giving orders. Caught Soledad giving a look.

Yar didn't own a lot of ego, but he had earned SLO, and he'd earned the respect that went with it. Most likely, from anybody else, he wouldn't've cared for orders getting tossed past him. To Eddi all he said was" Let's," and threw her a confident smile.

Out the door of the room was a hallway. Long. Lined with the sheet metal of the building. Two by two in a covering formation the MTacs made their way toward whatever waited.

What.

What was certain. How was the unknown. How things would kick off and how things would end. How, and how many of them would leave the place alive.

Soledad tried not to think of Yarborough's question: Did she have a bullet for a mind-controlling freak?

And Soledad felt… fear. She had a thought of death, and it made her afraid. Not of dying. Dying was nothing. But… Ian. With Ian in her life the thought of death made her realize how much there was to be lost in life. A future, a family. Possibility. That's what Ian gave her, and that's what she was suddenly afraid of losing. When there is no possibility, living or dying, what's it matter? An existing emptiness versus an eternal emptiness. Variations on a theme. But when you stand to lose all the possibilities of all the days that you are owed, that's when life becomes precious and death becomes significant.

Death, for Soledad, had become monumental.

Bad time for it.

Vin: "Hold up."

Everyone held.

"Thought I heard…"

Soledad did a quick look around. The hallway was narrow, tight and poorly lit. Bad place to be when bullets started flying. Too hard to hit the target without hitting one of your own. Maybe, Soledad thought, that's just the way the freak wanted things.

Soledad: "We've got to move."

Vin, again: "Hold on."

"You feeling something?"

"No, but I—"

"You getting scared?"

"Hey," Yarborough said, voice soft.

"I thought I heard something, something moving. I don't want to run into a trap."

"What do you think we're standing in?"

Eddi gripped a little tighter on her HK.

"We move," Soledad said,"or we end up doing the freak's work for it."

"Hey," Yarborough said one more time.

They all turned and looked at Yarborough. They turned and looked and they saw disbelief in his eyes. And they saw what it was Yarborough could not believe. Shock numbing him, dumbing him down, made him point out what couldn't be missed.

"Look at that," Yarborough said, quiet, fading."There's some metal sticking out of my chest.

There was. There was the sheet metal of the hallway formed— having formed itself—into a long spike that punched Yarborough through the back, diminished none by his body armor, and kept on until it erupted from his chest. And like living, viscid fluid, the metal withdrew itself from Yarborough, returned to being nothing more than wall. A gaping wound the only evidence of the violence that had happened. No longer held in place, blood geysering from the tunnel in his body, Yarborough puddled to the ground.

Eddi was first to him, screaming his name.

Yarborough tried to reach up, touch her face. His limbs were feebled. His hand never made it."I didn't… didn't tell you…" Unable to focus, his eyes spun freely in their sockets. The hole in his chest wheezed as he worked to draw air."Never told you… God, I could go for Taco Bell…"

Yarborough's eyes finally locked on something a million miles away.

Dead.

Soledad gave one split second to something she'd just realized: She wasn't even sure of Yar's first name."Metal morpher," she barked.

The remaining two of the element kept low, did some quick looking around, Eddi staying close to Yarborough's body like she was standing honor guard.

Vin: "You see him?"

"He's probably tactile, uses the metal walls as a conductor. He could be anywhere."

"How does he know where we are?"

"The telepath, it's giving him a mental picture. We've got to get back to the wood part of the…"

Soledad trailed off, went quiet, listened to a sound getting louder. Drawing closer. Tickety-tick. The tickety-tick of metal tapping on metal.

From the far end of the hall, from the darkness, came engine blocks. Moving on their own. In-line 6s, V-6s, big block V-8s, a Hemi mutated, sprouting arachnid legs. They scurried along the walls and ceilings—hideous, hungry things—for what was left of Central MTac.

Eddi whipped around her HK and was the first to cut loose with live fire. Her response time: zero. Wasn't by accident she'd scored so high at the academy.

Good grades weren't much help against animated engine blocks. Bullets weren't much better. Dead on target, all they did was nothing but ping-ping off the living metal.

Fast as she could, Soledad ejected the clip from her piece and swapped it out with one marked in orange, set her piece for single fire. She took an extra split second to aim her shot, be sure of her shot. It's what Bo would've done.

She fired.

The bullet hit the lead-most… thing. The bullet was tipped with Semtex. The impact, the Semtex, lit an explosion that blew a fat chunk from the aberration. The thing made a noise that was as much the grinding of stressed metal as the shriek of a dying animal. The concussion of the blast kicked it backward into a second spider/engine. Both fell to the wood floor. No longer in contact with metal, no longer in contact with their master, they went back to being hunks of automotive hardware.

Soledad, stepping up and taking charge: "Move! Get to the wood part of the building."

Eddi: "We've gotta take his body!"

Another spider/engine scrambled fast along the wall for them.

Again Soledad fired. Again her aim was true. A third thing twisted and shattered, joined the other two motionless on the ground. The same dying cry echoed off down the hallway.

Soledad took Eddi by the shoulder, threw her in the direction she wanted the younger woman to go."Move!"

Eddi led the retreat with Vin right behind. Soledad had the rear, she had the most precarious position. She had the O'Dwyer and her bullets too.

Two more freak things came up fast, and they went down quick with one shot apiece. There was no extra ammo. One clip. Twenty-eight rounds. No shots to be wasted. None were. Each slug fired struck a target. Each target was obliterated. Hitting the mark, for Soledad, wasn't the problem. Problem was the things kept coming. Each a little nastier than the one previous.

Eddi reached a door, flung it open. Just beyond: axles and pistons and rocker bars. Mufflers and tailpipes hung from chains that stretched up to the ceiling. In the room there was nothing but toys for a metal-loving freak to play with. Nothing but tools for him to kill with.

"… Fuck…" Eddi yelled to the others: "No good!"

Vin said: "Keep going, down the hall."

Soledad said nothing. Soledad was up to her eyeballs in morphed engine blocks. Quick as they came she took aim, fired.

She fired…

Fired…

One of the things skittered up a wall, over the ceiling, positioned itself to attack from above. Soledad took the shot, aim off a little. The slug, the explosion, tore up part of the creature. Not all of it. The bulk of the beast, its momentum, kept it moving for Soledad; lifeless when it lost contact with the metal of the structure. Still deadly on its own, a few hundred pounds of projectile. Soledad took the impact in the chest, in the chestplate. Kept her from being crushed as the crippled engine rode her to the ground. The air got punched from her lungs, the gun from her hand. She was pinned tight and easy prey for the little creepies that she couldn't see, but could hear tickety-ticking for her. Her hand flailed for her piece. Her body squirmed trying to pull free of the dead weight.

Tickety-tick came the things.

Soledad gave up on the gun. Twisting, twisting, she snaked her right leg up…

Tickety-tick…

Getting a foot under the block, struggling for leverage…

The glint of light off approaching metal…

The shadow of six-legged mutated movement…

Soledad pushed off with her leg, kicked the block up and back, into one of the approaching things, stumbling it. Hurting from breast to thigh, Soledad rolled, grabbed up her gun, raised it up, fired. The hurt threw off her aim, but it wasn't so off that the slug, the contact explosion, didn't shred the engine and send it to the ground.

How many had she taken out? Nine? Twelve? Didn't matter. They kept coming. The metal-on-metal sound squealing from the dark. Soledad tried to stand. Her right hip wouldn't take the weight. Her left leg wouldn't help out. She was spent. Spent, and good as…

… Ian…

A hand on her vest yanked Soledad to her feet. Vin."Come on. Die now and I'll never get a date."

Weakly: "Fucker…"

Lurching, stumbling backward, Soledad fumbled her way up into a near-running position helped along by Vin at rear guard, firing his weapon, for all the nongood it did.

Eddi in a doorway at the end of the hall: "In here!" Her waving arm, the look on her face urging them for her.

Then her face changed. The hard young woman became a billboard of fear.

Soledad turned, looked behind her, saw one of the things leap forward and take Vin down. The thing blossomed a mouth, a cavernous hole brimmed with sharpened fangs that chomped down on Vin's right leg. It tore out a chunk of meat, blood spraying, then spat it loose, sent it flipping, sent it bouncing off the wall to the floor where the mass spasmed where it lay—eleven feet, more than that, from the rest of Vin. The thing gnawed on. Tearing flesh, the cracking of snapped bones audible under the screams that wailed uninterrupted out of Vin.

The thing raised up, bared its teeth at Soledad, hissed and taunted before going back to its meal.

The bloody mouth was her bull's-eye. Soledad clicked off two rounds. The first erupted from inside the monster, wrenched it with convolutions as the force of the blast punched it apart. The second bullet sent what was left of the mutant skittering back the way it had come… along with more of Vin's severed leg.

Soledad grabbed Vin, hauled him for Eddi and the sanctuary of the waiting room, the chore made more difficult by Vin's uncontrollable body motions that were response to his unimaginable agony. The lingering hurt of taking an engine full in the chest didn't help speed Soledad up any. She limped Vin closer to the door… closer…

From deep in the darkness of the hallway came the tickety-tick multiplied. Another batch of things, scampering, like they could sense they were losing their prey. Little killers afraid they'd have nothing to kill. They came pouring from the dark like banshees out to snatch up souls.

"Oh, shit!"

Soledad sucked a deep breath. Gripping hard, she heaved back Vin, cleaned and jerked him though the doorway as Eddi slammed the wood door shut and threw the lock. A second later came the sound of heavy, misshapen automotive parts thudding against the pine.

They wouldn't get in, the wood like holy water to the unhallowed.

Soledad ignored the things, focused on Vin.

Vin.

His freak-amputated leg, blood free-flowing from it, Vin repeated a disjointed phrase he'd locked into a continual loop: "Not too bad not too bad is it it's not too bad not too…"

Soledad pulled loose Vin's belt, tourniqueted it tight above the knee of his right leg. Of what remained of his right leg. It stopped the bleeding. Some.

She was suffocating. She felt like she was. Taking off her helmet, vest, Soledad peeled off her Nomex top, stripped down to her T-shirt. Still couldn't breathe right.

Fear.

She didn't dig the feeling.

Eddi wiped the sweat off Vin's face. Tried to. There was too much to get clean.

"Not too bad not too it's all right it's not too bad…"

"You're going to be good." Soledad tried to keep the authority in her voice while at the same time excising the blind hope."We're going to get you out of here, get you to a hosp—"

"Behind you," Eddi shouted.

Soledad juked to the side as a metal tendril honed to a razor's edge extended from the crack where door met floor and took a decapitating swipe at her head. The tendril paused at the far end of its arch, then snapped back in Soledad's direction. She flattened herself as the blade sliced just above her. She rolled back and away as its spike-point raised up and slammed down into the ground where she lay a second previous.

Eddi stepped up, her HK leveled and spitting bullets. Rage came spitting from her mouth: "Ahhhhhhh!"

The slugs tore at the metal but did no real damage.

"Hold it! Hold fire!"

Eddi came off her trigger, chest pumping with each hot breath.

"Bullets are no good, and punching holes in that wood isn't going to make things any better." Soledad went for Vin. She said: "Help me."

Eddi took hold. Together they pulled Vin deeper into the room, farther into relative safety.

The tendril swung at them, but the metal was stressed to its limit. Finally it retreated the way it had come, disappearing back through the little crack. Waiting just beyond the door.

Vin managed: "Messed up… messed up good, Solahhh…" He was barely intelligible, his words smothered under a blanket of delirium.

"Saved my life's what you did." Soledad fished a small pack from one of her pockets.

Eddi kept out a sharp eye for any more living metal and, never mind what she'd been told by Soledad, kept her HK ready.

From the pack, a first-aid kit, Soledad took out a morphine injector, cracked it open, exposing its single-use needle.

She said: "Gonna give you a little something. Cut back the pain, put you out."

"Don't wah… want to be out. Want tuh—to hel—"

"You've got to rest some. Might need you for backup." False hope she was giving him. But hope.

A swipe with an alcohol rub. The needle got jabbed into the sterile spot on Vin's arm.

Soledad followed that with: "We've got 'em good, Vin. Don't you worry about it."

"Don't let umm… while I'm ouu, don't lee the doctahhs take mahh leee…"

Gone. Half sedated, half passed out. And when he came around, Vin would know the truth. The doctors wouldn't take his leg. The freaks had beat them to it.

Soledad, to Eddi: "Go to Tac-1, radio for backup?"

Eddi shook her head."If you're coming off the game plan, don't do it for me. I'm not having any boys roll up and save my ass so they can give me shit about it later. Just us girls is fine."

Eddi was impressive. Soledad had to admit it. If she was scared, if she was at all broken up about Yarborough getting speared, or freaked about Vin getting chewed up, she did a good job of keeping it hidden behind a tough front. And Soledad also had to acknowledge, finally, that one day Eddi was going to make for a helluva MTac. All Soledad had to do was keep the girl alive long enough for the day to come. For the minute that meant keeping Eddi's bluster in check.

"Don't kid yourself. It's me they want."

"Looks like they're going to get two of us coming at them for their trouble."

"They're going to get one." Soledad checked her gun's digital counter. Twelve bullets. Not much firepower against animated car parts."You're staying with Vin."

"Soledad, gun or no: You go after both of those freaks alone, you're dead."

"We both go after them, we're both dead. We're split up, it'll be harder for the telepath to track the two of us at once. If I can take out one of them, it balances things in our favor. Give me ten minutes. I'll do what I can, then come back."

"And if you don't?"

Matter-of-fact, like she was giving the time of day: "Then I'm dead, and you're on your own."

Soledad didn't bother gearing back up with her helmet, her vest. She had her piece. That was the only thing that was going to get her—her, Vin and Eddi—through the dark ride that waited.

She sat, listened. Heard nothing.

She went to the door, pressed her ear to it.

Quiet.

Sure it was. If the freaks were going to lull her out, they weren't going to do it by having mutant engines baying at the door.

Soledad thought for a second. Outside the door was the long hall. All metal. That'd be the first part and the hard part. Like running a gauntlet. It was nothing but a canvas for the metal morpher to do with like it pleased. There was the room off to the side that was off limits, the one that stored all the automotive gear. There was another door at the end of the hall. Soledad couldn't remember if it was made of wood or metal; had no idea if the room beyond was safe or freak-friendly. But to even get that far, first there was that hallway.

"Shut this thing behind me. Tight." Soledad flicked back the lock. Her left hand clutched the knob of the door, her right her gun.

From behind: "Soledad…"

Soledad turned to Eddi.

"Kill one for me."

Soledad pulled open the door, went into the hall. Behind her she heard the door get slammed, the lock get thrown.

The hallway was fifty, maybe just more than sixty feet in length. The dark made it seem twice that. A blind run was the temptation but wasn't the smart choice. Moving fast would just keep Soledad from seeing what killed her. So Soledad eased forward. Going slow gave her time to look, to think, to listen. Adjust to whatever waited for her.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Something definitely waited.

Something would happen.

Nothing.

Maybe, she reconsidered, she should make a run. She'd already been there. She knew: Getting caught up in the hall was no good.

Nothing.

Maybe she should—

Something. Something happened quick. The only warning: the cry of stretching metal. One of the walls spontaneously generated a spike that drove pistonlike at Soledad. She moved. Moved with speed. Faster even than she thought herself capable. But potential death's got a way of putting a rush in you. Jerking down, to the side, pressing a hand to the floor and using it to help her spring away. In the middle of all that she had to twist and move again. Another spike, this one formed at the ceiling, plunged down for her.

Rolling now, forward. Always moving forward. No stopping. No pausing. Behind her was killer metal. Ahead, a chance, no matter how slight.

Each move she made was like tripping a wire. Spikes sprang, shot, materialized all around her. They cut, slashed, whipped at her head. Jumping up, she grabbed one, used it to flip over another that tried to cut her down at the feet. An airborne swirl, laying out as yet another spike jabbed itself across her abdomen. Soledad, the living metal that tried to cut her down: They were a blur of motion. A funky ballet.

Soledad's feet touched ground, sent her tumbling, braked her.

Straight ahead: A sharpened metal finger raced to spear her.

Weapon raised, she fired. The bullet, the explosion, shattered the finger, sent metal shrapneling around, slashing at her skin, as she launched forward. Always forward. Alwa—

"Daaaaah!"

Midmovement, Soledad's left thigh went white-hot with a flash-fire. Through the meat, just missing the bone, she'd been impaled. Stuck like a butterfly pinned to corkboard; immobilized, held for the executioner's blow. It came, and came as overkill: a pair of skewers moving for her from front and back to do to the vitals of her body what the other spike had done to her leg.

Except there was the gun, there were the bullets.

Soledad fired in front. The bullet hit, the metal disintegrated.

She twisted. Full-on pain.

She fired at the skewer that held her in place, blasted it from its anchor and freed up her leg.

She dropped, both to avoid the spike and because the blinding hurt in her leg told her to. The pain got amped ten by ten when Soledad gripped hard and ripped what was left of the metal from her thigh. Intense to the point of almost blacking her out. But to go out was to die. That thought alone kept Soledad functional.

Yards from the door. The spikes came, urgent, as if with their animation-owned intelligence: If she makes the door, she's safe. The corridor was bloated with the sounds of slashing, grinding metal. Limbs independently formed and reached and moved to kill. Soledad felt her skin shorn by the tips of the spikes, torn by their edges. From above, an entire section of the roof swept down to guillotine her. To the left and right fresh-formed blades swatted at her side. All were avoided, barely and with a minimal loss of flesh and blood. What couldn't be dodged was blasted to pieces.

Four bullets left.

Three.

The door just ahead.

The metal-morphing freak would have to do better. It'd have to come up with something else if it wanted to stop Soledad.

It did.

With the door just before her, just beyond her reach, there rose one last creation that coiled and twisted and hissed no different than a virtual snake getting ready to strike. It seemed to balloon and swell, seemed to draw up as much mass as possible in deference to the tiny, mighty woman before it. It, by way of the freak, knew she was formidable. It, by way of the freak, knew if it couldn't stop her where she stood, maybe there was no stopping her at all. The thing had one chore: slaughter the woman.

Soledad, knowing all else was just foreplay, stood her ground, stood resolute. She stood ready to destroy or be destroyed.

In anticipation the thing hovered and tensed. Reared back, shot up, then forward, speeding for the kill.

Aubrey took his hand from the metal wall. In his mind he couldn't see the woman, the police lady, no more.

Blood for blood. That's what Vaughn had told Aubrey. When Aubrey was scared, after he'd heard about the cops who'd killed themselves, knowing it was Vaughn who'd done the killing. Blood for blood, Vaughn'd told Aubrey when the others had come for Vaughn. When Vaughn did what he did to them, killed them, he'd told Aubrey blood for blood. Vaughn really bad wanted the blood of the police lady the others called Bullet. No matter he should have run—no matter he wanted to—Aubrey'd promised to help Vaughn.

Vaughn and Michelle had always been there for him. Shouldn't he be there for them; for what Vaughn was doing in Michelle's name?

That's what Vaughn had said anyway.

Blood for blood, he'd said.

Aubrey knew he wasn't smart like Vaughn. Not as powerful. Not nearly. But with Vaughn's help he had been able to do some hurting. With Vaughn's help he had been able to see the police people. Through the sheet metal of the building he'd been able to send his energy, make his little things that did his hurting for him. They'd done some good hurting. One of the cops was dead. One was chomped up. Aubrey liked the little chompy things. Before… before the president said he couldn't use his power no more, couldn't make things, Aubrey liked to make little things, little pets to play with.

But he didn't used to make them hurt people before.

Before.

Blood for blood.

And then there was the police lady called Bullet. Aubrey was going to kill her for Vaughn. For Michelle. Was going to, but she wouldn't die easy. Aubrey sent his little chompy things after her. She shot his little chompy things up. Aubrey tried to jam her with his pointy points. One got her in the leg. That's it. Not enough. So Aubrey sent that big snaky thing to cut her up just like Vaughn said he should. He made the snaky thing, and the snaky thing struck, and right when it did… Aubrey couldn't see the police lady no more. Aubrey couldn't hear Vaughn thinking in his head no more. Aubrey didn't know if the police lady was alive or killed. Why wasn't Vaughn talking to him? Why wasn't Vaughn telling him what to do? Why wasn't…

Because maybe the police lady, Bullet, wasn't dead. Maybe she had gotten past Aubrey's most excellent snaky thing. Maybe she had gotten to Vaughn. Maybe Vaughn was…

Aubrey bit at his thumb, began to shuffle, back and forth, one foot to the other. A low tone seeped out of him: "Unnnnnnnnn…" A sound he made a lot; a frightened little noise.

If Vaughn was gone, if the police lady had gotten him— Couldn't've. She couldn't've. Nobody could stop Vaughn. But if, if she had… then what was going to keep her from getting him?

"Unnnnnnnnn…"

Rat-trapped-in-a-maze-terrified, Aubrey started to stumble around the room, bumped into a car door frame that slid from the table it was leaning on. It clattered, loud, to the floor and kicked some hubcaps when it landed there. The sound of it all made Aubrey jerk, jump. He was afraid. All that metal around he could control and shape and bring to life. All the metal in the building that he could touch by conductivity, animate by exceptional ability, and he was afraid of one woman.

Not just a woman.

A police lady with a gun and some real special freak-hurting bullets.

"Vaughn…" A scared kid calling for its daddy after a bad dream."Vaughn…" He was still out there somewhere. He had to be. Had to.

A passing shadow made Aubrey's heart skip. A slight noise made his flesh sweat.

Once more, louder: "Vaughn…"

Shadow and sound together. Aubrey turned, looked up.

From above, from the rafters, Soledad sailing toward him. Something in her hands, something that swallowed Aubrey in darkness.

Then sudden violence, a burst of pain.

Then nothing.

Aubrey was gone. Vaughn was aware of it the second Soledad took him out. Incapacitated. Maybe he was dead. Didn't matter. Vaughn knew that the MTacs, even with him guiding Aubrey, letting him see them, were too much for his formidable abilities but limited intellect. But it didn't matter. Aubrey was expendable, and to that end he'd more than served his purpose. One cop killed, one cop torn up. The two who remained either too stupid, too scared, or too dedicated to turn tail and run. Whichever, Vaughn was fine with. If they were scared or stupid, then they'd die hiding or running. If they were dedicated, proud, vengeful, then they'd still die, but they'd stand and fight first. If that's how it was, Vaughn would have a chance to control them, torture them before he slaughtered them. Better still, they'd slaughter each other.

And then it would all be over. Michelle could rest easy. And Vaughn would join her. He'd be sent to join her. If not by the wave after wave of cops who would hunt him down, then by the other metanormals for his breaking of their most sacred tenant: Above all else do no harm. So quaint in the face of reality. So sickening in light of the fact that their kind are forced to hide in shadows, conceal their abilities, act, think, be normal. Or die.

So if that was the choice—live in fear or die, let Michelle's murder go unpunished or die, make a stand for the hunted and murdered or die…

Strange. Powerful as he was, Vaughn found himself a little anxious about having to face down the woman: Bullet.

Eddi had her HK up and aimed, ready to fire the instant she heard a sound at the door. If she'd been a little more jumpy, a split second faster with her trigger, Soledad would've been on the receiving end of a swarm of slugs.

Soledad called through the wood: "Eddi…"

Eddi opened the door, weapon poised, eyes checking Soledad for a bloody nose.

Soledad struggled into the room, her thigh oozing steady, lugging a body on her shoulder half wrapped in burlap. She dumped it on the floor like she was dumping a sack of potatoes but with even less care.

"The metal morpher." Already Soledad was moving for Vin, checking his leg.

"What about the other one?" Eddi asked.

"Still out there. He's playing with us. Used this freak to whittle us down."

Vin stirred. His eyes opened but stayed unfocused."Sooolaaa-dahh…" was as unslurred as his speech would get.

"Soledad…" Eddi nearly echoed Vin, her voice as unsteady as his.

With the end of her T-shirt Soledad wiped down the sweat on Vin's face."Almost out of here." Soledad used her shirt to wipe her own face."One more to get. He's going to be the hard one, though."

"Gaahh buuhleet fffa frreee…"

Breaking open another morphine injector, Soledad jabbed Vin's arm with the needle.

Eddi reached a hand to her upper lip."… Soledad…"

Vin began to surf a morphine dream. Where speech had failed him before, now even sounds were beyond him. His lips moved in silence. To Soledad they looked like they were saying: I love you.

Eddi, urgent: "Bullet!"

Soledad looked up.

Eddi said: "My nose is bleeding."

The next second was both instant and elastic. Long enough for Soledad to suss that Eddi's nose was bleeding because she was about to get puppeted by the telepath. Long enough for Soledad to grab for her piece, start to draw it. But not hardly long enough for Soledad to finish the job. Eddi's foot whipped out, caught Soledad's wrist and cartwheeled the gun across the room.

As fast as Eddi had moved, Soledad matched speed. Her right foot sprang out and smacked hard against Eddi's chest, doing double duty: It sent the girl flying backward and her HK skittering over the floor into the dark. The move was instantly followed by a charge from Soledad. A charge that got aborted when Eddi pulled a knife. The knife. Daddy's knife. The one meant to be driven hilt-deep into the chest of some freak. The one the mind-controlled Eddi was now trying to plunge into Soledad.

Stillness.

Eddi hesitated, fought against her unseen master. Pleading: "Bullet…"

Then, with all the malice the freak could feed her, Eddi came at Soledad. The knife in her hand was a stainless-steel blur that whipped and whistled, twisted then whipped again with its own imposed agenda: kill.

Even as she fenced and dodged, Soledad was amazed at the swiftness the freak moved Eddi, how precisely it directed her strikes. The thing that amazed her more was her own ability to keep just beyond the blade's edge. Desperation gave her speed same as the freak's hate gave Eddi fury. Soledad's arms swirled in front of her, a couple of snakes dancing, blocking, blocking.

Her leg went hot.

Eddi throwing out kicks to Soledad's wounded thigh, striking low while the knife went high.

The tip of Eddi's blade caught Soledad above the forearm. It tore her skin, sent an arch of blood streaming and forced from her a single grunt of pain. The knife came round again. Blocking as Eddi slashed, Soledad hemmed up the girl's right arm. Eddi swung with her left and that was caught too. Soledad jerked her close, held her tight.

"Eddi… Eddi, you gotta fight it."

"I…" Tears from her eyes. Blood from her nose."I can't."

Eddi's body dipped forward, down. Her leg whipped up behind her. Soledad saw the sole of Eddi's boot racing for her face. A second after that Soledad was a good twelve feet across the floor shaking her head clear as she sprang standing.

This was gladiator entertainment. Either the freak would kill Soledad by way of Eddi or Soledad would have to kill Eddi to stop the freak. Neither was much good as far as Soledad cared. But to change the situation, first off, the knife had to go.

Moving for Eddi, Soledad left an opening. Deliberately. Not too wide, but very inviting. A space between rib and waist that casually said: Insert blade here. A few feints, then Eddi… the freak by way of Eddi—went for it. All the symbiont got for its trouble was its wrist grabbed, yanked, twisted until the knife clanked to the floor. Still moving, still pulling, Soledad wrenched Eddi into a choke hold.

Into Eddi's ear, but to the freak: "Leave her alone. You want me, come and get me!"

"Bullet…" Eddi's voice, weak and scared."Don't hurt me."

Sympathy eased Soledad's grip.

Mistake.

Eddi kicked up and across her body, nailing Soledad in the head. Again Soledad took a short flight. Again she got dumped hard on the floor. Soledad was getting sick of the ride. She wasn't sure if the telepath was giving Eddi her skills, or if it was just using Eddi's own moves with a taste of her latent dislike of Soledad baked in. But what was becoming job one in Soledad's game plan was that Eddi's high-swinging, hard-kicking legs were the next thing to get taken out of the equation.

Back up, back on her feet, back to fighting. Soledad went back at the girl. She was getting puppeted? Too bad. Soledad threw punches, threw them hard. Kicks got delivered to hurt. To the head. To the head, to the ribs. Chest. To the head.

But fast as Soledad could strike, Eddi could counter and with more added. Soledad went from throwing punches to blocking punches to taking them. She took a hit to the face, felt her eye swell. A blow to the jaw, and she felt her teeth crack, her lip split and shoot blood. It flowed in her mouth, her throat, and made her nauseous.

Change of tactic.

Soledad moved backward, took off like she was running away, running scared, running toward a wall that would trap her. Eddi followed. The freak took the bait: Smelling the kill, it moved its host close.

Soledad, foot to the wall, stepped up, swung around, kicked back, landed a shot hard to Eddi's fast-approaching head.

The girl took the shot full on, did a boozy pirouette and dropped down, her left leg spindling out in front of her.

Bull's-eye.

Taking air, Soledad spun, extended, brought her boot down on target: Eddi's knee.

The burst of the synovial sac was gunshot loud. So loud it was audible under Eddi's scream. A scream that said the leg was good as useless.

Soledad pulled back, took a breath. One breath was all she'd get in before Eddi came at her again, never mind her busted-up knee, like Soledad had done nothing worse than give her a foot massage.

Of course, she kept coming, Soledad thought as she went back to ducking punches. Eddi's knee was messed up, she was in bad pain.

So what? The freak didn't feel a thing. The freak just made Eddi keep on fighting.

Taking Eddi apart piece by piece was no good. If she didn't out and out kill the girl, Soledad knew she'd just end up crippling her. A knockout punch was the only way to go. One that would put Eddi down, keep her down.

Wait for the opening, Soledad coached herself.

Eddi came on, fists pumping for Soledad's head.

Wait…

Every blow meant to break Soledad, to batter Soledad. Every one of them meant to beat her to bloody death.

Wait for it…

Eddi, possessed and puppeted Eddi, tried to throw a kick at Soledad's throat. With her bad knee it was like trying to use a busted tree limb as a whip.

What Soledad was waiting for. She took Eddi by the leg, took hold tight. Pulling, putting her weight into the move, she spun, spun Eddi around until the girl left the ground, took flight, sailed in Soledad's grip, guided straight toward one of the vertical supports in the room. Eddi's chest took the impact, caved in as her torso wrapped around the beam. A hurricane of air rushed from her crushed lungs; body armor the only thing that kept her rib cage from shattering. Eddi fell out all over the floor, unconscious and free of the telepath's control.

Soledad felt the rain of perspiration sliding over her, down her arms. She felt each drop that clung, that clung to the ends of her fingers, then fell away from her.

A hand to the girl's throat, Soledad checked Eddi's pulse. Weak. Breathing shallow. Her leg, where her knee was snapped, was all twisted up. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it looked. Maybe, Soledad thought, doctors would be able to hack it back together in a way Eddi wouldn't be stuck with a limp for the rest of her life. Assuming there was to be a rest of her life. Eddi, banged up and knocked out.

Vin, doped up, torn up. At the moment their fates and futures very much rested entirely with Soledad.

Soledad looked around the room, saw her gun lying in a pool of light. She laughed. Was that supposed to mean something? She crossed to the gun and picked it up, swapped out the clip for another marked with a clear band.

In a loudly spoken voice: "I'm coming for you, you son of a bitch!" Soledad said to the telepath: "I'm coming to kill you!"

Right here!" Soledad screamed."I'm right here, freak!" she ranted. She'd been on a rant since she'd left Eddi and Vin in that back room and wandered out into the building. She ranted, yelled. She breathed verbal fire. Soledad did everything but think. Lack of thought, rage as a blind to her designs, was her only defense. In her hand, her gun. That was her only chance."You scared, freak? Got no more little girls to hide behind; do your fighting for you."

The sun cast odd shadows through half-boarded windows. Broken glass bent light into colors. And there was the metal and the auto parts. All still and lifeless now. They'd stay that way.

Then Soledad got with a thought: What if it wasn't just the metal morpher backing up the telepath? What if it had other flying or radiating or freakishly powerful friends?

Then Soledad got with another thought: Other than her family, Ian, cops who'd go 'cause they had to, her funeral was going to be a lonely event. She wondered if Gayle would show.

Too much thinking.

"I'm going to put a bullet in your freak head! Put a hole right in it and let your freak brains come spilling out!" Keep ranting.

It was close, sucking on Soledad's fear like a crackhead on a pipe.

Just keep ranting."What kind of freak head you got anyway? One of those big fat Star Trek heads to keep your mind-reading freak brain in?"

Close. Soledad could almost feel him. Almost. Was that the mutie trying to work its way into her brain?

"Shooting that thing is going to be like popping a balloon. Come on out so I can stick a pin in it."

Nothing. Very suddenly there was nothing. Literally no sensations at all. Soledad saw nothing, could see nothing. There were no sounds, smells. She had no feeling of the ground beneath her. There was no up or down, or sense of space. There was only an endless, endless white. A pale night without limit. Soledad closed her eyes to shut it out. Thought she closed them. The white was still there. She screamed. Thought she screamed. The silence was as undisturbed as before she'd tried to make a noise. Soledad was in a vacuum, aware of nothing except her own swelling terror.

From the center of the emptiness, from everywhere, came a voice.

More than that.

Words weren't spoken. They simply existed.

And the words were: That easy. It's that easy to take everything away from you just like you took everything from me.

Soledad was flying.

As quickly as sensation had been replaced by nothing, she found herself outside on an LA hot day flying on a pair of wings that sprouted from her back. Below her was the street: Olive Street. And there was a sinkhole, and a crowd of people pointing up. Pointing at her. Their faces, clear at a distance, full of revulsion. And there was a cop in uniform: tall, thin. Slight, but at the same time imposing.

The cop said: "This how it was? The sinkhole would've killed how many? Couple dozen people?"

This wasn't real. Soledad knew she wasn't outside, that she wasn't flying. She sure as hell didn't have wings. This was not real. Unreal as it was, Soledad could feel the air on her skin and taste the smog she floated through. The telepath had taken her own memories, built a stage and set a scene. But that was all it was: sleight of hand done with thoughts and remembrances. This was not real. Soledad tried to convince herself as she turned her head to shield her eyes from the too-warm sun.

"Michelle saved them." He didn't shout. But the policeman had no trouble making himself heard to Soledad way above him."She knew she could get sent to prison. She knew she could get…" His voice slipped and caught."But she saved all of those people anyway. And you…

"How'd you feel when you killed Michelle, when you murdered my wife? You feel special then, Bullet, huh? You feel invincible? Powerful? Did you even feel anything at all, or was shooting her no different than stepping on an ant? Lemme show you something." The cop, the telepath, put a hand to the gun in his holster."Lemme show you how Michelle felt."

The cop drew the gun.

Instinct made Soledad want to fly off, put as much distance as she could between herself and the cop.

Pointless.

She wasn't flying anyway. She couldn't move any farther away than the freak would let her. The thing was just working her; pumping up her fear because it could.

Thought it could.

Soledad wasn't playing. She wouldn't try to escape what couldn't be escaped. She wouldn't let herself be afraid of what didn't exist. Children were afraid of monsters in the dark. Soledad wasn't a child.

Below on a street that wasn't there the telepath took aim.

It's not real, Soledad told herself.

It, the freak, Vaughn, fired the gun.

She told herself: What's not real can't hurt you.

The bullet struck Soledad in the chest. The pain it ignited consumed her body. She looked at herself, saw the wound. Not too big. Not hardly big at all. How could something so small hurt her entirely? Sky and earth traded places. Soledad went into an ugly tumble for the ground; in turn the sun speeding away and the street rushing closer. No way to judge the distance and no way to prepare for the impact. No time for either.

She hit.

She hit the ground hard. Sounds poured into her ears: The slap of a body on asphalt. The endless crackle of shattered bone. The slurping of punctured lungs as they filled with blood. All this gift-wrapped in a new and complete agony that shoved the comparatively small hurt of her bullet wound from Soledad's mind.

The cop walked for Soledad. As it did, its uniform faded back into civilian wear. The street melted and turned to floor. The people, the gawkers, first became transparent images then dissolved to nothing. Soledad was back inside the building at the salvage yard, on the floor; back where she'd always been. The only thing that stayed the same was the pain.

The telepath squatted down in front of Soledad. She craned her neck to look up at it. The rest of her was useless. Bones, maybe not really broken, felt, acted that way.

Vaughn said: "All those people. Michelle didn't know them, but she cared about them. That was her obligation. It was for all of us. We made a gift of the things we could do, and you made us criminals."

"No one…" — fighting her hurt with every word spoken—"… aahh—asked you to be our saviors. No one tuh—told you to."

"Tornados, floods, earthquakes. Crime and terrorism. Every disaster, natural and man-made… every senseless, useless death: You'd rather've suffered all that than let us help you?"

"… You thought you were gods… acted like we were peh— pets. Oughta… ahhh… be thankful while you did Jesus work." Soledad rested her head on the floor, her body wet with the sweat that it shed."… Didn't save us. Made slaves out of us."

"If you saw a rabbit getting torn up by dogs, you wouldn't do anything? You wouldn't save it, wouldn't try to help? Is what we tried to do any different?"

"That wha—what we are… animals for you to protect?"

Just below the virtual pain, Soledad could feel the telepath crawling through her mind, fire ants, getting ready to control her.

Vaughn said inside her: Jesus, you've got some hate in you. I think there's nothing to you but hate.

"… Goddamn right I hate you…"

I try to tell you about my wife, I try to make you feel something, and you don't… No. Know something, I don't think you can feel a thing. I think if you had the chance, you'd kill us all.

"F-fucking right!"

That's a chance you're not gonna…

The ants stopped scurrying.

She couldn't see it, but Soledad could feel the telepath's lips twist. A smile.

The question at the end of a snide laugh: Don't even know, do you? You got no idea.

He must have been figuring things.

Soledad's rage wasn't going to keep secrets hidden much longer. She had to force the issue."Got an idea… How ahhh—bout I blow your head off… Give me baah… back my arms. Juuust for a second. Juhh… just long enough to put a bullet in your lousy freak head."

Quietly, very much in control of himself, not sounding like a killer freak or a husband out for vengeance, Vaughn said, thought: No.

Pain disappeared. Sensation returned to Soledad, but it was not her own. Her body rose, but not of her doing. A consciousness inside her forced her to kneel.

Vaughn, again: No. Then: I don't think that's how things is gonna end. And it's what I'm thinking that counts. So I think you'll lift up your special little gun…

Soledad's right hand curled up guided, manipulated, puppeted by Vaughn. She struggled. She fought. Internally. Physically she did as controlled. The freak was in her now. The freak was her. She was nothing but a bystander in her own body, like one of those dreams where you're awake in your mind, but you won't respond to yourself.

You're gonna take your gun and you're gonna push it against your head.

Vaughn giving a play-by-play to Soledad's action.

Hand shaking, she jammed the muzzle of her piece to her temple. Vaughn was going for the signature kill of the telepaths. He was going to make Soledad empty her own skull and, better, he was going to make her do it with one of her special, freak-killing bullets.

"Y-you fucking…"

And now…

No way to stop him. Soledad's eyes teared. Her breath came in frantic huffs that shot spittle from her mouth.

You're gonna…

She felt her finger curl. She felt the trigger of the gun slide back. The snap of falling timber; she could hear the scrape of metal on metal as she millimetered toward her own end.

Die.

The trigger full back. The gun fired. A simultaneous flash-bang. Soledad's head jerked. It lurched on her neck like a smacked pinata, a spray of red splattering from her temple. Her body swirled and twisted and hit the floor and…

And lay there.

And…

And Vaughn didn't feel anything. He'd expected to feel good. Maybe victorious. At least relieved or satisfied. All he felt was empty where Michelle had been, and killing a cop did nothing to fill the hole.

Gods.

That's what the cop, Bullet'd said: Vaughn and his kind thought they were gods. And because they thought they were gods, because they thought they were above man, they didn't deserve to live. That way of thinking got the cop killed.

And yet here was Vaughn, having ended a life, and he felt nothing. Wouldn't a human feel something? Couldn't only a god take a life and feel nothing in return? Maybe the woman was right. Maybe Vaughn and his kind were gods. And maybe gods had no place on earth.

Vaughn muttered: "Michelle…" It came out as a quiet plea for help. Now what? the name asked. Now that I've done this for you and to them, the normals, and now that I've done this in spite of the other metanormals who are too scared to do anything… now what?

No answer from Michelle. No direction.

Vaughn decided then, lacking any better ideas, to go kill the remaining, wounded MTac cops.

Vaughn had a very good and logical reason for wanting the two cops dead, for wanting to kill them. He thought about it walking the hall to the back room where they were laid out. He would kill one of them and he'd feel remorseful for it and would thereby prove he wasn't a god. Just a man. He'd prove to the dead cop, Bullet, the one he'd murdered same as clipping a nail, just how wrong she was. And if killing one of the cops didn't make him feel… wrong, then he'd kill the other and he would keep killing until something like compassion or guilt or regret flowed back into him. Until something like humanity was part of him again. Because a man who could kill and be carefree about it, whether it was with an ax, a gun or his mind, a man who could kill without pause was nothing short of insane. Vaughn was not insane, or inhuman, or nonhuman. He'd prove it no matter how many bodies he had to stack.

Ahead of him, the door to the back room. Vaughn felt, sensed, nothing from the other side. Of course not. The cops were unconscious, so he couldn't control them, so he couldn't make them kill themselves. Vaughn looked at his hands, clenched and unclenched them. Well, wouldn't this be interesting.

Vaughn smiled.

He moved for the door ready to take back his humanity. The man or the girl: Which should he kill first? The girl probably. More guilt associated with killing a woman. Should be. If he killed her, felt something, he wouldn't have to waste time with the man. But then… what the hell? He was already there. Why not just kill them both?

Hate and rage racing; he sensed them racing up behind him. Vaughn turned. He started to gear up his mind, stoke it like a hot fire ready to do some damage. But his flowering psychosis slowed him down. He was slowed down a step more by shock. Behind him, leveling her freak-killing gun, was Soledad. The one they called Bullet.

Questions: How? How's this possible? How is she alive when she killed herself, when I made her kill herself, when I saw the gun fire and the blood jump from her head?

The bang and the muzzle flash from Soledad's piece were simultaneous. The deep, sharp pain in Vaughn's shoulder came less than a millisecond later.

"Naaaaahhhhh!"

No more than thirty feet from him. Vaughn tried to reach out to Soledad with his mind. He couldn't make contact. His spouting, burning wound made the simple act of even looking at her nearly beyond him.

"Hard to control people when you can't concentrate." Soledad was telling Vaughn the obvious, but she handed out the facts laced with glee.

But he could concentrate. He was more metanormal than this woman was superhuman. If all he had to do was focus to kill her, to finally and forever give payback for Michelle, then Vaughn could concen—

Soledad fired again. A bullet pounded itself into Vaughn's thigh with a loud, dull thud that sounded simultaneously with the crack of his shattered femur. The combo of the new wound and the damage it caused put concentration, mind control and even stable, moment-to-moment thought way beyond Vaughn.

"Nothing special for you." Soledad sneering."Just a regular old bullet." She holstered her gun. Stepping quickly, Soledad covered the distance between herself and the collapsing freak before her.

Vaughn looked up.

Soledad swung her leg in a crescent. The outside of her boot pounded the right side of Vaughn's head. He twisted some, staggered. Somehow he stayed upright.

Soledad: "I take back what I said. You're not hardly gods."

Her leg moved in an inward arc. This time the inside of her foot that came smacking into the left side of Vaughn's face brought him back to center and straightened him some.

"Fact…"

Soledad tensed her body, spun in a tight, fast pivot. Like Tashjian had minded her, she thrust her leg at the last second. The target for the blunt of her heel: the center of Vaughn's chest.

Contact.

Vaughn took to the air trailing streamers of blood from his twin wounds. He sailed, he hit the door behind him. Hit it hard, hard enough to knock it from its rusted hinges and send it to the ground just a moment before Vaughn thudded motionless next to it.

Soledad over the metanormal. She looked down on him."You, your kind, you're nothing at all."

Stepping over the body, Soledad entered the room, checked on Vin and Eddi. Both were breathing, if just barely. Next she checked herself. It seemed like there wasn't a part of her that wasn't bruised, swollen or cut. It seemed like there wasn't a space on her body that wasn't flowing blood. Soledad unhitched a radio from Vin, dropped to the floor as she tuned to Tac-1. She called out her 10–20 and requested a rush on a bus. And then she sat and waited and listened to the quiet.

It wasn't entirely quiet.

There was the sound of a light breeze scraping along the building and the rustle of tree branches. There were birds somewhere not too far away. There were sounds of life. Everyday, normal life.

And there was a siren. Way in the distance, coming closer, was the wail of a racing ambulance.

And there was something else, a scraping noise that wasn't wind or trees, and wasn't outside the building but right behind Soledad.

She turned.

Vaughn clutching a metal rod, a part of a car or maybe the building, but sharp where it was twisted off at one end.

A flash of motion. A blur of hands moving with frantic speed.

Vaughn slashed.

Soledad scrambled out her gun. By the time she had it aimed, it was over. Vaughn was slumping to the ground having jammed the metal up under his rib cage and deep into the cavity of his chest. Blood came like a fountain as his heart pumped itself dry.

He said, as he faded: "… Can have your world… Don't want it…"

Soledad's gun kept up a stare at Vaughn.

He said: "… Can't wait to see what the truth does to you…"

Vaughn went down and stayed down.

Soledad spent a long moment looking at Vaughn's body. After that she went back to listening to the approaching siren. She went back to waiting.

Life was very okay. It was nowhere near great. It was not even good. It was just barely better than all right. Yarborough was dead. Vin had one less leg and would be permanently gimped. Eddi had a badly smacked-up knee but was expected to make a satisfactory recovery. It was possible, if she regained mobility, stability, she would be allowed to return to active duty on an element. In exchange for all that, one freak was captured and another dead. So, for Soledad, as she rode in Ian's Jag, top down, wind tearing through her hair, up PCH north toward Napa Valley—toward five days of rest and only rest—life was very okay.

She'd earned five days. She'd earned way more than that, but she felt like she could take five days. She felt like, five days from work, and the world wasn't going to end. The debriefing Soledad went through after serving the warrant told everyone that the immediate crisis had passed. The final verdict: The telepath, Vaughn, and the metal morpher, Aubrey, were acting alone in an effort to exact revenge for a perceived wrong. And although it appears that meta-normals maintain surreptitious contact with one another, it is at best a loose and unorganized association rather than an extensive and potentially dangerous network.

Case closed.

Even at that, Soledad carried her O'Dwyer with her just as she carried an off-duty piece. The job remained her life.

There was a coda: an award or plaque or some such thing that Soledad was supposed to be given, that Rysher was desperate to give to her, so that he could have his picture taken with MTac's top cop.

One more photo for his wall.

Soledad told Rysher yes, she'd be honored to accept the award. Or plaque.

Yeah.

She checked her watch. Right about then Rysher was probably doing some kind of embarrassment dance to cover the absence of the guest of honor, who was at the moment riding north. Top down, wind tearing through her hair.

Soledad found herself to be surprisingly happy about having the confrontation with Vaughn behind her. Besides being alive, she never fully realized before exactly how much pleasure there was in spending empty time with someone you cared about. And with every mile traveled she found herself taking more delight in the distance put between her and Los Angeles and the LAPD, MTacs and the responsibility of being a watchman in the struggle between freaks and normals.

Soledad thought about what Ian, just days prior, had said to her. Let's go away, he'd said. Let's get away from the rest of the world. At the time, Soledad went through the motions of considering the maybes of the deal. But now, the Jag's odometer scrolling upward, getting away and staying away seemed like more than just a remote, someday possibility.

Why not?

Soledad, in record time, had or had been part of putting down five freaks. The amen to that: and lived to tell. Hadn't she done her part? Didn't those numbers add up to some kind of ongoing sabbatical?

Why not?

The department recognized—was forced to recognize—her gun was a viable weapon against muties. It was only a matter of time before it went into wide use among MTacs. Wasn't that legacy enough to deserve an early retirement?

Why not?

And, yeah, an element was nearly wiped out, but Eddi would recover. Busted knee or no, Eddi would be back doing work in short order. Another element would get built up around her and no doubt, her leading the charge, they'd all be BAMF in no time. And Soledad didn't have to entirely kiss things good-bye. She could work R&D, keep developing hardware for the frontline cops. She could transfer to DMI, start doing some HUMINT for the PD. That's where a good number of half-busted MTacs eventually ended up anyway. And knowing your enemy was the first step toward kicking your enemy's ass.

So with all that balancing things out, why not step aside and let some new blood pump through MTac?

Soledad looked over at Ian, and Ian looked to Soledad and smiled. He was plainly, purely happy. He'd put in the time and ended up with someone he cared for. At that moment, for every moment in his foreseeable future, that was all the more simple bliss he needed.

Her hand to his. A tight squeeze. A transferred affection.

Over the noise of the air whipping around the convertible, Soledad said: "You're right."

"About…?"

"We're no good for anyone but us. And probably we're no good back there." She committed."So maybe we shouldn't go back."

A smile between them.

Ian's head turned to center, saw the black BMW—asshole-driven way over the speed limit—jumping up over a rise in the road, shooting toward them across the center line.

Ian went to Ohshitland, hit the brake, jammed it hard, wrenched the wheel. The front end of the Jag—old, not built for lifesaving driving—dipped, plowed low as it jerked and leaned and stretched desperately to get clear of the oncoming car.

The driver of the Beemer was too drunk or too scared or too something to do much but nothing. Its front fender copulated with the rear of the Jag, sending the English car side-skidding toward the rock face to the east of the road. The BMW whipped uncontrolled in the other direction.

From the Jaguar came the sharp shrieks of tired metal torquing and tires pulling on asphalt. There were no human sounds. Despite the speed and the fact that they were, at the moment, riding an unguided missile, both Soledad and Ian were impressively quiet. Ian was working too hard trying to force the car to a stop to bother with useless wailing. And Soledad, bracing for impact, was swirling in disbelief. This is how she was going to die? After every other thing she'd survived, this?

Only, death was far from a given. Under Ian's persistence the Jag came out of its skid. Wheels back in-line, control was returned to the driver. The Jag slowed. The Jag stopped. Not before scraping a good way along the rock face. But that, together with the smashed rear quarter, was all the more damage that was done.

Ian, danger over, post-near-death-experience shock replacing adrenaline-laced terror, body drenched with four seconds' worth of intense and profuse sweating, turned to Soledad, gave a little" you believe that" huff of a laugh.

Soledad wasn't looking at Ian. Soledad was looking behind them, checking on the other driver, making sure the other driver was okay, even if the other driver was a BMW-driving bastard.

Impacting on the passenger side, the German car had form-fitted itself around a tree in a harsh concave pattern. The engine was hissing steam but ran on, and even up the road and over the odors of smoking tires Soledad could smell leaking fuel. It took no experience in crash forensics to know what that combination could lead to.

Wordless, Soledad was up, out of the Jaguar and over to the BMW. Inside the car, behind the wheel, was a woman. BMW-driving bastards come in both genders. Mid-twenties. Good-looking. Used to be right up until her face got punched by the deploying air bag and her head whiplashed against the glass of the door window. Uncon-scious. Bleeding from the skull. But the slow rise and fall of her chest said the driver was still alive.

Soledad grabbed and pulled the door handle. Nothing. The crash fused it shut tight.

Things got worse.

A popping whoosh. Heat and light. The leaking fuel ignited, almost instantly went from fire to conflagration that licked up over the front of the car.

Yanking at the door, Soledad got nothing more from it than before. A quick look around. No other cars, no one to help. Just Ian standing and gawking deer-caught-in-headlights fashion.

Gas fed fire, the fire burned hotter.

Soledad banged her hands on the door window. It didn't give any more than the door had.

"Help me!" Soledad screamed at Ian.

Ian just stood.

A tire of the BMW burst. Inside the car the driver began to stir. She'd burn alive, she'd burn awake.

Heat should have pushed Soledad away from the wreck. Desperation kept her pulling at the door even as she, with all too vivid a memory of her own fire-related experience, began to feel the blistering of her skin. She went rabid with tugging, pounding and pulling.

"Help me!"

Ian just stood.

And then he did something. As Soledad stared, some… thing, some unnameable event rippled outward from the center of Ian and across his body. All his color, his hue faded. Light no longer reflected from him, but passed through Ian as he phased from material to intangible. Ian stepped to the car, reached for the mangled door of the BMW. Phantomlike his hands passed through it, slipping to the driver's body. He did something to her. Ian changed her. Manipulated her. Whatever, it was so far beyond Soledad she couldn't know, couldn't understand. But with no effort she could see, Ian phased the driver from solid to immaterial as well. The fire burned, but it didn't burn Ian. Couldn't touch him. He ignored it. Existing on the same plane, Ian lifted the driver's body and passed it through the car. The background clearly visible through them, Ian carried the driver to the far side of the road— walking across the pavement the same as any normal man despite the fact he wasn't close to normal—laid the driver down on the soft shoulder, and then did what would be the most difficult thing of all for any superpowered metanormal human. He turned and faced Soledad.

"… I wanted to tell you," Ian started."No matter how you took it, I wanted to tell you. I just wanted to be honest with you and I wanted you to know the truth. Soledad, if I had known what kind of cop you were from the very first, I wouldn't have…"

Soledad reached under her jacket, pulled out her off-duty piece. Seventeen times her finger jerked back the trigger. Seventeen slugs screamed for Ian. Every one of them passed harmlessly through his form with no more disturbance than a stone thrown through a thick billow of smoke.

Gun empty, Soledad went for the Jaguar, for her bags. She hurri-caned through them, found the small case that held her modified O'Dwyer. The first clip her hands found, they grabbed: the red-marked one. The one that had put down the pyrokinetic. Jamming it home, she fired at Ian.

Twenty-eight phosphorous rounds.

And the ghostlike Ian still stood.

The blue clip, the one for speed freaks; twenty-eight microchip-guided bullets. The orange, the green, the yellow clips.

Ian still stood.

In her blind frenzy to kill him, Soledad even emptied the clear-marked clip at Ian: the one she'd used against Vaughn. The one he had forced her to use against herself. Blanks and fake blood-filled gelcaps. Enough to fool a telepath. Enough for him to lower his guard, release his control of a" dead" cop and buy the cop time to kill instead of get killed.

Against an intangible they were just as useless as any other bullet Soledad had.

The rock face behind Ian was busted with gunfire. Chunks of it had been torn away by explosive-tipped slugs. A section smoked from hot lead. But that was the only damage done by Soledad. At the end of all that—anger having burned away her strength—she, like her gun, was spent. Empty clips and shell casings littered the road, and Soledad went to her knees among them. Beaten by lies. She dropped her head, was too weak to carry it.

Ian said: "I didn't want to hurt you. That's why I couldn't tell you."

In a low voice, but in a tone distinct and clearly audible: "I swear to God…"

"I know you must hate me; for what I am and for having lied to you."

"If it's the last thing I ever do…"

"But you have to know this, you have to feel it in your heart: Soledad, I love you."

She lifted her head. Intangible as Ian was, Soledad's look hit him and hit him hard."I will find a way to kill you."

Across the road the BMW was swallowed in flame.

"… Always did pick the wrong woman."

Ian turned and walked. And faded away.

Special arrangements were made for Soledad's new office. The basement of Parker Center. She could be alone there. She could go undisturbed by the useless chatter of others. Soledad liked being alone. She'd gone back to seeing the virtues of independence. Being by herself meant getting things done. Hours hunched over a computer, running specs in virtual field tests. Transferring the results to hardware applications. Long and hard and tedious work, and it was her passion.

Obsession.

It's what she was doing when a cop, a uniform who'd obviously wandered off the beaten path for no other reason than to get a look at the near-legendary Soledad, came to her office door and tried to strike up a conversation.

He started with: "Hey, Bui—," stopping himself very quickly."Sorry about th—"

"It's all right." She didn't bother to look up from the delicate surgery she was performing on a slug.

The cop, nervous: "That was a hell of a job you did on that telepath. The telepath and the metal morpher."

"Thanks."

"Shame about losing a man and all, but still, one out of four isn't… that's a solid way to come out of things. One and a half, I guess, the way Vin got…"

Soledad nodded.

"You know, I'm hoping to make MTac. One day."

Soledad said nothing to that.

"Yeah, I'm sort of friends with Eddi Aoki. You know, just sort of. And I was talking to her about it and she said, yeah, I should think about putting in."

Soledad nodded some more, but that was all the cop got from her.

The cop craned his neck, tried to see what Soledad was working on.

He said: "Heard when Eddi gets done with rehab, they're thinking about making her SLO on Harbor. That true?"

"Why don't you ask her, you two being friends and all."

"Well, we're more like… you know…"

Yeah. Soledad knew. Eddi had probably never on purpose said two words to the uniform. But he claimed he knew her, pretended he did, so he could be BAMF by association. He wanted to play games, that was okeydoke with Soledad. The cop was harmless enough. But if he was going to come around telling tales, wasn't like she wouldn't give him a hard time about things.

"Too bad you two won't be on the same element," the cop said."You'd make a helluva team. And if Reese was still alive—"

"Guess you knew her too, huh?"

"Well, I…"

"You're like Mr. Get Around, aren't you? You just know everybody."

The cop stammered some.

Soledad was glad he'd come by. Could use the entertainment. She checked her watch. Another hour of work…

Work?

She wasn't even on the clock.

Not work, then. This, this was, assuredly now, her life.

Whatever. However you called it.

Another hour, then she would head to the hospital, visit with Vin for a while, see how he was doing. She'd gone every day for the last ten days since her abortive trip north. She was starting to like hanging with Vin. He didn't talk much—when he did, he wasn't as glib anymore—and didn't mind that Soledad never seemed to have a lot to say.

That was nice.

For both of them the arrangement worked quite well.

Getting himself together enough to explain things, the cop said: "I just meant the three of you on one element, you would've been like… like…"

"Like the Erinyes."

"The…?"

"You know how to use the Internet?"

The cop nodded, and Soledad caught him doing so from the corner of her eye.

She said: "Google it up."

The cop did more staring at Soledad, at the chores her hands performed."What are you doing?"

"Working on something."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. It's a hobby of mine. A little something I spend all my free time cooking up."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. A bullet."

"What kind of bullet?"

"A real special kind. It'll be the best bullet I ever made. It'll be a bullet that can do one job and one job only." For the first time since the cop had struck up the conversation Soledad looked at him. She smiled."It'll be a bullet that can kill an intangible."

I have a name.

I've had it for a long time, but for a long time I didn't want it. A name, a flashy nickname, made me feel like one of them; like everything I didn't want to be. I've seen them destroy, both physically and emotionally. They've wrecked our cities and our souls with equal ease. As a little girl they killed my dreams, showed me how wrong I was to dream in the first place. They