Book III of There Is A Season.
Sequel to Cryoablation.
Dell Conagher died on April 12th, 1971.
It was tragic, his neighbors said. Conagher was well-liked at his home in Bee Cave, Texas. Always had a kind word, always had a fix for any problem of a mechanical nature. Bit of a hermit, sure, but no one was without their quirks. All in all, a good man with a good head on his shoulders.
Or he had been, until the matter of the woman, anyway.
"Somethin' wrong with that one," James Bay told the pretty investigator with the long, dark hair. "Never saw too much of her, always wondered. Guess I don't even know her name. Heard she didn't act right. My girl, my Jesse, once she went over there to talk to Conagher about somethin' and it was that other one opened the door. Jesse said her face was all scarred over, real bad. Wouldn't talk to my girl."
From what the reporter could learn, the pair of them had only just returned from another of his trips, the ones that took them away for weeks on end. Hadn't even been there two days, hadn't even picked his dog up from the neighbor who would always watch it for him.
In the dead of night some kind of conflagration had started, and damned if it hadn't been a hot, dry winter even for Texas. Even the garage clear across the yard had caught fire. When the firemen finally arrived there wasn't anything else to be done but put the fire out before it spread to the cotton fields around it. No one had seen anyone get out.
When the investigator made inquiries to the coroner, he said it was too charred and melted to truly be sure, but what was left did match a man of Dell's description. What of the second person in the house, the scarred woman? The coroner did not know. Only one body had been found. The investigator was not allowed to see it.
When the obituary went up and the woman was noted nowhere at all, rumors began to fly. She'd tried to set Silas Roade's cotton to fire a year or so back, didn't she? And hadn't she been covered in old burns? A search was called, but the woman was nowhere to be found.
The funeral came, a few days later. There were fewer people than the investigator had been told to anticipate, mostly family members from out of town. According to one Adelaide Worthing, the truth was that ever since that woman had shown up a few years ago, Dell had been harder and harder to catch in a good temper. By the time the fire happened, everyone had more or less learned to stay away. Even so, it was a decent turnout. No one liked to speak ill of the dead. Words were spoken, tears were shed, the casket was lowered six feet into the ground, and buried, and then everyone went home.
And then, hours later—two or so in the morning—someone came back.
The investigator had pulled her hair back into a tight bun, and the black dress she had donned for the ceremony was replaced by thick jeans and a violet t-shirt dark enough that she was nearly lost in the dark trees when she stepped out of her car. Some twenty minutes later she had crossed the distance between the trees and the cemetery, unlocked the gate with something that certainly wasn't a key, and now walked slowly up and down the rows of headstones. She stepped lightly and carefully, shining a dim flashlight on each, until she found the one she was looking for.
DELL JACOB CONAGHER, the granite slab read. JULY 7TH, 1928 - APRIL 12TH, 1971. No epitaph. The earth before it lay uneven and soft. The investigator paused there, studying it for a whole fifteen seconds before unslinging the foldable shovel from her shoulder and digging it into the dirt.
Her speed was remarkable, especially for someone her size. It was only four-thirty when she heaved the last pile of dirt up over her shoulder and stopped to lean heavily on her shovel. Her back was killing her, and her hands were sore and threatening blisters through her gloves. She shut her eyes, heaved a noiseless sigh, and nearly jumped clear out of the grave when a voice said, "What are you doing?"
Before the shovel's handle even hit the dirt, she had whipped out her gun from the holster on her thigh and leveled it at the dark shape now leaning over the edge of the hold. "Whoa, shit," the shape said in a gravelly-soft voice, putting up its hands. "Miss Pauling, it's me."
Miss Pauling did not lower the gun. She did, though, squint up into the darkness, and in the same moment a tiny flame flickered to life in the grip of one of the raised hands. Between it and the moon, there was just enough light for Pauling to see the holder's face. It was half-twisted by old scars that were made worse by the dim lighting, and had high cheekbones and a flat sort of nose, and eyes that Pauling could only just make out as blue in the glow of the lighter. Five seconds passed, and at last Pauling pointed the gun at the ground. "Pyro?"
The lighter went out with a snap of metal. "Yeah," said Pyro—the mysterious Builder's League United Pyro, name and age unknown. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I could ask you the same thing. I thought you were in Arizona getting your house built."
Pyro twisted to look at something over her shoulder and made a soft, almost kissing sort of sound. A second later another dark shape loped up next to her, this one smaller and with perked, pointed ears. Pyro reached out to it, burying her hand in the dog's fur. "I was, it's built now. But Dell asked me to take care of his dog. I would have come sooner, but the guy at the place I was renting hated dogs." She ruffled its ears, and then peered down at Pauling again. "I saw you at the funeral so I followed you. Why are you digging up my teammate?"
Followed her. And Pauling hadn't even noticed? Sure, she was running on about three hours of sleep, but that was no excuse. Damn. "Ex-teammate," Pauling corrected. "And you're really not authorized to know that." She grabbed the shovel again and wedged the head under the lid of the coffin. "In fact, if the Administrator finds out you're even here … how did you find out about the funeral, anyway? We didn't tell any of the mercs."
"I couldn't get his dog and not find out."
"Were you with him before the fire?"
"What? No. I was in Arizona. We just went over this."
Pauling studied her silhouette in silence. "Alright," she said presently. "I didn't see you at the funeral, though."
"Yeah, well, everyone was apparently looking for me. I kind of had to make sure no one saw me, I don't want to get lynched for something I didn't do."
"Such as, say, burning his house down?"
For a few seconds, everything was quiet. Pauling could hear dozens of singing crickets. Then: "Yeah."
Pauling said nothing more, letting the implication hang in the air. The silence soured. "Dell was my friend," Pyro said at last, in a growling, crackling sort of way.
It took a moment, but Pauling nodded. Then she turned back to the coffin, saying, "Help me with this." After a moment's hesitation, Pyro slid down into the grave and did so. Together, they levered the lid up and off the coffin.
A sharp, unpleasant smell burst from the interior as soon as they'd cracked it a few inches, leaving Pyro hacking violently and Pauling covering her nose and mouth with a handkerchief pulled from her pocket. It was an acrid, chemical sort of smell, sour and vile.
As Pyro got her coughing under control, Pauling knelt and, propping the lid up with her shoulder, started fishing around inside. "Seriously, what the hell are you doing?" Pyro said in a raw voice. Her tone suggested she might be considering tackling Pauling if she didn't get an answer. "Does BLU always dig up its employees when they die or is this some kind of—"
"I really can't tell you, Pyro," Miss Pauling said firmly, and in the uncomfortable silence that followed, she let the coffin fall shut.
By the time Pyro had helped her re-fill the grave, saying not a word the entire time, the sun had begun to rise, and Pauling was ready to drop. It was fine that the nature of most of her work necessitated that she do nearly everything on her own. She liked it that way, really. But the angry, burning ache in her back and arms and everywhere else made her glad Pyro had come along, suspicious as her appearance was.
When Pyro offered her the use of her motel room for at least a shower and maybe a nap ("Seriously, you look like shit," Pyro observed) that gladness only increased. Pauling was no stranger to digging graves, but it was rare she had to dig further than two feet down.
"Though technically I'm supposed to be heading back to headquarters," Pauling sighed as Pyro and her new dog clambered into the passenger seat of her car. "But at this rate I think I'd fall asleep on the road if I did."
"Can you get us back into town …?"
"Well, you can't drive, can you?"
"Not as far as I know."
That settled it, and fortunately Pyro's motel was just a short jaunt from the graveyard anyway. It was nicer than Pauling had truthfully expected, even though the orange color scheme and stale cigarette smell left something to be desired. Pyro was lighting one as Pauling stepped into the bathroom.
First things first. Pauling turned on the shower, then fished out a small black machine that could have passed for a digital watch out of her pocket. She pressed three of its four buttons in a specific sequence and dropped back against the counter, exhaling. She caught her face in the mirror as she did: bags under her eyes, hair astray, cheeks stained with dirt and sweat. She grimaced. Such was the job.
The watch crackled. "Pauling," came a sharp, tinny voice.
"Administrator," Miss Pauling returned. "I'm in Bee Cave."
"Still. I know. Did you complete the mission?"
"Good. Any complications?"
"… One, possibly."
For a few seconds there was silence on the other end of the line. When the Administrator spoke again her tone was as crisp and brisk as ever. "All right. You can give me the details upon your return."
Thank God. Pauling didn't think she had it in her to give a coherent report right then and there. "Yes ma'am," she said again. "I've secured a motel room to get some sleep and then I'll be on my way back."
"Very well. You'll need to stop by Roswell before you return, that item on your dossier has turned up there. They'll be expecting you, so I suggest you bring a bigger gun than usual."
"Understood. Anything else?"
"Not at the moment. Thank you, Pauling."
The communicator went dead with a click and a low buzz.
The shower may have taken Pauling longer than she strictly had to spare. There was something insidious about what hot water and steam on sore muscles did to one's perception of time. When she finally stumbled out of the bathroom, clean and wet-haired and still in her filthy clothes as she hadn't remembered to bring the extras in from the car, a whole fifteen minutes had passed. Not even close to efficient. Sleep wasn't efficient, either, but even TF Industries and Mann Co. together hadn't come up with a cure for that yet. Pyro pointed her at the bed as soon as she saw her, and there Pauling collapsed for the next three hours.
The dog—Shep, Pyro had called him—woke her up. He had hauled himself up onto the tiny mattress next to her, stirring her into painful wakefulness, and turned in one tight circle before flopping down mostly on top of her.
Seventy pounds of anything coming down on her while prone wasn't a good idea. Even with Pyro's hoarse shouting and the dog's panicked yelp, it was only Pauling's own disorientation from being thrown awake that kept her from doing more than slamming the animal back down against the bed with her forearm pressed against its neck.
"—let him go holy shit, Miss Pauling he's fine, he doesn't bite—" Pyro was there, suddenly, wide-eyed and bodily shoving Pauling away. Her wits finally gathering themselves, Pauling let her. The dog scrambled off, toward Pyro, body low and ears down. "Christ, he wasn't going to hurt you!"
For a few seconds Pauling stared mutely at both of them before things snapped into focus. She was going to need to work on how long this took her. "Oh—God, I'm sorry. Is he okay? I'm not around animals much, he startled me."
"No, really?" Pyro mumbled, carefully keeping the dog's head still and looking him over. He was still giving Pauling a whale-eyed stare, but seemed fine otherwise. "I think he's alright. I don't know. I don't know anything about dogs," she added, scratching him behind the ear. "Shit."
"Sorry," Pauling said again, drawing some hair behind her ear and looking around for her glasses. Ah, there, on the bedside table. "What time is it?" she said as she put them on, blinking a few times.
"Around ten, I guess."
"Damn it. I slept too long." Pauling said, forcing down a yawn and stretching. Pyro paid her no mind as she did, still bent over the dog and with a pensive sort of expression buried under her scars. It was the first time Pauling had taken a good look at her since she had shown up in the cemetery. She was wearing a sort of grungy-looking blue turtleneck with the hems of the sleeves singed, and nondescript jeans with nondescript boots. The boots might have very well been the same she wore on the field. Stray fur from the dog covered her. It was even in her hair, which was shorter and more neatly cropped than it had been when Pauling last spoke to her, just after BLU had lost the Coldfront mission. Honestly, Pauling wasn't sure she would ever get used to seeing Pyro wearing anything other than her flame-retardant suit—or for that matter, acting her age. She looked up when Pauling cleared her throat. "Thanks for letting me use your bed."
"Um—no problem. Are you taking off?"
"I've got to, I'm afraid. Errands."
"Errands like digging up more bodies?"
"Burying them, more likely," Pauling said. Pausing, she tapped her lips with a finger in thought. A bigger gun than usual, the Administrator had said. It certainly couldn't hurt. Well—probably couldn't. "Actually, I could use your help."
Pyro looked at her uncertainly. "Help burying bodies?"
"Oh, no. Well. Maybe. But I don't anticipate having to do much burying on this one, it's just a retrieval. You've done those, right?"
"Just once, but yeah."
"Great. I could use the help in case things go south."
"What about Shep?"
"He can come, too."
That settled things. In less than an hour they had cleared out, the dog and Pyro's single suitcase both sitting in the back seat as Pauling pulled onto the highway. They talked idly as the mile markers ticked by. As it turned out Pyro had as many bizarre and interesting things to say as the rest of the mercs, and Pauling found she enjoyed her company. She was a completely different creature from the silent, uncomfortable woman Pauling had driven from Dell Conagher's homestead with almost three years ago. Pyro liked radio theater and had an obscene number of opinions on different varieties of candy, and with surprising animation told Pauling about the time a turkey had gotten itself on the roof of the rental she had been staying at while her house was under construction.
"It got stuck in the chimney somehow," Pyro said with a grin, "God, I don't even know how it got out, but the next day I go into the living room and there's just this huge tom turkey standing there staring at me."
"Well, it was between me and the garage where I was keeping my weapons. All I had in reach was this frying pan, and then it started chasing me…"
A lull in the conversation came, eventually. For a little while the only sound was the hum of the air conditioning and Shep panting in the back. Then, Pyro said, "Hey, uh. Am I in trouble?" Pauling glanced over at her. "For following you. You said if the Administrator found out…"
Pauling regarded her for a few seconds before giving her a smile. "No, I don't think so," she said, turning back to the road. "It all worked out in the end. You've got no reason to worry, I think."
None yet, anyway.