I still have no idea where Astrid lives.
It's been months since we started working with each other, and yet every time we walk out of the lab together, tired at the end of another long day, she's never on her way home. She's always hailing a cab to meet some friends for dinner, or hopping on the T to spend some time with her sister.
But after all of that, I bet she still doesn't come back to an apartment that's cluttered with someone else's life. Mine is full to bursting with things my mother had bought or made, things she had loved, bequeathed by default since he'd stormed out of our lives and she'd slipped away.
Her books (romance novels, mostly), her needlework (stitches too fine for me to even see, let alone duplicate), her good china (not a complete set, not after his rampages). All that's mine is the bed and the paint on the walls. And now the tiny bud vase perched on the mahogany mantelpiece. A perfect glass teardrop, the appropriate choice for a day of reckoning like my birthday. A gift from Peter the day after, and a way to offset the horror of the birthday card slipped under my door.
I bet Astrid doesn't dream some nights of just burning her entire apartment and starting fresh somewhere else. It must be nice, having a sister who's a friend.
John shows up when I'm having my morning coffee and reading the Sunday Globe. For someone who never came by all that much when he was alive - back when he knew the value of discretion - he's certainly damn comfortable invading my space now. His finger taps insistently on one of the scattered sections, and the sound is enough to put a crimp in my concentration.
"Do you think this is funny?" I ask, when I pull the section free; it's Lifestyle, specifically Weddings. His eyes meet mine without any obvious evasion, and he holds his hands in the air, wiggling his fingers like he first did when his divorce came through and he could pull his ring off his finger and chuck it into the Bay. Another flick of those long, strong fingers and he's gone. Poof. Prestidigitation. Not even a faint "Liv" hanging in the air.
Bastard. No more Pop Tarts and Sudoku for me today.
Say what you will about Walter - when you're trying to avoid thinking about the mess your life has become, it's handy to know you can call on your neighborhood mad scientist at any time, because he's moved beyond inconsequential notions like days of the week and a.m. or p.m.
They don't make them like that anymore.
The lab smells strongly of cow.
Peter and Walter are back to back, junior playing something impressive on the piano, and senior swirling something white and frothy in a large beaker.
"What is that?" I ask from the door, because saying hello is just a waste of breath with Walter. "Rabies foam?"
"No, would you like me to procure such a sample?" Walter asks before taking a long sip; it must be milk. Peter just shakes his head and speeds up the tempo of his piece a little.
"No thanks," I call, hanging up my coat and loosening the long scarf's hold on my throat. The lab is chilly and Walter's fingers must have been cold; no wonder Gene is mooing unhappily.
Her lowing drowns out the music, and Peter's done, flexing his hands over the keyboard and smiling up at me. "What's the situation, Olivia? Should I call Astrid in?"
"Something is missing," Walter says petulantly. He's got a wide milk mustache decorating his face.
"What? What is it?" I ask, moving forward to look Walter in the eye. Peter's cool fingers on my wrist are a bit of a shock.
"Something sweet, I think." Walter is smacking his lips, and it clicks that he wasn't talking about a case, just his milk.
"I think Astrid bought -" Peter gets out, but I've been keeping some change in a jar to satisfy Walter's mercurial cravings.
"Vending machine run?" I offer, and Walter beams at me. One York Peppermint Pattie, coming up.
My cell goes off the moment I finish pulling all the grape Skittles out of the bag; Peter swipes the packet, and Walter tracks it with greedy eyes.
"This is Agent Dunham."
"Agent Dunham," Broyles says, completely cool and unhurried. "There's a situation in Nebraska. Reports are coming from the field office in Omaha of victims bleeding from their eyes."
I have to swallow before I can speak. "Like what happened here?" All I can think of is Claire Williams, who's probably still jumping at shadows.
"There is no evidence of that," Broyles says crisply. "You and Agent Farnsworth are flying out of Marlboro in one hour."
"Yes, sir." I knew when I took this assignment that I'd be giving up my free time; it seems like a fair trade for someone else's life.
Astrid keeps her earbuds in while we pass the contents of the preliminary file back and forth, and I can hear a woman's soaring voice over drums and strings.
The file is thin, no pictures and no speculating. It's funny, but it's harder that way, with nothing but the facts swirling around in my head.
Astrid puts the last page back in the folder and reclines, closing her eyes.
When I close my eyes, all I see is John, smiling at me, mouthing something; all I can think of is I love you, but that's not the shape his lips are forming.
There are agents waiting for us in Omaha. The pictures Gillespie and Carson have stacked together all show people with dried blood in thick streaks around their eyes, all wearing terrified expressions. The victims are from different races, their ages anywhere from early teens to late fifties.
Astrid lives up to her Academy reputation; she looks unflappable as she sorts through the images, organizing them geographically. The victims make a fairly tight knot on the map, a circle with a radius of no more than about forty miles. It's mostly farm country, and I know that if Walter were here, he'd be sure to insist on some theory involving crop circles, but Astrid is clearer-headed, and she puts a finger at the center of the circle. "Let's check out what Barton has to offer."
Looks like all there is in Barton is a shopping mall, crawling with Santas and decorated with angels, harps, and wrapped boxes. "We solve this case quickly enough, we could even finish our Christmas shopping," Astrid says jokingly. I can't remember the last year I gave out cards, let alone gifts, for the holiday; I try to forget that John had promised me something amazing this year.
Going through the mall is an exercise in futility, and my gut is keeping absolutely mum about this case. Not Astrid's, though. "We're missing something," she says, frowning, as she pivots on her heel in the middle of an electronics store. "It's right in front of us."
Later that night, after an unproductive dinner with Gillespie and Carson, Astrid knocks on the door connecting our hotel rooms. "Are you okay, Olivia?"
"You haven't really seemed like yourself today," she says simply.
"I'm fine, just trying to find a thread for this case." It probably didn't help that I'd given myself a vicious headache keeping my eyes peeled for the Observer. The royal blue leopard-print silk she's wearing should be aggravating it, but instead the color is soothing, like swirls of water. "I like your pajamas."
She grins, looking younger than ever. "Me too. They were a gift."
"Yeah." She looks at me again, and seems to remember that my romantic history isn't anything to brag about. "See you in the morning."
It's hard to sleep. Maybe I should buy Christmas gifts this year; there are suddenly a lot more people in my life than there were last year.
Gillespie and I head back to the mall in the morning while Astrid and Carson work their way through questioning the victims. I'm in the Barnes & Noble, checking out the medical texts in stock, when my cell phone rings. Astrid's voice is patchy due to poor reception inside the overcrowded mall, but one phrase was clear enough: "We've got a constant."
We meet back at the field office. Carson keeps interrupting her as she tries to explain her reasoning, at least until Gillespie shuts him up with a gesture I recognize from months spent in the company of the Bishops.
"Everyone whose eyes bled had recently purchased a pair of Sieve headphones, a new product on the market. And because that electronics store in the Barton Bargains mall was running a special - buy one pair, get a second free - a whole lot of them got two sets."
"Yeah, I remember seeing these restocked on the shelves. They were selling out fast. How come only a dozen people got sick?"
"Could be everyone else wrapped them up as Christmas gifts already," Carson offers.
"No," Gillespie says. "I got a pair myself, and nothing's happened to me or my eyes since I started using them."
"There's something else going on," Astrid says. "But that's the only constant I could find."
"Back to Boston," I say, taking some of the unopened packages of headphones with me.
"Where's Peter?" I ask when I walk into the lab. Walter is hunched over a set of headphones that have been dissected, wires spilling out of it like intestines.
He jumps at the sound of my voice, and swings around, his eyes wider than usual. Just then, I catch sight of a bottle of Hershey's chocolate syrup near his elbow, and a beaker of dark brown milk; he must be riding a massive sugar high.
He tracks my gaze. "Would you like some? It's very good, definitely just what was missing."
"No, thank you. Have you found anything?"
"These earphones seem quite different than the ones Astro uses, which I took as a control sample. Peter said they looked more like 'virtual reality gear' than regular headphones." He takes a long hit off his beaker of chocolate milk and smacks his lips pensively. "It seems odd, to crave a virtual reality, when it can't possibly have wonderful things like this syrup. Don't you think?"
"I wouldn't know," I answer honestly; my world seems to have gone virtual already, with John living inside my head. "Where's Peter?"
"Too cold in here, he said. He went back to the hotel to do some research." Walter reaches for the beaker again, then seems to consider. "I wonder, do you think this would be as delicious if I heated it up?" Without waiting for an answer, he turns away, muttering to himself about heat's distributive properties.
I slip out of the lab and I'm at Room 112 in ten minutes. Before I can knock on the door, I hear a scream from inside. It's a woman's voice, not Peter's, but there's no telling where he is or what's happened to him. The door is too thick to kick down easily, so I pull the keycard out of my wallet and slam it home.
The only sound I hear is my pulse throbbing through my head as I sweep the suite. In Peter's bedroom, I finally find him. He's got his head up Astrid's skirt. Her panties are dangling from one ankle, she's got her fingers clenched around the edge of the desk she's seated on, and her eyes are tightly closed. The sounds coming out of her mouth are less alarming, more operatic now.
"Oh," I say, but they don't hear me. I back out of the room, still feeling unsettled, like the scream wasn't a false alarm.
Peter has good taste in pajamas.
Peter and Astrid walk into the lab together, and suddenly I see how they glance at each other, brush by each other with seeming casualness, and I could kick myself for not picking up on it sooner; I did all the same things with John for over a year. I guess my observational skills aren't as great as I'd hoped or Broyles thought.
"Walter," Peter says sharply. "Did you open all of the packages?"
"I have been conducting other experiments," Walter says loftily, then nods at me. "You were quite right, my dear; the milk is even nicer when it's hot."
"What's going on, Peter?" I ask, watching him set the three sealed packages of the headphones in a row on the long dark counter.
"You're the one who sees patterns," Peter says, smiling at me. "Anything jumping out at you?"
"This one's different from the others, a more efficient use of plastic, but that's probably just something they did to market it differently." I point to the one with the buy-one-get-one-free sticker pasted on.
"Anything else?" Peter asks, flipping all of the packages over. "Numbers, Olivia."
I finally see it. Astrid and Walter are still looking at the sets, frowning intently. "This one has a different kind of barcode, longer and more specific."
"Does that mean something to you?" Astrid asks. I shake my head.
"I recognize the alpha-numeric combinations here," Peter says, looking vindicated and disgusted at the same time. "It's a Massive Dynamic code. Walter, if you drink any more of that, you're going to be sick."
"Ah!" Walter cries. "Thank you, Peter! That is the part I was missing. Alcohol!"
Peter waits a beat for one of us to chime in, then turns to Astrid to translate and extrapolate. "Alcoholism can lead to alcoholic hepatitis, and in rare cases, that condition can cause the victim's eyes to bleed. What Walter's getting at is, if these headphones disrupted the body's natural frequency, by substituting a more potent one, that would have triggered the bleeds."
Astrid's flipping through the files, and calling the agents in Omaha to fill them in.
It should feel good to close a case, but there's no next step. There's nothing we can do about Massive Dynamic's experimentation, and, even worse, there's nothing about this case to tie it to the Pattern. I don't want to go to Broyles empty-handed and get another lecture about steering clear of Nina Sharp, or, worse, the importance of "small victories." I want the Pattern laid bare and at my feet.
I want there to be more than this.
Charlie catches me the next morning, after a night of only fitful sleep. "You're working a case where the victims' eyes bled, right?"
"Yeah," I say, "finishing up the paperwork today."
"Where was that?" he asks, perching on my desk.
"I just heard about another one, this one in Illinois. Does that fit the pattern?"
I give myself away too easily with Charlie; I know that. But it's a shock to hear the word drop from his lips, even if my brain catches up a moment later, and I realize he wasn't referring to the capital-p Pattern.
"No," I finally say, snapping out of my motionless state, "but I can still check it out, make sure." It's not like Massive Dynamic is lacking the resources to take their little clinical trial to several spots on the map simultaneously.
"Info's here," Charlie says, hopping off the desk and sliding a torn slip of paper over to me with two fingers.
"Hey, before I forget, what do Katie and Jimmy want for Christmas?"
"Nah, Liv," he protests, "you don't have to do that."
"Tell me, or I'll inflict the most obnoxious toys in the universe on you."
"Katie's big into these books - something about witches and ghosts - and Jimmy's still in his truck phase," Charlie mumbles, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Just like his daddy, huh?" I tease, and Charlie goes from sheepish to proud in an instant. "Get out of here, I got a phone call to make." I dial the number he gave me. "May I please speak to Pamela Barnes?"
Pamela Barnes hangs up on me three times before finally deigning to say, "Sugar, I don't like conducting business over the phone. If you want to talk to me so badly, you can come on out here and do it face to face. Now, you have a nice day, and I will too, since I'm unplugging the phone."
There's no way Broyles will approve this little jaunt, not for one isolated incident, so I call in for a sick day and get a seat on a commercial flight.
I pass the time on the flight with a Sudoku book bought at the airport, trying to keep my mind clear. I'd already looked up towns in Illinois, all along I-55, but no other cases of bleeding eyeballs were popping up. There was no case file to study, just an anecdote I'd heard secondhand.
I'm at the Hertz counter when someone steps close - too close, given my firearm - and I turn to face him. It's Peter.
"What on earth are you doing here?"
"You didn't really think I'd let you have all the fun, now did you?" he asks, smiling like his face isn't still bruised.
"Needed to get out of town, huh?" I ask, turning back to the counter to sign for a white SUV.
"Believe it or not, there are drawbacks to being a con artist," Peter says seriously, and we head out to the lot.
The woman who answers the door in Jerseyville is younger and rougher-looking than I would have guessed. "Damn," she says, "I guess you really did want to have that chat, huh?"
I can't see her eyes behind her dark sunglasses, but her head doesn't budge a millimeter when I hold up my badge to identify myself. "Special Agent Olivia Dunham, FBI."
"Pamela Barnes, psychic," she responds. "Who's your non-invisible friend?"
"Peter Bishop." Peter holds his hand out for hers. "No special affiliation or status."
"I like that in a man," Pamela says, and steps back to let us in.
Pamela's house doesn't fit her somehow. "Was this your parents' house?"
"Good guess, FBI," she says, leading us to a living room dominated by clawfoot furniture and a beautiful, faded Oriental rug that's easily twenty feet square. "It was my mom's and my grandmom's."
She sinks into a wing chair next to the roaring fire, completely ignoring Peter, who's looming above us, watching everything. "So, what did you need to ask me?"
I sit forward and fix my eyes on her face. "Have you purchased iPod or Walkman headphones recently?"
She laughs for a moment before cutting herself off. "Seriously? That's your question? Honey, I never even got around to cassette tapes, let alone iPods," she says, gesturing to the turntable and the shelves full of records.
Peter chuckles as he squats to examine some of the titles. "This is quite a collection you've got here." The way he's speaking makes it seem like he's throwing down coded messages I should be able to pick up, but I'm missing them. Relief that there won't be another Barton on our hands makes me sink back into my chair, head swimming with possibilities.
"You know it," Pamela says over her shoulder to Peter, then faces me again. "Let's count that one as a freebie," she suggests. "First you're going to tell me what this is about, and then you get a second chance at asking the best psychic in the state what it is you really want to ask."
I glance at Peter, who's got that line between his eyebrows that shows up when he's thinking or calculating odds. He nods slowly at me. "I was working a case where the victims bled from their eyeballs, a few states away, and a friend of mine said he'd heard from his cousin, who's a 911 operator, that something similar had happened to you. So I came to follow up."
"How admirable," she says, sounding neither insincere nor grateful. "That's not quite the whole story, but close enough for government work, I guess."
She whips off her sunglasses so that I'm faced with opaque white eyeballs, and clasps my hands in hers before I can react. "Now, why don't you ask me about whatever's bothering you?"
I don't let that blank stare unnerve me. Peter has my back. "Is that how it works? If you're so good, can't you just poke around in my mind?"
Her grip tightens. "I tried that already. There's more than one person up in your noggin."
John I think, watching him knife that man over and over. I can't shut my eyes, and Peter comes around to stand behind me, his hands on my shoulders.
I can feel my pulse galloping unsteadily, and with her fingers around my wrists, it's a no-brainer that Pamela's picking up on it too. "Shhhh," she murmurs, though I haven't made a sound, and moves her fingertips up to my temples. "Don't let the phony peepers freak you out. What your friend didn't tell you is that my eyeballs were burned right out of their sockets. Isolated incident, so you can let go of the fear that I'm another case for you to solve."
Her voice, deep and husky, is improbably soothing, even enervating; I feel at peace between the two of them, their body heat bleeding gently into me. "Relax," she commands, and I do.
It's like going to sleep sitting up, the way layer after layer of thought, of consciousness, peels away; it's like lowering myself into Walter's immersion tank once more, but dry and safe.
"Tell me what's left," Pamela demands, taking her hands away. Peter lets go too, and comes around to sit in the chair next to mine, his eyes staying locked on Pamela's face.
"Me." It's always come down to just me. "I want to solve the Pattern."
"You don't solve a pattern," she chides, and I blink. She's right.
"The Observer," Peter whispers in my ear. Yes. That's the other question at the root of all of this, and his identity is something I can solve.
"Show me this Observer," Pamela says. I shut my eyes once more, concentrating on every photograph plastered to the walls of that room in the Federal Building, with the bald man circled. Everything I can throw at her - out-of-focus images, sharp details - I do. At my side, Peter's got his eyes closed, a frown of concentration on his face; he's clearly doing the same.
For the first time, Pamela's eyes get wide. There's a beading of sweat on her upper lip. "No," she whispers. "You don't want to know."
I can't think of a time when that would have worked on me. This time, it's my hands on her wrists. "Tell me."
She licks her lips nervously. "You won't believe me."
"There's a lot I'm learning to believe in," I say flatly; before Walter Bishop put John into my head, I would have dismissed any notions of psychic ability as simple con artistry.
She's shaking her head, her whole frame trembling. At my side, Peter's shaking a little too. "Tell me now," I say.
Pamela bows her head, then visibly steels herself. "That entity you call the Observer? He's an angel."
"Well," I say, getting up off the couch. "'Tis the season, right?"
She tracks my movements, swiveling to face me with those ghostly eyes. "Listen to me. I'm not talking about something blond, with white-feather wings and a harp. I'm talking about God's warriors."
"Oh, God's a part of this too?" This is where I need Peter, to formulate the really good put-downs. But Peter's still silent and considering, not even close to tossing off one of his snappy comebacks.
"Do you know of anything less than divine that could do this?" she demands, popping out one of her prosthetics and raising her head.
The socket is a mess of scar tissue over what was once a charred void; I've seen enough butchery in the case files to know that no knife cut out her eyeballs. There was fire inside her skull. "This is what happened when I looked at an angel's true face."
"'Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,'" Peter suddenly says, standing up.
"Carl Sagan," Pamela responds, and she lifts her face for his inspection.
"So what we're seeing," Peter says, his words gaining speed like he's putting it all together as he speaks, "is not the angel's true face; it's just the form this angel is taking to stay in the background."
I shoot Peter a look, amazed that he's so ready to believe, but then one of the troubling details clicks in my brain. "That's why he's not aging."
"That's why a lot of things," Pamela says, turning her back to slide the eyeball back into place. "They don't blend all that well, actually - don't know how to act human."
"Yes," I say, thinking out loud. "Remember the description we got from the waitress in Brooklyn? She said he ate things blisteringly hot and appallingly raw, and wrote in a language she couldn't recognize. And even you said," I continue, turning to Peter, "that he must have had to bend space and time to appear to you in the woods and know everything you were thinking."
"Olivia," Peter says urgently. "Olivia, no. It can't be."
"Why not?" Pamela asks. "It's the truth."
"Why?" he demands, voice harsh. "Why would an angel save me? Save me and my father, and say that he would ask us for a favor some day?"
Pamela backs up, fear on her face and her hands in the air. "I'm through here. Shut the door behind you."
Peter looks agitated as we leave Pamela's house; he's so intent on my answer that he knocks over the plant in the red pot sitting on her porch. I pick it up and set it back next to the three green-potted plants. "Peter," I say, calling on my training at the Academy to keep my voice soothing and convincing. "It sounds crazy, I know, but it does fit. Broyles said that the Pattern could be evidence of a global scientific competition. If every country on the map is competing to solve the mysteries of the universe, God's plan, it seems only right that God should be keeping tabs on our progress. And you and Walter are our best shot at cracking the code; you're already doing what the angel wanted."
He opens his mouth to argue, but he can't formulate a coherent sentence. The lines on his face are starting to fade.
"'Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery,'" I quote as I open the rental car's door. "Now get in."
When I drive right by the first church we see, Peter relaxes a little in the passenger seat. "Back home, boss?"
"Yeah," I say, feeling that victorious smile creep across my face.
Lying in my bed that night, playing it through in my head one more time as my fingers dance over the woven wicker of the headboard, my gut is telling me this is it, this is right.
What was that you said, Broyles? I don't like "small victories"? Well, I have a feeling that this one will be right up my alley.