“Did you get breakfast?”
Rao nods as they walk. He didn’t. He probably should have. He’s certain he’ll die if he doesn’t find coffee in the next ten minutes.
“I’ve got a meeting, so I’ll leave you to it. In there,” Miller says, halting in the corridor and indicating an unmarked door to their left. Rao hesitates. He’s learned a few lessons over the years about walking blindly into rooms like these. “Rao, please get something to eat,” she adds, smiling wearily, gesturing again at the door.
He pushes at it. Walks into an open-plan office. Fabric cubicle dividers, worn grey carpet, mesh desk chairs. People staring at screens. Some wear suits, others BDUs. Four of the latter are frowning over something on a breakout table nearby. Porn, maybe. No. He looks about. Has he been assigned a desk? Has Miller stuck him in here so people can keep an eye on him?
No to both. He’s looking for a spare desk with a screen to hide behind when he feels a tiny, sliding dislocation in his sinuses and chest. Something’s not right in here. It’ll be something he’s dragged his eyes across but not properly seen. An item from the diner, he guesses.
It’s not. It’s Adam.
Lieutenant Colonel Adam Rubenstein, bent over a file at the far side of the room. Just another dark-haired man in a cheap suit. There are at least five of those in here. All just like him, none of them anything like him.
He looks the same, Rao thinks, but seems somehow unfamiliar. Perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised. There was a Rao before Afghanistan, but Rao’s not sure how much of him still exists, which makes the Adam he’s looking at now seem a souvenir from an impossibly distant past. The shoulders of his jacket still sag. His hair is just as short and ostentatiously poorly cut. The collar of his shirt is tight, the knot of his tie too snug against it. Adam has always dressed as if he’s trying to stop himself from giving anything away. The scruff on his jaw is a worrying sign. This must be a serious situation if Adam’s not found time to shave.
He remembers Adam’s last words to him. Late afternoon in Tashkent, just under a year ago. Bright, landlocked light beating through plate glass into the departure hall, dragging like sandpaper on Rao’s appalling hangover. Weak black tea in paper cups. More than a little awkwardness. “Take care,” Rao had said as he rose to walk to the gate. He’d judged it the safest bet, but as soon as he’d said it, he knew it sounded as if he were doubting Adam could look after himself. Adam had nodded once, then lowered his eyes to the cartons of cigarettes under Rao’s arm and raised an eyebrow. “You know those are fake,” he’d said. Not a trace of a smile, but Rao’d been cheered. Adam’s peace offerings, on the rare occasions they’re given, have always had something of the nature of knives.
Rao doesn’t say a word as he approaches. But Adam wouldn’t be as good as he is if he hadn’t noticed Rao long before he reached his desk. He doesn’t look up.
“You look like shit,” he says flatly.
“Yeah, thanks,” Rao answers. “You look nondescript.”
That makes Adam raise his eyes from the file. They’re dark, schooled into the usual faint hostility he uses to dissuade conversation. Rao thinks back, recalls the very few times Adam’s smiled at anything he’s said. There’s a sense of humour behind those eyes: that’s an immutable fact. He’s made Rao laugh in the past. His habitual impassivity, his immunity to jokes and jabs—it’s a control thing, Rao’s always assumed. The man is wound up tighter than those intricate Black Forest clocks, and Rao is reasonably sure that Adam himself did the winding. Intelligence officers like him hold their own keys. That’s the point of them.
He gives Rao a once-over. He’ll have already taken in everything he needs, but now he’s decided to extend Rao the courtesy of being involved with his assessment. For Adam, this is an act of consideration bordering on generosity. “Glad to see you standing,” he says. He probably means it, Rao decides, looking down at the file Adam’s holding, the faint, black-inked fingerprints decorating its edges. Writing implements rebel in Adam’s hands. Rao suspects he affects their ink like he does most people’s blood pressure. “I didn’t mean it literally,” Adam adds. “You can take a seat.”
Rao sits. “Are we just going to talk about my current state of being or are you going to tell me about that file you’re ruining?”
“This is a copy,” Adam mutters, pushing the papers over to Rao. “Doesn’t matter what happens to it so long as it doesn’t leave the room.”
Here we go again, Rao thinks, feeling the vague headache he’s had for days blossom into deep, bruising pulses behind his eyes. He pushes his fingernails hard into his palms. It’d be good to ask Adam what he knows about Rao’s state, his place in all this, and so many other things, but there’s no way he can do that without a sickening amount of vulnerability. Later, Rao decides. Maybe. When his head isn’t pounding so badly and his eyes can focus properly. He picks up the file, opens it, flips through it helplessly. “Adam, I might look like shit, but I feel far worse. Just tell me what it says.”
“Three days ago, a civilian contractor working grounds maintenance found the body of an SNCO in an unscheduled bonfire in the southeast sector of the base. Senior Master Sergeant Adrian Straat.”
“Dead before the fire?” “No.”
“Cause of death?” “Fire.”
“Is that in the file, or are you fucking with me?”
“Both, maybe. That’s a separate file. Miller’s told you about the objects. They appeared about the same time as the corpse over a four- hundred-meter radius. No one admits to placing them or seeing them being placed. They’ve been bagged and inventoried. Miller wants you to take a look at them after this. They’re all in the evidence room except a 1950s jeep that turned up behind a munitions bunker and a 28-gauge Browning Citori in the weapons store.”
“That’s a shotgun.”
“Yes, it is. Specifically, a Citori White Lightning Over and Under, hand built in Japan circa 1983. I’m leaving out a lot, Rao. There are details here that can wait for when you’re more able to take them in.”
“You’re handling me.”
“And I’m doing it well.”
“Fuck off. Is there any coffee around here?”
“You want coffee.”
Adam gets up, returns to the desk with two mugs, sets them in front of Rao. Tugs at the file, extracts two stapled pages, and hands them over. The top sheet is an outline map of the base. Across it is a scattering of numbered crosses, concentrated in some areas, sparse in others
“These crosses are where the objects were found?” Rao says, gulping down liquid so vile it’s like a slap round the face.
“Yes. The circle is the fire.”
“Should I be seeing something in the pattern?” “Do you?”
“No. Do you?”
“Have you been to the diner?”
“Surprised at you, Adam.”
“Rao, I got in at three a.m. off a flight from Dulles. I didn’t have time.”
“I’m telling the truth.” “Sure, yeah.”
Rao feels the grin on his face, marvels at it. He turns the page, scans a few lines. It’s as if a yard sale exploded over the base and someone had itemised the fallout.
29 Motorcycle jacket (black leather)
30 Plush dinosaur (yellow, worn condition, missing one eye)
31 Recliner chair (burgundy, leather)
32 Toolbox (varnished pine)
33 Bunch of roses (red)
34 Connect 4 game (assembled frame with complete set of counters)
35 Beanie Baby (bear, black, worn condition)
“Santa?” he suggests. “Maybe all the personnel have been good boys and girls.”
“Santa is not a plausible delivery system,” Adam murmurs. “Security cameras showed nothing except several bursts of static between zero six forty-eight and fifty-one. Before them, nothing. After them”—he nods at the map—“this.” He hesitates. “I don’t want to get Twilight Zone, but I can’t account for it.”
“I’ve always assumed Rod Serling taught you how to knot your necktie, Adam, but no, let’s—” Rao stops. Reconsiders. “Yeah. Well. I’ve been in that diner, and it was full Twilight Zone. A guy died in a mysterious bonfire and weird shit appeared all over the shop. Why shouldn’t we go down the freaky rabbit hole? Do you have a time of death?”
“Approximate.” Adam pulls another file towards him, opens it. “There are photos of the scene, if you—”
“Not now, thank you.”
“Zero six forty.”
“So when was the first one of these objects picked up?”
“The Cabbage Patch doll?”
“From the flightline, yes.”
Rao sees the doubt in Adam’s eyes. He drains his mug, picks up the second, takes a gulp, and winces. This one’s even worse. He’s pathetically grateful for it.
“The diner’s mental, love. I’ve been inside it. And when we look at this Santa shit, it’s going to be mental too. There’s going to be some kind of logic to all this but I’m pretty sure it’s Twilight Zone logic and we’re just going to have to deal with that as it comes. Keep our minds open.”
“Don’t patronize me, Rao. I don’t care if it’s elves. I just need to know why and how it’s elves.”