Lieutenant from Red Ant's Head

Copyright © 2005 Diana Gabaldon, Red Ant's Head. All rights reserved.

"Are you all right, Mr. Kolodzi?"

"Huh?" I jerked my head toward the voice, startled.

The Lieutenant was looking at me oddly. I didn't know what I looked like, but it must have been pretty bad, judging from her expression.

"Are you all right?" she repeated.

"Sure," I said. I cleared my throat. "Why not?"

"You said you were sorry."

"I did?"

She nodded, one eyebrow lifted.

"What are you sorry about, Mr. Kolodzi?"

She was leaning over the desk toward me, and her breasts pressed round against white silk. I swallowed and tried to look someplace else.

"Nothing. I must have been talking to myself. Sorry."

"You've had a shock."

"Yeah, I noticed that." I stared down into the empty styrofoam cup. My thumb poked a vicious hole in the side.

"It's all right. If you want to talk about it now, we don't really need to wait. The FBI can ask their questions later. Would you like to tell me about what happened?" There was a small tape-recorder on the desk; she held my eyes with hers, but I saw one deft finger flick out and touch a button. The tape started with a quiet click.

"No, that's OK. I mean, I don't mind waiting. I'm fine." I stabbed another hole in the cup.

She nodded understandingly, but she didn't turn off the recorder. Her eyes were wide with sympathy, and her voice was low and soothing, inviting confidence.

"You said you didn't mean it," she said softly, prompting. "What didn't you mean?" I stared at her blankly for a minute. Then it came to me with a jolt; she actually thought I might have done it--she was trying to give me an opening, in case I wanted to confess to blowing up Conrad Veliger.

The thought was so horrible--so ludicrous and at the same time so damn close to being true--that I burst out laughing. I'm not a quiet laugher. Heads snapped around at the sound, and I could see shocked faces in the corridor, goggling at us through the glass walls.

I made a major effort and quit laughing. Even though I'd stopped, the sound of it still rang in my ears; I guessed the blast had sensitized my ear-drums or something.

"Now I really am sorry," I said. "They'll think you're telling me dirty jokes." I smiled at her, but she wasn't smiling back. A wash of pink swept up from the open collar of her blouse to her hairline, and from the look in her eye, she was ready to abandon the sympathetic style of interrogation right now, in favor of a more straightfoward rubber hose.

"Look." I rubbed the back of my neck. "I didn't have anything to do with this--" Lie number one. "--and I don't have any idea who did." Number two. "I'll help all I can--" Number three. "--but you're wasting your time if you think I know anything."

"You did say you were sorry. What is it that you're sorry for?" Intent dark eyes bored into mine, body motionless, voice sharp but not threatening. I would have admired her technique under other circumstances.

I took a deep breath, and told the truth--as much of it as she was going to get.

"A friend of mine's dead," I said. "That's what I'm sorry about." I waved a hand at the desk, and the empty shoe. "Could you--can somebody take that away? Please?"

She flicked a calligraphic eyebrow at me, but her face relaxed a little. She picked up an evidence bag from the credenza, put the shoe inside, and gave it to one of the minions outside. Then she sat down again and gave me a charming smile.

The caramel eyes rested on me with the sort of speculation Herman the bugman might have employed on a nest of roaches--not revulsion, but a sort of deep professional anticipation that I found disturbing.

"You have an interesting accent, Mr. Kolodzi. Where do you come from?"

Half an hour later, I was sweating, refrigeration or not. The Lieutenant was a very good interrogator, the kind who extracts information by indirection and suggestion. As a technique, it's a lot harder to parry than threats and intimidation. It's also much harder to pull off--I knew from experience.

"You're used to interviewing people yourself, aren't you?" she said, reading my thoughts with an accuracy that was nearly as unnerving as the snatches of talk coming from the corridor, where the ambulance people were exchanging cheery anecdotes with the bomb squad and the cops about the difficulties of reassembling victims found in a dissociated condition.

"Yeah." I smiled back, hiding my edginess. "You're doing fine."

"Thank you," she said, straight-faced. "I've had practice."

She sat up straight and arched her back, stretching. I admired the view, but I didn't relax. She'd had practice, all right; she wanted me to think we were nearly finished, and let my guard down. We were a long way from finished, and I knew it. The tape recorder hissed quietly to itself on the desk.

"Why are you here?" she asked, almost casually, leaning back. "In Phoenix, I mean."

I'd spent the last half-hour waiting for that question. Keep it short, keep it simple. I shrugged and smiled.

"Got tired of the East Coast. Too many people."

She smiled back.

"I thought journalists were fascinated with people."

"Yeah, but the novelty wears off when you're fighting a million of them every day, just to get from one side of town to the other."

Voices floated through the open door behind me.

"...picking pieces out of the wall with tweezers..."

Another voice interrupted, loud with one-upsmanship.

"We finally found the head in the oven. He'd put it in a pan with carrots and potatoes, and stuffed an apple in her mouth..."

I tilted my head toward the door and the unseen conversation.

"Besides," I said, "People are pretty much the same, wherever you go."

The corner of her mouth twitched, and I had a sudden insane urge to find out what it would take to make her laugh.

"Mm. You had a good job in Philadelphia, didn't you? All those awards. The Inquirer must have been sorry to lose you." One finger tapped idly on the clipboard.

"You get stale. It was time for a change."

Her nails were polished; a soft rose color. That was odd for a female police officer; most I'd known were too anxious to be taken seriously, to indulge in overt femininity on the job. This lady wore a suit, but she painted her nails and she wore white silk. Her earrings were small, but they weren't nondescript studs; they were tiny gilded bats, glittering in a cloud of loose black hair. Either she was new to the job, or she was pretty sure of herself. I didn't think they sent rookies to deal with bombings.

She was still smiling, the Complete Professional.

"Yes, I know what you mean. I came here from LA, myself. Everybody in Phoenix comes from somewhere else, I think."

Cute, I thought. Now we share a little personal information, get the subject to open up in return. Well, if she wanted to get personal, two could play that game. She wore a wedding ring; I nodded at it.

"What does your husband do?"

"Not much at the moment," she said, without changing expression. "He's been dead for two years."

I took a deep breath and poked another hole in the cup.

"Sorry."

She shrugged in dismissal, didn't take her eyes off me.

"You aren't married, you said. Divorced?"

"Never marrried." She glanced at the clipboard, where she'd written down my birthdate--that much, I'd remembered. Thirty-four and never married. I could see her leaping to conclusions.

"Heterosexual," I said, before she could ask.

"I didn't ask."

"You didn't need to," I said. "Did you?"

She met my eye, and the white teeth showed again, but the smile wasn't professional this time.

I would be double goddamned. Get personal, hell. I'd have said she was flirting with me, but she wasn't. It was a lot more visceral than flirting.

Everything suddenly shifted, like a kaleidoscope turning. All the pieces, all the anger and fright and confusion, settled into a new pattern, glinting and interesting--and dangerous. I opened my mouth, but before I could get in real trouble, there was a new set of noises from the corridor--approaching feet, two pairs, walking in rhythm. I glanced toward the door, and for the second time in an hour, squashed a cup by reflex.

The FBI was here, and I was in more trouble than I'd thought.