Past Is Prologue



Scene Title Past Is Prologue
Synopsis It all catches up in the end.
Date January 23, 2021

The Saginaw Township of northern Michigan hasn’t changed much in the years since the Civil War. Saginaw itself saw almost no fighting in the war and its rural farmland and nearby international airport have made it a breadbasket for the Post-War Michigan. The people here rode out the worst of the conflict without seeing much of it hit their doorsteps.

The people of Saginaw are seen as resilient, weathering the war with a steady jaw and a stern brow. Though they aren’t all salt-of-the earth types. Before the war, Saginaw was a middle of the road retirement community on the outskirts of the Detroit metropolitan area. With its golf courses, boating access on the river, and abundant amenities Saginaw drew in just as many pensioners as it did blue-collar types.

On a winding stretch of freeway moving northwest away from the city center, it feels like a window back in time. There’s little superficial signs the Civil War ever happened out here. Communities still show fractious divides evident in the long-past-due political signs staked in front yards, where Medina supporters share a property boundary with Harding supporters. The kinds of political contesting that is drawn on more than economic or philosophical lines. Some wounds, though, existed long before the war tore them open and persisted long past.

There’s a dirt road off of Lawndale on the border with the town of Freeland buried in tall, dreary pines. On a rainy day like today the pine trees look oppressive, holding in a shadowy embrace that makes the forest seem infinite and cold. The only sign that anyone lives down the dirt road that winds into the forest is a mailbox at the end marked with reflective stickers indicating it’s 217 Lawndale Road.

Nicole Miller slows her car and, without using a blinker, turns down that dirt road.

Saginaw Township

January 23, 2021
3:16 pm Local Time

Nicole Miller is haunted. Not just by the long-lasting repercussions of her abduction and subsequent loss, but by the imagery seen on a VHS cassette plumbed from the depths of the Manhattan Exclusion Zone. The tape, sitting in her passenger seat, contained a brutal and confusing history that demanded answers and provided none. TD-037-H, also known as ANTIPATHY, ate at the back of her mind.

Beside the tape is a printed background check showing the Chesterfield Act registry photograph of a man in his eighties. The name Irwin Croft is printed in bold text at the top, SLC-N is underlined, as is an address in Saginaw, Michigan. A holstered gun sits atop the documents.

Up ahead, the rows of suffocating pines part along either side of the dirt road to reveal an old farmhouse with peeling white paint and dark shutters. An old pickup truck is parked in the driveway in front of the house. Rain gurgles out of the building’s gutters and collects in puddles around the foundation. The windows are dark. Metal numbers affixed to the front door reads 217.

This is the place.

If she’d had it her way, she would have back-up for this. But the number of people she can trust — that she also wouldn’t feel guilty for potentially putting into harm’s way — is rapidly dwindling. “Fucking asshole,” Nicole whispers under her breath with Noah Bennet in mind. For a moment, she grips the steering wheel tighter, presses the pedal closer and closer to the floor. Her vision feels like it’s tunneling. Like the pines on either side of her are narrowing everything down to just this narrow band of focus. She’s shaking.

When she hits the clearing, she draws in an audible breath. She isn’t sure when the last time she did inhale was. Her posture eases, her booted foot lets up off the gas, she flexes her fingers gone stiff slowly. Reaching across to the passenger seat and laying a hand over the pile of things she’s brought with her brings her some measure of comfort. A gun hasn’t done that for her since… Maybe the war. Those dire circumstances where the threat that she might be separated from the Sturm to her Drang was very real.

Nicole wonders where, precisely, along the way did she lose her faith in humanity. Her assumption of goodness in people died in its infancy, but she once believed that it couldn’t all be bad.

With a shake of her head, she banishes the thought, pulling up in front of the house on a patch of less slush and flattened grass that must serve as a place to park. Before she bothers to move, other than to unbuckle her safety belt and make sure it isn’t going to hold her in place if she needs to move quickly, she takes a moment to survey the house for movement. Any sign that someone may be hostile. The shoot first and ask questions later type. Her fingers brush over the folder beneath her gun. She can imagine Mr. Croft might be the paranoid type.

When she’s satisfied that she isn’t going to have to duck any bullets before she even steps out of the car, she first straps her holster into place. A shoulder harness that’s worn over her deep carmine and cream pinstriped vest holds the firearm snug against her and inconspicuous under the matching double breasted suit jacket. Her badge is strapped to her belt opposite her gun, so the shift in the fabric won’t risk exposing it in the process, should she need to flash it. Her winter coat remains in the back seat where she left it. It won’t be needed for the short walk from the vehicle to the house.

The door swings open and her Doc Marten Chelsea boots hit the snow. They’re a compromise of something functional that doesn’t ruin the lines of the matching tapered slacks of her suit. Nicole’s dark glossy hair is worn down in waves, so as to soften the recent tendency toward severity she’s been exhibiting. There’s a hair tie in the pocket of her jacket, however. With the tape and the file tucked into her deep black leather purse, she closes the vehicle up behind her, leaving it unlocked but with the keys in her pocket, and approaches the front door of the farmhouse.

Lidding her gaze a moment, Nicole draws in a deep breath, lifts her hand, and only opens her blue eyes again after she’s knocked.

There’s silence for what feels like a long time inside the house. Rain hammers on the porch awning, fog collects in the lowlands, conjured by melting snow in slushy heaps across the lawn. The sound of approaching footsteps come slow and steady, but not the gait of someone in a hurry. Or, in the case of Irwin Croft, someone incapable of hurry.

That the door unlocks and opens without hesitation is a surprise to Nicole. The elderly man with a patchwork of gray hair — primarily in his roots from a fading dye job — is not. Irwin Croft looks nearly identical to his 2017 Registry photograph, save for more gray showing. He doesn’t know what to make of Nicole, looking her up and down.

“I’m sorry I think you have the wrong house.” Croft says with a shake of his head, looking to her rental car, then back to her before starting to close the door.

“No, no, sir.” Nicole shakes her head and offers a smile. One without teeth, because she’s afraid that might look a bit too aggressive. “You’re Irwin Croft. You’re who I’m here to see.” She does her best to keep her voice level, tone pleasant. “My name is Nicole. I’m with the SLC-Expressive Services Agency. I’m working on a case, and…”

Glancing down a moment with her red painted lip rolled under, captured gently between the rows of her teeth, she has the grace to look sheepish. “I know you’re retired, but you’re the only lead I have. Could I just… have a little bit of your time?” The smile returns, this time apologetic.

There’s a saying about catching flies with honey.

“I’m sorry,” Croft says with a hitch in his voice pushing the door shut only to meet the side of Nicole’s forward-placed boot. He looks down at the obstruction, then up at her. “Anything you’ll want to know about my work with Expressive veterans is strictly covered by doctor-patient confidentiality.” He seems to be suspecting the wrong thing.

“Now please, get off my property before I…” Croft hesitates. Call the cops seems unlikely given that she just indicated she’s a federal agent. “I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it to you. Please leave.”

“Sir, I am an Expressive veteran myself, so I appreciate your discretion. Rest assured, that isn’t why I’m here.” Her patience is starting to wear thin. There are faster ways to do this. Faster ways she’d never have considered only a few months ago. That isn’t her.

Wasn’t her.

Letting the strain of emotion show on her face now, Nicole swallows uncomfortably. “I’m… not here on official business. I was just hoping the name drop would get me in the door.” That she hasn’t shown him her badge yet means she’s fine with him interpreting that to mean she isn’t with the government at all.

“Mr. Croft… Somebody took my children. And I think something you worked on in the 70s might explain why.” Nicole fixes him with a pleading look. “And I know that sounds insane, but… You’ve seen insane. We both have. Please… Please just let me talk to you.” Her voice wavers, but she doesn’t tear up. “I need to find them.”

This is when Nicole sees the first glimpse of both fear and guilt flash across Croft’s face. He tenses in the doorway, rendered speechless for a moment before offering a shaky. “I’m— I’m sorry for your loss but I— don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Croft’s hand remains firm on the door, Nicole can feel the mild pressure against her foot. She has to estimate at this stage in his life she’s stronger than he is. If not just physically, but also in force of will. She knows this kind of denial. He’s afraid of letting on about the wrong thing, in denial that she actually knows about what he’s so afraid of.

After everything Nicole saw on those tapes, he would have a right to be. But what’s most striking about this is that he is afraid. That perhaps, just perhaps, he remembers.

That itself is shocking.

Jesus Christ,” Nicole breathes out, incredulous. “They didn’t redact you.” She’d been afraid this would be a dead end, admittedly. That she’d come all this way only to find that he really would have no recollection of anything from the tape.

Shaking her head back and forth in disbelief, her eyes are wide and fixed on him. The hard, thick soled Martens were the right choice, given his attempt to convince her to move her foot. “Please,” she begs, voice low, as though she doesn’t want anyone to overhear. “I’m not here to turn you in or rat you out to anyone. I just want to understand what happened. I just want to find my kids. Mr. Croft, please. I know whatever happened, it was…” This part’s a gamble, but she hopes it will pay off.

“I’ve seen the tape.”

Croft freezes in place, expression locked in place and eyes fixed on Nicole’s like a corpse. It feels like the breeze outside might knock him over. But the subtle twitch at the corner of Croft’s mouth shows the stop-and-start of a response he might give. But ultimately, it’s just one more question.

What tape?

A Short Time Later

Irwin Croft’s home hasn’t kept up with the times well. The furniture might have been in-vogue in the mid 1990s and judging from the threadbare quality of some of the couch cushions it dates back to that era. Croft’s television is an old CRT set top in a faux wood cabinet in his living room. Turned off, showing both his reflection and Nicole’s in the dead, gray screen.

“Jesus Christ…”

Croft sits forward in his armchair opposite of Nicole on the couch, head in his hands. It’s surreal seeing him like this, up close. His profile matches so distinctly the final images of Croft on that recording; the stern brow, the prominent nose. But time has not been kind to him. “Jesus Christ…” he repeats into the palms of his hands, dragging them down his face.

Nicole had confirmed enough for Croft to believe she’d seen the sum of all his fears. The tears that have already welled up in his eyes tell the story in the margins of that tape, one that he has kept silent for close to half a century.

“I figured all the evidence was destroyed.” Croft says into his hands as he stares into the middle-distance. “It was… it was such a different time. We didn’t know fully what Specials — Expressives were. We didn’t understand the world the way we do now. Nobody knew about the Company. We were just…”

Croft sighs into his hands, dries his eyes with calloused fingers. “How?” He asks Nicole. There’s too many interpretations of his question. But it’s possible he means them all.

“I know,” Nicole says sympathetically about the time. It wasn’t right, but lecturing him about how things should have been happened in a world where nobody knew about them, no one knew what to do with them beyond be afraid, beyond want to understand the inexplicable… Maybe she would have been the exact same way.

The truth in this case — too much of it — wouldn’t be dangerous just to her, but to him. And for all Irwin Croft’s sins, her find isn’t one of them. “Would you believe I found it in a box of old VHS tapes next to a copy of Home Alone?” she asks with a huff of wry laughter. “I had no idea what it was. I had no idea what it was. I just… put it in. And there all of this was. Just this… horror show.

Nicole frowns, lips pressed together for a moment. “Did you ever realize, as time went on, what you had your hands on? Who you’d had your hands on?”

Croft swallows audibly. His wordless nod is telling. “She came to us,” he says with a hint of surprise even all these years later. “I— I worked for the CIA, we were doing a second round of trials for military application of telepathic abilities. Remote viewing, ESP, that kind of thing. It was mostly hucksters, you know— people looking for a minute of fame.”

Croft scrubs one hand over his mouth, slowly shaking his head. “We were operating out of a converted school in Virginia. Completely off the books, no paper trail. It was seven of us in the research team and a CIA handler. Then Erica knocks on the front door one day… says she knows who we are, what we’re doing. I mean they were going to turn her around when she called our handler out by name.”

Laughing, Croft says, “She said she was from the future.” His laughter turns into a distant stare, jaw unsteady, tears welling up in his eyes again.

Dark brows furrow. Nicole can’t fathom why Erica Kravid would have turned to the government. Because she knows her claim had to be true. The Erica Kravid in that video looked older than the one she’d seen in dossiers and in morgue photos. And Nicole will be the last person to call time travel outrageous.

So why… Why would Kravid had sought out a government that she had to know would turn her into a lab rat? That would treat her as subhuman?

“Did she say why she decided to seek you out, Mr. Croft?” Nicole consciously mimics his posture, leaning forward in her seat, but tipping her head to one side to denote her curiosity, rather than mirror his own anguish. That’s a tool she’s already employed to great effect, and likely will again later.

“She was sick.” Croft says as he moves his hands away from his face to fold in his lap. “She said she had some sort of terminal illness and wanted to leverage her knowledge and expertise to fast-track some kind of cure.” Even after all these years he still sounds unsure of it.

“When she showed up we were, obviously, skeptical. She couldn’t really provide us with a lot of good, actionable information. She gave us a lot of info about herself. You know, where she was born, mother’s name. That all checked out. But the other stuff was either events three or four years down the line, or people that — when we looked into them — turned up nothing.” Croft exhales through his nose and shakes his head. “People from the Company, it turned out. We didn’t really… take her seriously at first.”

The guilt in admission that shakes Croft, and he wrings his hands together, staring down at the floor. “Erica had abilities. I mean, there was no disputing that. She could read minds, exhibited telekinetic ability, pyrokinesis. It was remarkable.” Slowly, Croft meets Nicole’s eyes. “We were more focused on that, demonstrations. Our handler with the agency promised they’d look into her illness but I… “ Croft shakes his head. “I don’t think they ever did. Not that it mattered.”

“Erica was suffering from some sort of neurological degeneration. The day we took her in we did an interview and she was perfectly lucid. Two days later after her ability demonstrations she was… I don’t know. It was like she wasn’t all there. She forgot answers to questions about her life, she didn’t even remember giving the answers before. Then she…”

Croft touches his nose. “Erica started to hemorrhage during the second interview. We didn’t have any medical facilities on site and the agency refused to move her so we did what we could. There was an incident a few days later and one of our researchers died. It…” Croft slowly shakes his head. “It all went downhill after that.”

“Gemini,” Nicole breathes out in spite of herself, astonished. She’d heard about the process being able to grant multiple abilities. Jac Childs was one those recipients herself, before… everything that’s led her here to this living room.

The symptoms seem to track with what she understood of them from what Kara told her, for the most part. Maybe not the lack of lucidity, but if she’d taken on so many abilities and she was degenerating rapidly enough, it’s not unlikely her brain was early on the docket.

“Did Erica say how she got here? — There?” Then? Nicole closes her eyes heavily and gives a quick shake of her head. “I mean, if she claimed to come from the future, you must have asked her how it was possible.” The rest she can circle back to. Good god, she has so many questions.

That question only deepens the look of fear on Croft’s face. Or, perhaps more accurately, dread. “She said a lot of things…” Croft says with a shake of his head. “We dismissed a lot of it off hand. I’m not going to lie most everyone thought she was— gifted but… not quite all there.”

“The first night she came to us she spelled it all out. This big elaborate story about living in a hardened bunker in Washington State because the surface of the Earth had become uninhabitable.” Croft’s eyes track from side to side, jaw muscles flexing. “Something about radiation, the sun. It’s been almost fifty years.” His voice cracks when he says that.

Swallowing tightly, Croft looks up to Nicole. “But she didn’t know how she got here. Her story, for as long as she remembered it, was that she was in her bunker with a science team and then the next minute she was in the middle of nowhere in Utah.” Croft shakes his eyes, eyes unfocusing as he looks down at the floor. “Eventually whatever… disease she had. It took her memory. She barely remembered her own name some days.”

When people are sitting quietly, there’s still movement. A shuffle of feet, a shift of balance, a sway. All of that stops when he mentions the earth becoming uninhabitable from the radiation of the sun. There are so many events that people like her, people like her daughter, have averted (from their own perspective) with the benefit of foreknowledge. Those situations were all man-made, however. Results of hubris, megalomania, greed, lust for power, anger.

There’s an unconscious little glance upward, as though Nicole might spy the sun through the ceiling of Irwin Croft’s home. The sun is an indifferent body. There’s no averting its cycles. The dread is something they both share now.

“She didn’t say anything else about it? No… visual cues before the moment of transference? No sounds or… mention of people out of place?” Hiro Nakamura. Walter Trafford. Shit, even Odessa Price? The list of people she knows are capable of such a thing — even just in theory — and are still alive, is short. Which she supposes would cross Nakamura off the list. Try as she might, she can’t keep the note of frustration out of her sigh. If anything, if it wasn’t something like a Mallett Device, then it could well be someone who isn’t born yet. Or at least hasn’t manifested.

Nicole brings her focus back to Croft suddenly, laser sharp. “You said Utah. Where in Utah?”

“Moab.” Croft says, without understanding the weight of that word. “We wanted to ask follow-ups later on but… Erica— she deteriorated fast. She started talking about Alice in Wonderland a lot, then just… she stopped talking entirely.” Croft’s eyes track from side to side slowly. “She had all the usual signs of paranoid delusions, you know? Savior complex, this whole elaborate thing where she said she was saving humanity but uploading people into a computer.”

Croft laughs again, but it’s a bitter and emotional thing. “After Erica attacked that researcher, the CIA sent people ten levels above my head in. They started making directives. The things they did to her.” Croft grows silent, resting his face in his hands. “God, the things they did to her.”

Moab. Nicole’s glad she didn’t feed that one to him. She tips her head back toward the ceiling again, this time pinching the bridge of her nose as her constant headache only seems to get worse. Whose dick is she going to have to suck to get access to that mess of bullshit? Her eyes squint shut in a pained expression, lip curled slightly. Probably Voss, and he probably isn’t even into that. Fuck.

Tipping her head back to center, Nicole again sees how one and one make too much bullshit to be coincidence again. “Not Alice in Wonderland,” she corrects in a quiet voice, shaking her head once. “The Looking Glass. She said something about a Looking Glass.” All she’ll need for confirmation is just the barest light of recognition in his eyes.

She gets it.

Everything else tracks, doesn’t it? If humanity was going to die… But how— If not through Corbin to obscure her search for records, maybe Richard can give her some answers about projects the Commonwealth Institute may have been working on.

The subject of what was done to Erica after she attacked one of the facility technicians stiffens her spine and sends a chill down it that feels like a bead of ice water from nape to tail. It’s an uncomfortable notion, but one she has no trouble imagining. Horrible things are done to people like her even now. The technology’s just fancier and ruthless in new, more horrific ways.

Taking in a breath, Nicole asks a safer, hopefully less disquieting question. “Who was your handler, Mr. Croft?”

“He didn't have a name,” Croft explains, staring off at a distant wall lined with photographs of mountains and lakes. “It's not surprising, given how clandestine everything was. Even after all the reclassifications there's only so much truth about MKNAOMI out there.”

Looking pained for a moment, Croft grows silent. When he looks back to Nicole he realizes he never really gave her an answer. “He went by a code name. King of Wands.”

Nicole’s expression remains passive. How many times have she and Richard sat together, drinking, and she’s listened to the same rants about Cups, Swords, Pentacles, and Wands? Her eyes close and she lets out a sigh with a little nod of her head, like she’s disappointed. “Yeah, of course. Typical CIA bullshit. Given you a number, et cetera, et cetera…”

Holy shit.

“Did…” The memory issues. The hemorrhaging. Nicole’s stomach flips end over end. “Did Erica survive long enough for an MRI to be performed?”

“An MRI?” Croft laughs and shakes his head. “That wasn’t even a thing in 76.” But then he considers the weight of what she’s really asking, and he sits forward and folds his hands at his knees.

“Erica died. She…” Croft exhales a long-held breath and shakes his head. “They kept pushing her to test the limits of her abilities. When she resisted they resorted to drugs and electro-shock. During… ah…” Croft wipes at his eyes, then scrubs his hand over his mouth. “During one of her remote-viewing sessions she… she got really combative with our handler. Verbally. He shocked her so much that her— the electrodes at her back caught her shirt on fire. Filled the whole booth we had her in with smoke.”

Swallowing audibly, Croft slowly shakes his head. “We killed her. I um… I don’t know what they did with her body. Our research. It all got swept under a rug for all I know. I was told to keep my mouth shut and I never heard another thing about it.” Croft swallows audibly, wiping at his eyes again.

“Everyone responsible for those projects is long dead. And if what they say on the news is right, the Company probably did god knows what to those people when they covered up people like you from the world for as long as they did.” Croft’s voice drops, tone hushed and tight. “It was a different time. It…” He trails off, and Nicole knows the horror in his eyes. To Croft, it isn’t 2021… it’s 1976 again.

“I knew it was too much to hope they would have kept her alive until ‘77. I thought maybe you fancy government types might’ve gotten first dibs on the shiny new equipment.” She’s trying to inject some levity, but the subject is too grim even for that to make a dent. Maybe it doesn’t deserve to. Nicole wonders idly if Erica wanted to die at that point. If she was looking toward an end like she’s read about in the files from Monroe’s sick experiments, she isn’t sure she could blame her.

“It was a long, long time ago, Irwin.” The shift to his first name is meant to soften things a little, signify a shift. “You’ve done a lot of good things for a lot of people since then, haven’t you? You left all that behind and decided to do better.” Her expression is sympathetic, but she’s already planning to look into his history. Look for any signs that he didn’t just turn his life around. Just because nothing came up on her cursory examination doesn’t mean it isn’t there. After all, this sure as hell wasn’t.

Nicole leans forward again, ducking to try and catch his gaze. “I know it’s been years, but… Do you remember at all what this King of Wands looked like?”

Croft is quiet for a long while, just staring at the photos on the wall, then blinks a look over to Nicole. “If you’ve seen the videos of the experiments you’ve seen him. Tall, clean cut guy, dark hair. Always wore a suit.” He looks away after that, never really meeting Nicole’s eyes the whole time.

“If uh…” Croft starts, then hesitates. “If there isn’t anything I can help you with I… I’d really like some space.” Swallowing again, Croft scrubs his hands over his face and slowly stands. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll burn that tape and forget you ever heard about any of this. I… I’m sorry about your children. But there’s nothing here that’ll help you.”

“Thank you.” And she means it. Nicole climbs to her feet, gathering her purse straps up on her shoulder. She offers out her hand to shake. “I know this wasn’t easy. But you’ve helped me more than you can possibly realize. And what you’ve told me is going to help others. And I’ll never breathe a word of your name.”

Nicole turns her head to look toward the door and seems for a moment that she’s going to step in that direction, but she pauses and turns back. “Please tell me you aren’t going to go eat a gun or chase some pills with whiskey or something awful like that. I know…” The guilt etches itself into the lines of her face. “I know I made you drag out the past, but you can put it back in that box and you can leave it there, never to see the light of day again.”

If she destroyed someone else’s life for this… Well, Nicole’s always struggled with the idea of acceptable losses. Funny how she came in here ready to plug him herself.

“I didn’t want to hurt her,” is Croft’s answer to everything. “All I wanted to do was help. But when… when everything stopped helping, when I knew we were killing her, I didn’t do a fucking thing.” Overwhelmed by emotion, Croft pinches his forefingers and thumb at the bridge of his nose. He looks disgusted and repulsed.

“You need to go.” Croft says sharply, following her the few steps she’s made to the door. “Now.”

Nicole nods her head slowly, feeling that pain so keenly. She wants to explain to him how she’d killed her entire squad and she carries that with her every day of her life. How she couldn’t save one young man’s life, and the consequences of that are going to haunt her daughter. But he doesn’t want someone to share his pain.

In good faith, she takes another couple steps toward the door. She’ll leave, but she’ll say one more thing before she does. “Erica Kravid ruined countless lives,” she says without lowering her voice. That’s an impact that deserves to be appreciated. “You had no way of knowing that she would at the time, but she would, and she did. Maybe in the end, all of that came back around and caught up with her. And maybe you were just unfortunate enough to be there and witness it.”

Shrugging her shoulders, she reaches for the door handle. “Way I see it, is if you deserve it? It’ll find you. You don’t need to help it.” Nicole sniffs sharply, betraying her own emotion. Someday, she’s sure, all her sin will catch up with her too. “Thank you, Mr. Croft. I’m sorry for everything.” Pulling the door open she points her thumb out toward her loaner. “I’m going to write up my notes in the car, but then I’ll be gone.”

“Drive safe,” Croft says as he ushers her out the door, then slowly begins to close it behind her. In his eyes, it had all caught up to him, nearly fifty years after the fact. There was no escaping the truth. One day, it’ll catch up with you.

Nicole’s gaze lowers a moment. There’s nothing else she can say now. She doesn’t even try to smile when she looks back up to him. Just a dip of her chin, and she finally makes good on her promise to leave him to whatever he decides to do with the rest of his life. She hopes it’s longer than a few more minutes or hours.

On her way back to her car, Nicole finds that hope shattered with the sound of a single gunshot.

Then, silence.

Steps falter in the slush, and for a moment she holds perfectly still and waits to see if there’s any pain. Anything worse than what blossoms behind her eyes and makes her head swim from the awful sound, anyway.

And still, she stands there, listening to the sound of her own breathing and the roaring pulse of blood in her ears. “Time of death is imprecise,” Nicole murmurs to herself. “They won’t know if I left before or after the shot.” Fat tears roll down her cheeks. “That’s if they track me down at all.” That all depends, she supposes, on whether Irwin Croft’s death — if he is dead and not just incapacitated on the floor, in a state where she could conceivably still save him — flags law enforcement higher than the local level to investigate, given his previous CIA affiliations.

He just couldn’t have waited until she’d pulled out. Nicole lifts her head and turns it to look back toward the house. She’s careful not to shift her feet and leave any sign that she thought twice. If there was no gunshot, she wouldn’t turn back. But just as she did on arrival, Nicole watches those windows for signs of movement. Could she have been followed? her paranoid brain wants to know. Did he really off himself then and there, or did someone else catch up with him?

If there was someone else, they came in through the back. If she goes around to look for signs, that leaves signs that she did that.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Croft,” she says sadly. “You did the best you could.” Nicole resumes walking to the car, coming around to the trunk to pop it open, shoving aside her overnight bag and prying up the floor mat and the cover for the spare tire. It’s there she stows the VHS and Irwin Croft’s file. In case she does get pulled over or otherwise waylaid, it won’t be so easily found without cause.

For all her years spent as Daniel Linderman’s protégé, Nicole just never faced a scenario where she needed to completely scrub her presence from a scene. It’s one thing to know what not to do, it’s another thing to know how to undo what’s been done. The latter she’s never had much cause for.

As she comes back around to the driver’s side door, Nicole swears she can smell smoke. She looks to the house first, but it isn’t like that. More like a… burn barrel? Another quick glance shows nothing apparent. Maybe something at one of the neighboring homesteads. Shaking it off, she gets into the car, turns on the ignition and wipes her face before pulling on her seatbelt. There will be plenty of time to cry when she gets where she needs to go.

Next stop: Raytech.

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