S. L. Huang’s Critical Point is a breakout SF thriller for fans of John Scalzi and Greg Rucka.
Math-genius mercenary Cas Russell has stopped a shadow organization from brainwashing the world and discovered her past was deliberately erased and her superhuman abilities deliberately created.
And that’s just the start: when a demolitions expert targets Cas and her friends, and the hidden conspiracy behind Cas’s past starts to reappear, the past, present, and future collide in a race to save one of her dearest friends.
Please enjoy this excerpt of Critical Point, available 4/28/2020.
f i v e
The room was a wreck.
In kind terms, Arthur was…particular. He wasn’t so much a neat freak as he wanted everything in its place. Now the large file cabinets had all been wrenched open, the drawers pulled at amok angles. Files littered the floor in a paper carpet. Everything had been tossed off the desks—both Arthur’s desk and at Pilar’s old station— and the drawers had been yanked fully out and plopped on the floor.
Arthur’s tall gun safe had been blown open, too, the metal warped and charred.
“Rio,” I said. “How certain are you nothing live is here?”
“Approximately ninety percent,” he answered.
I inched forward, motioning Pilar to stay back. Luckily, I knew this room well, and the level of sloppiness here suggested little attempt at subtlety, enough for me to be able to take a set difference. The complement rose to prominence in my senses, allowing me to focus on what had changed.
The locks on the file cabinets, the desks, and the gun safe had all been busted open with varying levels of explosives. “One-trickpony,” I muttered, as I edged around to Arthur’s desk. The desktop computer still hummed. I reached out and turned on one of the dual monitors.
A login screen flared to life undramatically. No way the ransacker could have gotten past Checker’s security, not unless the computer was already unlocked for some reason, which I supposed was possible. Come to think of it…
“Isn’t there a security system on this place?” I called to Pilar, who was still by the door. Checker’s security on his home probably rivaled theWhite House; why wouldn’t he have wired the office the same way?
Pilar twisted her hands against each other. “We have one, we do, and it’s really good, but it’s more for when we’re not here. During the day, we mostly have it turned off—we have to, what with clients coming in and out al the time. And even the cameras, Arthur doesn’t keep them on when we have people in, because of confidentiality.”
I finished my circuit of the office. The set difference had revealed no indication of active explosives anywhere things were out of place. I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, but I thought we were probably in the clear, and on top of Rio’s check, that was the best we could hope for.
“Okay, you two can go,” I said to Simon and Rio. “Pilar, text Checker and see if he can get anything, anything at all, from either the security system or by hopping on the office intranets. Then tell me where you think Arthur would’ve been keeping stuff.”
“We’ll go find the man you took prisoner,” Simon promised, turning to leave.
Shit. I’d already forgotten that’s where I was sending them.
“Rio,” I called.
“This guy, he…” My memory of the Australian’s face was still fuzzy, but I could recall my attempted interrogation now. “I had the impression…I don’t think he’s quite with it. Minimal force, okay? Unless you find out he really is with Pithica.”
Rio hesitated. “Cas, if they have broken their covenant with us, this will only be their first step. I submit that I may be more useful to you elsewhere.”
He was right, but . . . “Our first priority has to be finding Arthur. Please.”
He touched his forehead. “As you wish, Cas.”
I took a relieved breath.
A year ago I wouldn’t have thought it necessary to caution Rio against employing his . . . usual methods… against someone who displayed a questionable mental capacity. But these days, every time I thought about assuming something like that, the image flashed in my head of Rio pointing a gun at Pilar’s head, and I warned him off anyway.
He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to take it as logical, which was frightening in a whole host of other ways.
Rio and Simon headed out into the gathering darkness, and Pilar finished tapping out a message on her phone and picked her way across the paper-strewn floor. “When you say you want to know anywhere Arthur was keeping stuff, what kind of stuff are you looking for?”she said. “Do you mean anything on—on D.J.?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That, or any current cases, any files he wanted to keep sort of on hand. Or, on the flip side, anything he wanted to hide. And if he or Checker were still doing any legwork on Pithica without my knowledge, I want that too.” Dawna had also given Arthur the mental block, but he might’ve taken advantage of Simon’s presence to get it removed too. Everything was on the table at this point.
A sneaking doubt reminded me that Checker wasn’t the only one who had a complicated past. What if instead of D.J., it was my own history Arthur had been looking into?
Was it possible a personalized bomber could be after me? Thanks to Simon, any villains I had known were a faded clutter of disconnected faces. A woman with a scar. Another with steel-gray hair, holding a clipboard. A man with a crew cut holding a stopwatch, nodding approvingly…
“Oh. Okay,” Pilar interrupted my disturbed ponderings. She gazed around the clutter-strewn office. “Isn’t it sort of useless to tell you where things would’ve been, though?”
“Pilar,” I growled.
“Okay! Um.” She started pointing. “His inbox used to sit here, uh—I think that’s it in the corner. And there was a slot here where I’d put phone messages for him, but I don’t know if he uses it anymore. Any really current stuff would’ve been on his desk or in the top right drawer. Anything sensitive was in the desk file drawer, which was reinforced and only Arthur had the key. This drawer here had a file for miscellaneous papers, which could be anything, and docs that weren’t filed yet got put in here.” She pointed to another mangled file drawer. “I think that’s…that’s all I can think of? I had places I kept current stuff too, but it doesn’t look like he’s been using my desk for anything.”
She stood staring down at the empty drawers at her own old station, looking a little lost.
“Good,” I said. “That’s good. Now, stay still and don’t touch anything.”
I started backtracking the entropy of the room.
The place might look like chaos, but the stacked and scattered papers became coded in probability according to where they’d come from. Someone had searched through the mess before we’d gotten here—several times, if I was reading things correctly—but still, the way the files overlapped, the way the drawers overlapped, the most expected progression around the space…it all served to cut out possibilities and narrow the sequence down to a few interchangeable likelihoods.
The room disarrayed itself before me, forward and back, forward and back, in only a few possible combinations. Ones that overlapped significantly.
Finally, a problem I could attack and solve.
I held the backtracking in my head and started moving, picking up documents and folders whenever they came from where Pilar had pointed out, as long as I assumed the most probable events. By the time I reached Pilar’s desk, I had an armful of papers.
Her eyes were very round. “Now that’s a superpower.”
“Oh, shut up.”
I stared down at the folders for a moment, an intrusive reluctance makingme hesitate in handing them over to her. How likely was it any of them would contain sprinklings of my past, my life? Quiet, concerned research Arthur might have been doing, one glimpse of which might destabilize my own amputated mind?
Find Arthur, I repeated to myself. Everything else was secondary. If my own ghosts or sanity interfered, well, I would have to cowboy up and deal.
I tried not to let myself consider that if the investigation did lead in that direction, I could be the one to blame for the attack on Arthur. For all my righteous indignation about him keeping things from me… maybe it would have been better for him if we’d never met.
No. This was D.J. Everything points to D.J.
I handed the papers to Pilar with rigid fingers and had her sit and start going through the pile. Then, to keep myself busy more than anything, I called Checker to see what he’d found on the security system. “Can you get us any info on what happened here?” I asked him.
“I’m telling you, I’ve got no useful data at all from this end.” His frustration was palpable through the line. “Arthur’s code turned the entire security system off Friday morning, and it’s been off since then. Nobody even tried the computers with an incorrect password, or it would have logged. From now on, I’m going to reprogram things to make the damn system notify me if it’s off for more than twelve hours. I fought with Arthur about turning it off, you know—I said, it’s still confidential if you’re the only person who has access to the recordings, and he quoted stuff at me about California being a two-party consent state, and I said, well then, what about just video, there’s nothing wrong with video, and he said he wants his clients to feel like they—”
“I get it, you know nothing,” I said, more harshly than I meant to. Checker stopped talking.
Shit. I also had to broach the topic of D.J. with him, and I didn’t know how. I hadn’t meant to start off by snapping at him.
It has to be D.J.—bombs, and the connection to Checker, and Arthur researching him. Playing the music when you ask . . .
This was D.J. It wasn’t me.
“Thanks for looking, anyway,” I said stiffly to Checker. “Maybe we’ll find something in his papers.”
“You’re not good at this, Cas.”
“Beating around the bush. We’ve got buildings blowing up, and you want to know if it’s my fault.”
I hadn’t expected him to be so blunt about it, but my mouth pounced on the hypothesis before my brain could moderate it. “Well, you do have a connection to a homicidal bomber, don’t you? It’s a logical question.”
“And I promise you, I’m looking for the answer, okay? I’m pulling all the CSI data from the police investigation at your office, to see if I can find any sort of—of signature match with the building explo- sions we know D.J.did or—or with other ones. I’m doing everything I can. I swear I am.”
“I…didn’t think you weren’t.” I swallowed. I’d been insisting to myself that this was D.J. so hard, I’d let what that would mean for Checker fall out of the equation. His anxious self-recrimination made me hate myself.
But it’s different. Arthur never held any oft hat against him...
“We need to consider all possibilities,” I said. Hypocritically. “And that includes D.J.”
“Start by telling me if you know anything that would help us track him—or is it her?” I’d never quite figured that out. “Anything that would help us track them down.”
“Him. I think,” Checker said. “And I don’t. I really don’t, Cas. I tried—a year ago, when D.J.’s trail showed up again, I followed up oneverything, I pulled all the police records—but he disappeared. And then I started tracking—explosions, bombings, anything that might—and I couldn’t—God, Cas, between that and trying to track down your past, I didn’t sleep for months. I was behind on work, everything was going to shit—”
I winced. I hadn’t thought I could feel worse, but I knew why I’d missed it all now. I had been holding a grudge against Checker during those months and…not speaking to him.
“And I finally said, ‘I have to stop, this isn’t healthy,’” he continued. “And I stopped. I made myself stop. But the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t getting anywhere. I wasn’t finding anything, I was chasing shadows and then obsessing over them, and of course I’m looking again now, but I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll be any more successful than the last time. And I could spend two days straight telling you about D.J. and still not tell you everything I know, and that wouldn’t help you either, but I promise you, if I can think of one single thing that would, I will dial you so fast, I’ll sprain something. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. Arthur hadn’t stopped looking, I thought. Checker had stopped, but Arthur hadn’t. Because that was the kind of thing Arthur did for people.
“Meanwhile, you can skip Arthur’s apartment unless you have no other leads. He argued with me about a security system there too, the moron, but I put my foot down, and it’s running perfectly fine and shows nothing unusual.”
“Okay,” I said again.
“Cas, I . . .” He sounded miserable.
Pilar held something up and waved at me.
“I gotta go.” I didn’t know what else to say, anyway. “We’ll update you.”
“Yeah,” he said, and hung up.
I let the hand holding my phone drop and turned to Pilar. “What’ve you got?”
She passed me a business card. “Did Arthur ever ask you about this?”
My heart felt like it gave an extra thump as I took the card, but a quick scan of the raised blue text on ribbed cream showed nothing familiar, nothing related to me at all. I tried not to show my relief and read it more closely. The person on the card was some sort of doctor at a place called the Bimini Restorative Wellness Center, with an address out in Ventura County. Arthur had circled the doctor’s name in ballpoint, and below it was scrawled, Mathematical formula—ask Sonya or Cas?
So not about me—just about math. Math, I could handle. But Arthur had never spoken to me about this.
“No,” I said. “He didn’t ask me.”
“Should we call Professor—”
“I’m on it,” I said, my fingers moving on my phone.
“Hello?” said Professor Sonya Halliday. Sonya was a legitimate mathematics professor and a childhood friend of Arthur’s, and I was pretty sure she was the reason he’d put up with me to begin with. Maybe I’d just been a stand-in for her all along.
“It’s Cas,” I said into the phone.
Sonya’s voice turned amused. “Oh, my. I do believe this is the first time you’ve called me instead of the reverse. I’m honored.”
“I don’t have time for games,” I snapped. “I need to know if Arthur ever asked you about someone named…” I glanced back at the business card. “Dr. Eva Teplova.”
She was too smart. “And you aren’t asking him because…?”
“He’s missing,” I said. “Now, answer the goddamn question. Dr. Teplova. Do you recognize the name?”
“I don’t.” Her voice had gone strained, as if she were pushing herself to recall the impossible. I was about to hang up on her when Pilar grabbed the phone from me.
“Hi, Professor, it’s Pilar. The name Cas was just asking you about is on a business card for a doctor’s office at the Bimini Restorative Wellness Center. Arthur wrote a note on it reminding himself to ask you about a mathematical formula. Does that ring any bells?”
I leaned in so I could hear. “A mathematical formula?” Sonya repeated. “Well, he did pose a hypothetical last week that—but I can’t see how it would be at all related.”
I took the phone back. “Now, Professor.”
“He asked me whether one could potentially write a formula for human beauty. I told him no, of course. The easy contradiction is to view how aesthetic standards change so significantly between centuries or cultures, or even simply to examine differences in personal taste. Beauty is not even well-defined qualitatively, so could never be quantified effectively.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “You could come up with something locally defined by aggregate taste in terms of a probability distribution. It would just be…very, very, very multivariable.”
“You mean use the culture you’re based in to set the parameters? But how does—”
“Not now. Did Arthur tell you anything else?”
“No. Not that I can recall. Only that it was for a case.” She gave the answers with clipped speed, lacking the dryness I’d come to expect from her. “Miss Russell?”
“Please call me when you find him. Godspeed.” She hung up.
At least Professor Halliday was decent at knowing when to give me answers and then get off the phone.
I tapped my mobile against my hand, trying to feel through the new information. “Checker said they didn’t have any cases right now. But if Arthur told Sonya this was for a case…if it was something he wasn’t telling Checker about, it must be related to the D.J. thing.”
I tried not to feel guilty for being right. “A plastic surgeon? How?” Pilar said.
“You’re assuming this doctor’s a plastic surgeon?”
She gave an unhappy shrug. “Mathematical formula for beauty? What else could it be?”
That did seem the obvious connection, but I didn’t see how a plastic surgeon would relate to Arthur’s search for a bomber.
“There’s a TV show where a plastic surgeon changes criminals’ faces so they can disappear,” Pilar said. “I—I don’t know how plausible that is in real life.”
Neither did I. “I guess this is where I’m headed next,” I said, holding up the card. “You in?”
“Of course! I mean, if you think I’d be helpful.”
“There might be flipping-through-files crap. You’re better at that than I am.” Not to mention handling any human interaction that couldn’t be solved by bashing it in the head. I started for the door, but pointed back to the rest of the document stack. “Grab those to finish in the car. And text Checker the doctor’s info. Tell him to run background but also to look for any connection to D.J. Orto Pithica,” I added. I didn’t want to think they could still be involved, but we did have evidence of psychic by play here, or something like it. In the vindication of concluding Arthur’s kidnapper was indeed D.J., I’d momentarily forgotten about the puzzle pieces that didn’t yet fit.
The sensation of larger conspiracies loomed. I shook it off. At least I had a definite next step now, one thankfully free of my own ghosts.
Pilar hastened to obey me, but as we left the destroyed office, she said, “Cas, what if—I mean, we’ve been assuming—”
I stopped so fast, she almost ran into me.
“We’ve been operating under the assumption that Arthur’s still alive,” she said softly. “What if we’re only going to find him in—in an alley somewhere, or unidentified in a morgue…” The words wobbled.
“Is making that assumption productive?” I said.
“No,” she admitted in a small voice.
“I keep thinking I should’ve been here,” she said, glancing back at the shambles of her former workplace.
I didn’t know what to say to that. Especially given what Pilar had shared earlier; between the lines, her main reason for leaving was that she hadn’t wanted to get swept up with me anymore.
Instead, I resumed my hurried jog down through the gathering darkness to the car, assuming Pilar would follow. I wasn’t going to think about any possibility other than getting Arthur back alive. And if Dr. Eva Teplova was connected in any way to his disappearance, well, she was going to end up needing medical attention herself.
Copyright © S. L. Huang 2020
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