Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Old Rag Mountain, VA, June 2011

If he had the wise old head the noobs thought he did, Stu would have turned back at Sperryville, when rain pebbled the windshield. But no, there was wise, and there was been-stuck-indoors-all-week-and-fuck-I'm-gonna-go-send-something. Somebody had to be as crazy-stupid and rock-deprived as he was. Stu hoped for a fellow boulderer, but he wouldn't bitch about top-roping, not today.

And there was always someone sending one of Old Rag's routes. Stu scowled past the slow wipers at the unvaried gray sky and made that, "almost always."

If it was still raining when he got to the mountain, he'd turn around and go home. Except it wasn't raining much... Nope, if he chucked it and went home, there'd be another day. If he slipped off slick rock or washed-down sand or wet moss and broke his neck? Not so much.

This close to D.C. they had climbers from everywhere. The Norwegians would boulder on ice, because they were crazy muthafuckas. French climbers from the embassy could be a pain in the ass, talking about Fontainebleau, and how Old Rag was gumby chow. Yeah, well, take a week off and go to Yosemite, man. Some people have big damn countries. No, that wasn't fair; the French guys were all right. And they could send a problem like fuck, you had to give them that. But he'd never seen any of them climb in the rain.

Stu nudged the truck up the paved road toward the Berry Hollow parking area. Through a break in the trees he caught a glimpse of a car's roof, light blue and bulbous. Could be hikers. But he had a feeling...

He made the corner into the parking area, and yeah, it was a manky VW that dated from back in the day before that Golf/Jetta/Rabbit noise, fenders pitted with rust, back lid held down with a twist of wire.

The Gecko and Doc Worthie, by the Goddess of Granite. And damned if the rain hadn't stopped. Suddenly the day promised not to suck.

Stu parked, hopped out of the cab, and dragged his crashpad and the nylon duffel with his chalk and shoes out of the bed of the pickup. Then he shouldered everything and headed up Saddle Trail.

Trailside Boulders was Stu's favorite bouldering anywhere on Old Rag. Big rocks, with everything from a nice warmup V2 to the burly V8 around Golden Crisp. Cracks, crimpers, traverses--and your reward for topping out was that sweet vista across the treetops, that made you feel as if you'd sprouted up out of the stone and could fly away if you wanted to.

Maybe the French climbers were right, and Fontainebleau was paradise. But Stu was pretty sure he'd never be happier in this incarnation than when he dragged himself up off that last hold and sat, sweaty and panting, on top of any problem in Trailside.

He picked his way through sticky mud in a low spot on the trail, and a cloud of midges went for his nose and mouth and eyes. Up higher, the breeze would blow them off.

The Gecko liked to boulder. Doc Worthie was more of a top-roper, but Stu thought she could be a damned good boulderer if she got over that unreasonable attachment to order. That pretty much summed them up: the Gecko was chaos, Worthie was order, and the two of them balanced out just right. The climbing version of Lethal Weapon.

The Gecko could have come from anywhere. He sounded American, but he looked like he was from space. Like David Bowie, in that movie where he played an alien. Over beers, Stu had heard other climbers speculate: the Gecko was some kind of spook, some Langley black ops mothafucka. Stu had made an obnoxious noise into his beer about that, but hadn't actually said anything. The Gecko might be an alien, but Stu was pretty sure he hadn't hit thirty yet, even on his home planet. Tough as new rope, yeah, and never gave anything up that he didn't have to, but a spook? Huh-uh.

Doc Worthie was a whole 'nother thing. When you met her, you met all of her; whatever she was like in the rest of the world, out on the rock she was wide open and straight up. Whether she was whooping and grinning because she'd nailed her first 5.9, or calling you a moron while she taped the stress fracture in your foot that you shouldn't have been climbing with, she was, well, one hundred percent her. Not to mention that she traveled with her own first aid kit and knew how to use it.

He'd passed Old Rag Shelter almost without noticing; the first honkin' big block of granite rose up and said hello. Nobody there. Stu listened for voices and heard nothing. But there were more problems further off the trail, and it wouldn't hurt to check 'em out.

He found the Gecko standing spraddle-legged at the foot of a slipped granite face, chunky for the first six feet, with so many bucket holds it was maybe a V2 max, and not even that for someone with the Gecko's reach.

But the Gecko wasn't looking at the first six feet. He was staring up at the smooth slab, like a baby headwall, that all that chunkiness had slipped away from.

Even for Trailside, it was tall. Strictly speaking, Stu wouldn't have called it a bouldering problem at all. Which meant they were top-roping, which meant they were probably setting a new route, since Stu had never seen anyone sending that face, or seen or heard beta from climbers who'd sent it. Heinous bouldering, but a decent assisted climb, if shorter than most. Maybe Worthie was learning route-setting or lead climbing.

Except, where was she? And why was there no pile of rope and harness at the Gecko's long, skinny feet?

"Hey," Stu offered.

The Gecko turned and blinked, as if Stu had called him back from the asteroid belt. "Hey," he answered. A little hoarse, like he hadn't said anything for a while.

"Where's Worthie? Couldn't she come out and play today?"

The asteroid belt wasn't just a long way away. It was also fucking vacuum cold. Which was how Stu felt standing in the path of the Gecko's expression.

Stu hadn't ever read "couple" off the Gecko and Worthie. He didn't know why--maybe because every other couple he knew had little pissy fights with each other, and those two never did. But the absolute blank ice cube of the Gecko's face seemed to say, Dumped.

What the hell did she take with her that would make somebody like the Gecko look like that?

Stu re-read the clues. No rope--but no crashpad, either. No spotter. Was the Gecko waiting, hoping someone would show up and agree to spot him? Who would also bring a pad, because the Gecko had driven all the way out to Old Rag without his?

The Gecko wasn't always wise about this shit. Besides, when Stu had said "Hey," he was pretty sure the Gecko had been eyeing the problem with That Look.

He'd planned to free solo. Without so much as another human in yelling distance.

Stu wanted to tell him off, point out that if he got himself half- or whole-killed, he was crapping on the community, because the Park Service would likely freak and ban climbers in the park. It was fucking bad manners, like not cleaning your protection off a route. But there was that vacuum-cold. The memory of it made Stu say, perky as a damned cheerleader, "You figure to send that? I'll spot you." Holy crap, he sounded bogus.

But the Gecko just shrugged.

Maybe Stu had read it wrong. Maybe the Gecko hadn't been planning an act of stupid. Or maybe he just didn't care if he had a witness.

Note to self: next time you think only crazy people would be out here, stay home. Stu unfolded the crashpad.

The Gecko started easy-peasy, as Stu had expected. That first six feet was practically a flight of stairs for him. He paused with his hands on that last gerry-rail ledge, tilting his head back to admire the wall. Then he hooked his toe over a little chickenhead of granite and started working up.

The holds got thin just over his head. Stu wanted to offer beta, but from where he was he had a crappy view of what was available for hands or feet, and no guidance to give. The Gecko was in a better position, right now, to find his route.

His knuckles disappeared into a jam crack, and Stu could see him cranking on that right arm, the muscles and tendons popping into relief as he dragged himself high enough to get a toe or an edge against a flake of rock. He caught one, then a solid little bracket for his other foot, and stood up, belly to the rock face, arms at full stretch. He scrabbled with the fingers of his left hand for a hold Stu couldn't see. Before Stu could squint out an alternate hold and yell it up to him, the Gecko squatted slightly over his toes, and sprang for it.

It was a beautiful thing, Stu admitted, while trying not to pee in his shoes. The Gecko had figured the deadpoint of his jump, where his fingers would catch the hold straight on instead of coming down on it, and it was like watching a thrown magnet stick to a refrigerator door. He scootched the pad over. At this point, if he tried to guide the Gecko's fall like a good spotter, the Gecko would likely squash him into roadkill, but he was there to minimize the heinously stupid, and he would do his job.

The Gecko found another handhold and hung from it like an orangutan. He smeared his shoe soles against the granite, inching upward. When he dug his right toe into the rock, Stu wanted to yell, No, it'll push you away from the wall, and you'll barndoor-- But the Gecko used the momentum to swing sideways and up to another pair of holds.

Stu wanted to cover his eyes. Too much dyno, even for the Gecko, who could be a goddamn flying squirrel when it came to getting from one hold to another. Stu moved the crashpad again.

Dude, don't bring shit with you to the problem. The problem is always more than enough to deal with. If it's not, you should be doing something else. That's what he should have told the Gecko, instead of offering to spot him while he tried to kill himself.

Of course, the Gecko would have had to want to listen. Stu didn't think that was likely.

The Gecko had hold of a decent little ledge, more than a crimper, and maybe could have stayed there. Except he'd cranked so hard, and Stu could see his legs shaking like a Chihuahua in a snowstorm, and his grip just...quit. There was an ugly noise when his flailing hand whacked into the granite, and the shriek that was a human nervous system overriding conscious control and objecting to the likelihood it was going to ohmigod fucking die. A long fall, longer than crashpads were designed for.

And the Gecko decked.

Stu really, really wanted Worthie there, even though, if she had been, the whole scenario would probably never have happened. But he knew a little about broken bones, and what kinds of injuries were serious enough that you didn't want to move a guy who had them. The Gecko was fighting to get air into his flattened lungs, and the panic of not-breathing made him struggle even as Stu warned, "Don't move, don't move!" and tried to hold him still.

The noise he made getting that first breath in sounded like gagging in reverse, and painful. Then he rolled onto his side and curled in on himself like a shrimp tail. Well, if he could do that, at least his spine was probably intact. The Gecko shivered on the pad, little staccato jerks of the shoulders and knees that looked involuntary, but he didn't moan or yell or make any sound after that breath.

"Where's it hurt?" Stu asked. The Gecko's left hand, for starts, which had hit the granite pretty hard and scraped as he flung it out to try for a save. The palm was oozing blood from a half-dozen gouges, and another track down his forearm looked like he had left some skin up there on the ledge.

But the Gecko shook his head. He was still curled up, and Stu couldn't see his face, but the jerking had stopped. After a moment, he unfolded enough to sit, his knees drawn up and his head tucked between them.

"Fuck," said the Gecko, after a minute. His voice shook.

Stu considered leaving it at that. But he did have a sort of duty that went with that image of the wise old guy. So he swallowed the lump in his throat and said, "The rock is what it is. You can top out or not, it won't change the rock. Just you."

The Gecko didn't move, didn't say anything right away. Maybe he was thinking about it. Maybe he was trying to decide if he felt okay enough to punch Stu in the teeth for sounding like a fucking fortune cookie.

At last he sighed. "Good beta, man."

Stu suddenly felt the adrenaline he was full of and didn't need. His teeth really wanted to chatter. "You know the procedure," he said. "Pass it on." And he sat beside the pad listening to the Gecko breathe, to his own breath in his nose, to the breeze, to whatever humidity and sunlight and stone sounded like, for as long as it took the pieces to slide back together.

FBI Headquarters, J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., June 2011

Daniel Brady spotted motion in his peripheral vision as a habit, as a survival strategy. Just because he was sitting at his desk in the middle of the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation first thing in the morning didn't mean he was going to turn it off.

So he noticed the movement at the desk cattycorner to his, and that it wasn't quite right. He looked up, but all he saw was Chaz Villette in his desk chair, hand on his mouse, waiting while his monitor woke up.

It was fifteen minutes before that visual alarm went off again. This time, he turned his head in time to see Chaz stand up.

Like an old, old man.

He also saw the slightly grubby gauze wrap on Chaz's left hand, starting at the knuckles and disappearing into his shirt sleeve.

"You okay?" Brady asked, just loud enough to carry across the aisle. The trapdoor in his stomach opened yet again, when he acknowledged the empty desk next to his own, the absence of anyone in overhearing range.

Chaz's face was about as expressive as a six-panel solid-core door. "I'm fine," he answered, and the precision with which he said it turned it into, Get the hell out of my business.

"What happened?"

Brady watched the complicated process in which Chaz started to shrug, remembered why he didn't want to do that, and did it anyway to prove he was just fine, thank you. "I fell."

"Off of what?"

Chaz tried to set him on fire with the power of his gaze, and when that didn't work, he turned on his heel and left the bullpen. Or rather, shifted his weight cautiously onto his back foot, turned, and limped toward the door to the hall.

Brady had no trouble getting to it first and holding it open for him. "You want to talk about it?" he asked.


"Sure you do. Briefing room all right with you?"

Chaz's jaw worked. That was probably him tying a nice bow around whatever savage and hurtful thing he was planning to say. So Brady headed him off. "I could knock you down with a fucking paper clip right now. Be a lot easier to just put up with me 'til I've had my say."

Chaz inhaled, exhaled, and march-limped to the briefing room.

Brady followed him in and shut the door. "We're a man down," he said, because tiptoeing up on it would just annoy them both.

Chaz's eyebrows climbed his forehead. "You were afraid I might forget?" His voice was hard and flat, and Brady thought he could hear it paving over a lot of soft ground underneath.

None of them ever forgot, not for more than a minute or two. When those minutes were over, memory came back like a knife fresh from the whetstone. "I thought you might have forgotten the context."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"What we're here for hasn't changed. If you can't stomach the work, that's all right. But if you can't, don't keep showing up and pretending we can still count on your ass."

"Fuck you."

Chaz said it calmly, as if it were an answer to Brady's little speech. It was, in a way.

"I'll take that as a reaffirmation of commitment."

One sharp exhale out Chaz's nose, which might have been exasperation or amusement.

Brady clenched his hands in his trouser pockets; the bite of his fingernails into his palms pushed him forward, made his voice as fierce as it needed to be. "In that case, you've got no goddamn business fucking yourself up just so you can suffer as much as you think you deserve. Because whatever you do, you do it to the team, too. You go into the field with anyone in the state you're in now? You might as well shoot 'em in the leg before either of you leaves the building."

Chaz looked anywhere but at him. Like an angry dog that couldn't fight back, like a trapped animal. Danny Brady, you are the worst sonofabitch of your acquaintance. Falkner might have been able to get at this another way. Hell, Reyes might have. But they hadn't, and it needed doing now, and when it came to Chaz Villette, Brady had a crowbar instead of a passkey.

Maybe he'd get a chance to apologize later. Someday. If they didn't die first.

"Are you done?" said Chaz.

"Yep." Brady crossed to the door and stopped with his hand on the knob. Natural dramatic pause. "I'm going back to work. Don't ever make me say all that shit again."

He went out, closing the door behind him. Because after you kicked a guy, you owed him a chance to nurse the bruise in private.

Funny how you could feel the ache in your own foot for days afterward.