Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Washington, D.C., May 2009

Nikki Lau stood on squeaking gymastics pads in the basement rec room of My Sister's Place. Ten feet away, four nervous, elbow-clutching shelter residents and two auditing volunteers huddled shoulder-to-shoulder like herd animals trying to hide behind one another. Nikki herself was relaxed, confident, open and accepting in her stance and expression. She made a point of not looking like a predator, but she also made a point of not looking like prey.

She took a breath and began. "Ladies, I'm going to teach you to fight. You've heard this is a self-defense course, and that's true as far as it goes, but what a lot of women have never had the opportunity to learn is that the best defense really is a good offense. You're all strong. You're all survivors, or you wouldn't be here. You can all take anything the world can dish out, and you've proven that time and again."

One of the women shifted restlessly. Discomfort with the praise, Nikki thought, making her restive. Sheila, she thought the name was, and made a mental note to look hard for things to complement that one on.

"You're tough broads," Nikki said, and got the laugh she was hoping for. "But the best defense, despite the cliche, is a good offense. It helps to walk tall, to stride out confidently, and to speak with authority. If you look like you can take care of yourself, people will treat you as if you can take care of yourself. We teach women officers to deepen their voices, to speak in commanding tones. It's a social skill, and every one of you can master it."

Gracie, the little fair-haired white woman, looked doubtful. The volunteer standing beside her, an older woman named Belle, brushed her arm very lightly with the back of her fingers, and Gracie relaxed.

Nikki smiled at her, swinging her arms. Taking up space, claiming her own space, but not encroaching on that of the residents or the volunteers. She kept talking to the group at large, however. "If you are attacked, do what you have to do. Odds are, your opponent is bigger than you, heavier, stronger. Odds are he's more comfortable with violence, or he wouldn't be using it to control you."

She paused for emphasis, because the next bit was important. "I want you all to think about the Eight Second Rule. Here it is: if she's going to win, a woman in a fight with a man has eight seconds to incapacitate him. After that, the advantage is all his, and her odds of taking him--or of surviving the fight--drop precipitously. Can anybody tell me what that implies about our tactics in a fight?"

The six women glanced at one another dubiously. When the silence had stretched just long enough to become uncomfortable, Belle cleared her throat. "If we're in it," she said, glancing at the women on either side for their permission to speak, "we had better be ready to finish it. Quick."

Nikki Lau nodded. Of course, she knew this. She knew the practical applications of it, and when she taught these self-defense classes sponsored by a woman's shelter, she made sure every single one of her students at least mouthed the cathechism, whether she understood it in her bones or not. She'd taught enough of them since she started volunteering here that she knew her lines by heart, and she knew that she herself--all hundred and twenty pounds and just over five feet two of her oozing authority and even cockiness--was the perfect example of what she was talking about.

"So how do you do that?" Gracie asked.

Nikki smiled. "Aggression," she said. "Have you ever seen that youtube video where the housecat runs off a black bear?" One or two nodded, and all of them smiled or laughed. "We spend our whole lives, as women, being taught to pull our punches. I'm going to help you break that conditioning. I'm going to teach you to hit hard, and I'm going to teach you where to hit."

She turned her head, still talking, as something funny caught at the edge of her peripheral vision. Something blurry, like a floater or a movement shadow. She shook her head. She'd probably imagined it, just like she was imagining the sensation of somebody watching from just out of sight. There was no out of sight in the rec room; it was a big empty square with no crannies or closets.

"Okay," she said. "So who wants to beat me up a little first, before we go and practice on the kick bag?"

Again, the exchange of glances. And again, Belle stepped forward.

Nikki was grateful. It was always good to have a ringer in the group.


The class went well, especially after she got everybody to armor up in the padded suits and take turns hitting each other. The women seemed doubtful at first, but after Belle knocked Nikki down with a bum's-rush and sat on her, they loosened up a little. These women had all been out of their abusive situations for at least six months. They were healing, and they had all volunteered to be here. It was good for them to roughhouse a little in a controlled environment. Among other things, it taught them that they weren't made of blown glass, and that they weren't forever going to be shaky and fragile. And if somebody did have a meltdown, well, there were three trained volunteers and three sympathetic peers on hand to help sandbag until it was over.

Meltdowns were part of the healing process.

Afterwards, Nikki went upstairs to the volunteer office to fill out paperwork and make notes in resident files. That weird itch on the back of her neck was back, cuing her to keep checking over her shoulder, but of course there was nothing. The free-floating anxiety reminded her of the months surrounding her divorce, that horrible sense that somewhere, unseen, the hammer was waiting to drop.

When she looked up the fourth or fifth time, somebody was standing in front of the desk.

Nikki had no idea how she'd failed to notice the shadow that fell over her, or seen the skinny body of the small ponytailed black woman who planted herself there foursquare. "Look at me," she said. "Please, please look at me. Please tell me you can see me."

She must be a new resident, because she looked vaguely familiar, but Nikki couldn't quite place her name or where she'd seen her before.

"Of course I can see you," Nikki said. "What's wrong, hon? Do you want to sit down? Glass of water? I'm here if you need to talk."

The girl couldn't have weighed over fifty kilo, but she dropped into the square old upholstered chair in front of the volunteer desk like she was made of sacks filled with bricks. "I don't know why I bother," she said. "In five minutes, you won't remember me."

"Don't be silly," Nikki said. "How could I forget you?" She closed the file she was writing in, both for confidentiality and courtesy. This woman deserved her full attention. "What's your name?"

"Renee," the girl said. "And you're Special Agent Nicolette Lau." She held up a grubby, spindled bit of card, but did not offer it to Nikki. Nikki recognized it anyway; there were a dozen more in her wallet.

"I am," Nikki said. "I'm sorry, did I offer you a glass of water?"

"No water," Renee said. She blurred, and frowned, Nikki blinked rapidly and Renee seemed suddenly better-focused, but Nikki wasn't sure the blinking had done it. "Look, you said--you said you know people like me."

"Like you?"

She nodded. Nikki furrowed her brow, trying to remember what they had been talking about. "I'm sorry--"

"You're forgetting," Renee said. "It's okay. People can't hurt you when they forget you, except sometimes it hurts to be forgotten. You said, when we met before, that you knew somebody who was like me. You said you could help."

"Maybe I can," Nikki said. "Can you tell me what you need help with?"

The girl--what was her name?--looked down at her hands. "People forget me," she said. "People forget I'm even here. Like you, you left me your card, and you don't even remember."

Gamma, Nikki thought, with a weird sense of déjà vu. Or beta. The latter seemed more likely. Gammas didn't walk up and beg for help.

"I believe you," Nikki said. It was, irrefutably, her card in the young woman's hand. A card she could not remember having given her. "I want to help. What was your name?"

"Oh, god," the woman said, making Nikki wonder what she had done to make her look so stricken, so helpless. "Here."

She picked up the pen on the volunteer desk blotter and wrote on the back of Nikki's card: Renee. She handed it to Nikki, and for an instant their hands brushed. Renee's hand was warm and dry, her touch like feathers.

Nikki looked down at it. "Renee," she said. "How can I help you?"

But when she looked up, the chair across from her was empty, and she couldn't remember why she'd closed the file she was working on.

Early senility, Nik, she thought, and flipped the oaktag folder open again.