Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Washington, D.C., November 2008

Even indoors in the stuffy apartment building hallway, Hafidha felt the cold. She pressed her upper arms tight against her, squeezing the red wool bouclé of her coat to the sweater underneath, and the sweater to her ribs. The chill found gaps to get through--under hems, down collars, up sleeves--no matter what she did. The baselines would probably call this the first really frigid night of the season. Hafidha had been freezing for weeks.

She heard voices through the door of number 12, and Robert Smith singing, "Sometimes I'm dreaming / Where all the other people dance."

No shit. At least maybe here everyone else would be dreaming, too. Or they might make her want to dance. She'd settle for either.

She shouldn't have shot the son of a bitch in Missouri after all. Right now the last thing she needed or wanted was administrative leave and nothing to do but sit home and wander around the inside of her brain.

She knocked on the door of 12.

Gail opened it right away. Her wide mouth stretched into the freaky manga smile that was never about how she looked, and she said, rusty with emotion, "Glad you're here, girlfriend." Gail didn't hoard her feelings. When she had them, she gave them away.

She'd cut her hair. Done it herself with the sewing scissors, by the look, and the straight, fine strands lifted and strayed in the static of the furnace-dried air. Two feet of perfect raven gothgirl hair sacrificed to grieving. Hafidha stopped herself before she said He wouldn't have wanted that. Because he didn't want anything anymore, did he?

Gail reached out her arms, and Hafidha leaned into the hug. Gail's fragrance--warm, resiny, spicy-sweet--tickled Hafidha's nose just long enough for her to identify it. Obsidian Widow. That used to be just performance.

"Thanks for postponing the festivities," Hafidha said.

Gail rewarded her with a little snort of amusement. They were festivities, even if the usage was ironic. "Can't have a wake without the chief mourners in attendance, right?"

Gail clutched her hand and pulled her into the tiny entryway, pushed the folding metal closet door open with a chalk-on-blackboard scrape, and produced a blue plastic hanger. Hafidha shrugged off her coat and cobweb-lace scarf and handed them over. The apartment would be crowded. She'd warm up.

"You look good," Hafs said.

Actually, Gail looked...alien. How do you dress for mourning when other people's mourning is just clothes to you? Gail's face was pale and powdered, but her eyes and lips were unpainted, unfinished-looking. The holes in her ears were empty; no marcasite or jet or red rhinestone dangles shivered below her hacked bob. She wore a black burnout velvet tunic Hafidha had found for her; it showed the tattooed ivy twined on Gail's right shoulder and arm, but darkened it like nightfall. The rest of Gail's outfit was a jagged-hem skirt of matte-black rayon, and black ballet slippers.

The slippers, even more than the lack of makeup, made her seem frail. Hafidha wanted to wrap her in Kevlar, carry her off to a safehouse, surround her with a moat and briars, or at least an electric fence.

Not that it would help.

"I thought Chaz would come with you," Gail said over her shoulder as she hung Hafidha's coat.

"He can't make it. He said to tell you he's sorry."

Gail looked down, lips pressed thin, which made Hafidha add, "He would have come if he could. Erik was..." Erik had managed to make friends with Chaz, who never opened up to guys. Hafidha touched her cold fingers to Gail's, and let her hand slide away when Gail looked up. "He couldn't, honey."

Hafidha had a pretty good idea why Chaz might need to curl up in his den with his tail over his nose. Not only could she read a calendar, she had one in her head with this week marked "6 months." And Daphne had told her about the cell phone call Chaz got at work. It was okay, because if it wasn't okay, he would have gritted his little pointy puppy teeth and told everyone about it. So if he didn't want to talk right now, that was his business.

Still, goddamn. She would have liked to have him close by.

Gail nodded and smiled a little. "Tell him I missed him, okay?"

And Gail forgave him. She might even forgive the driver of the car, when Hafidha found him, which she was bound to do. Hafidha Gates, Flying Ace. Gail could forgive people. It was a nice trait. Good for the blood pressure.

"Your trip-- Everybody okay?" Gail asked carefully.

Everybody except the dead guy. "Yeah. Justice triumphs."

Gail knew Hafidha's job involved Elements of Which We Do Not Speak. Erik had, too. When he'd figured it out was when she'd tried to ditch him, because anyone who knew that much about things she didn't tell him was too damned close to her. But Erik didn't ditch easily.

Gail curled her arm around Hafidha's back to draw her out of the entryway, and that, more than the temperature, helped fight off the last of the outdoor chill. "C'mon, I'll get you a drink. You know everybody, right?"

Hafidha did, from parties and clubs and concerts, Gail's clothes swaps and gaming nights, Erik's scavenger hunts and film festivals.

Dov was swaying to the music and saying to Michelle and Jon, in his sweet soft voice, "...jumped over the railing in the dark. Except the dumpster was open."

His audience groaned. Hafidha recognized the story. Jon and Michelle probably did, too, but times like this, well-worn was a comfort. As she watched, Cameron came out of the hall from the back of the apartment and tucked his arm through Dov's.

Amy and Bliss and Emory sat hip-to-hip on the couch, looking at photos on Amy's BlackBerry. Joaquin leaned over the couch arm and Amy's shoulder. Lizzie and Sam stood next to each other by the bookshelves, looking uncomfortable. They'd broken up a few days before Erik died; this was probably the first time they'd seen each other since. Mo ducked out of the kitchen with a bowl of pretzels and handed it around.

Gail's four-top dinner table and chairs were missing from the dining nook next to the kitchen, and the hanging lamp's chain was doubled up on its hook to raise it as high as possible. The oval Ikea coffee table looked lost beneath it, draped in an embroidered red silk shawl. On it, a brass bowl picked up the red in its polished surface, and a circle of glass tea light cups faceted the silk like fake rubies.

Gail pressed a glass of wine into Hafidha's hand. What Hafidha really wanted was something that tasted like fruit punch and contained enough alcohol to melt her head from the inside. But she smiled like a good girl, swallowed a mouthful, and wandered over to stand next to Cameron.

"Hey, sweetie." He wrapped her waist in his other arm, making a daisy chain of her, Cameron, and Dov. "How are you?"

"Great." Hafidha let him wince while she downed the rest of her wine like a shot. She knew how she was supposed to answer, and he knew it wasn't true. So really, why ask?

Because that's what people did with suffering. The customs were meant to smooth things out. Why didn't she want to be smoothed? Was there something wrong with her, or with them? Why didn't everyone in the room want to hit things and scream, "It's not fair!"

Maybe they did, and hid it better than she could. Except she was hiding it, wasn't she? And maybe they'd done their screaming and hitting things while she'd been away.

She was out of sync. The case in Missouri had happened in a bubble where time worked differently. She'd come out of the bubble to find that for everyone else, it was a month later, though their calendars agreed with hers. They'd had time to move on.

Effectively true, if not literally. Because hunting gammas took all her attention, and left none for feeling. She might as well have walked away from the funeral five minutes ago.

"Okay, guys. Let's do this." Gail stood in the kitchen archway with a stack of Dixie cups in one hand and a bottle of Knob Creek in the other. Hafidha hated bourbon. Erik had loved it, though.

Gail set the bottle and cups down on the floor. "Lizzie, grab the candle off the bookcase?" She pointed with her chin (round, stubborn--she looked so soft), and Lizzie bounded over and brought back the white taper in a black wrought-iron candlestick. Dov, who smoked clove cigarettes outside clubs when he wanted to look moody and European, produced a lighter from the pocket of his vest. Gail nodded. He lit the candle, and Lizzie set it beside the brass bowl.

The group gathered in a ragged arc around the coffee table. The dining nook didn't look empty and off-kilter anymore.

"There's a candle for each of us," Gail said as she took the taper out of the socket and lit the tea light in front of her. She passed it to Mo on her left.

Hafidha stood at Gail's right shoulder, so she watched as each of Erik's attendant friends lit a candle. Melting wax sizzled, and a drop fell on the shawl. Hafidha stole a glance at Gail. A welcome sacrifice to grief, apparently, like the hair. Still, when Hafidha lit her tea light, she spun the candle gently and set it back in the candlestick before wax could spill.

Gail handed the stack of cups to Hafidha. She held them one at a time while Gail poured the Knob Creek. Mo took the results and handed them around the group.

"I'll start, Hafs finishes," Gail announced, back straight, shoulders squared. "We're the goddesses, we get to be the bookends." The little chuckle that went around the circle didn't alter the rising tide of solemnity. Goths, roleplayers, gamers--they could slide into unselfconscious ritual faster than they could swallow.

And how about me? Hafidha asked, looking at the ring of grave faces. Oh, right. The queen of faking it. They never see me coming. The aftertaste of the wine was sour in her mouth.

Gail raised her cup. "Erik--" Her voice pinched off, and she blinked. Mo, on her left side, touched Gail's shoulder. Gail swallowed and went on. "Hey, you. I miss you. But even just remembering you makes my life better. Love you always." Her voice wobbled, and a pair of tears snaked toward the corners of her mouth as her lips formed a final word she didn't voice. She held her cup over the bowl and poured out a quick stream, gold-brown, that made the brass ring when it hit. The smell of bourbon reached like tendrils around the space. Then she knocked back the rest of the liquor, crushed the cup, and tossed it over her shoulder.

And it's just that easy. No, it wasn't. Not for Gail or anyone. Which stage of grieving was anger?

Mo closed the valve in his throat with one finger. When you grew up with kids telling you you talked funny and adults turning to stare if you spoke up, you got into the habit of not saying much. But for Erik, for his friends, Mo would do this. "Erik. If there's a life after this, it better be good. You deserve it." Another stream of bourbon into the bowl, and the rest down Mo's gullet.

Around the circle, loving speeches, gentle regret, so damned civilized. Nobody said, "Erik, you suck for dying. How could you leave me here?" Nobody said, "You were the one who wouldn't leave even when I told him to go. You were supposed to be for always. How did I get suckered into believing it when I knew better?" Hafidha was going to have to cowboy up and do the same, and get over it, and go on.

Maybe, instead of a god, there was a grad student working on a research project. Maybe he came into the lab each morning, peered into the cage, and said, "Hi, little rats. How ya doin'?" And at random intervals he'd take a huge hammer and smash one of the rats to smithereens and observe what the rest of the rats did. Did they notice? Did it bother them? If it changed their behavior, how long before they went back to their regular ratty routine and forgot that at any moment something could drop from the sky and kill them?

An uncomfortable silence around her told her it was her turn. Ante up, girl. It's not like you never said goodbye before. She held the reeking cup of bourbon over the bowl. There were no words in her head for her mouth to say.

None of her own, anyway. The Cure song hovered in memory, close at hand, and she found herself murmuring, " shadowed eyes on a different world."

Good enough. Splash booze into the bowl, swallow the rest quick, though the thick hot corn-sugar taste would linger.

The silence wasn't uncomfortable anymore. She must have done the right thing.

If she lifted her head, she would look into their solemn faces, a dozen kids playing Funeral. The guy who had tied them together was just meat now. If she looked up, she'd have to see she had nothing in common with them, nothing with anyone. She stared at the spot of congealed wax on the scarf instead, and clutched at the illusion that she wasn't singular and alone.

Gail bent forward and blew out her tea light. Around the circle, the others copied her. Did ritual mean anything? If Hafidha breathed away that little shaky light, did it make Erik disappear for good? Could she keep him, bring him back, just for the time it took the flame to eat up that little cake of wax?

He's dead. Don't let grief make you an idiot. She blew the candle out. And as the last spark blinked out of the wick and the curl of smoke rose, she wanted to scream, I didn't mean it! I'm sorry!

She felt Gail's arm snake around her shoulders. "Come on, girlfriend. I made cheesecake."

Everyone was trailing out of the dining nook, a bit giddy with the release of emotion. Everyone but her, and Gail, because Gail was looking after her.

Hafidha shook her head. The words she wanted were still having trouble rising to the top of the pile. "I don't... I don't think I can stay, sweetie. I'm sorry. It's just--I'm not ready yet."

Gail pursed her lips (so pale and unguarded without lipstick), considering whether she ought to argue. Hafidha hoped she wouldn't. Gail could shame her into staying. At last she nodded. "I hear that. Call me tomorrow morning?"

"Yeah. I will. Thanks." She clutched Gail's arm without looking and pulled her close, kissed her cheek (Obsidian fucking Widow). Then she slid out of the dining nook, dodged around the edge of the living room, scraped the closet open, snagged her coat and scarf, and slipped out the door.

Even out of the wind, inside her car, it was cold. She started the engine and turned the heater to Scorch, the fan to Gale Force. And clicked on the radio, because she wanted that song out of her head now, please.

But as she headed toward Baltimore Avenue and north and home, Robert Smith got the last word:

She was crying and crying for a girl

Who died so many years before

No chance, Hafidha told him. Crying's no good to her now.

She cranked the radio up and lowered the driver's side window. The cold got everyone in the end. Better to go looking for it than live in fear.

"Charlotte Sometimes" by The Cure. Complete lyrics.