Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Princeton, NJ, Spring 2005

Rohit Mehta has just run out for another quart of cream and a giant bag of takeout chicken, leaving Chaz Villette fussing with the bent-bladed old Braun coffee crusher, trying to get something like an even grind out of it. A burr grinder would be better, but you didn't find those at Goodwill very often. And coffee--coffee in quantity--will be required for the ceremonial packing-up of the office that has been their workspace, their home, their den for two years together.

Chaz measures out beans with his eyes--thirty, fifty, a hundred, three hundred and eighty, four hundred. To amuse himself, he converts to tablespoons--fourteen--and grams--fifty-one. He puts the lid on the grinder and presses down, feeling the whir through his palm.

This pot of coffee has a little something of ceremony about it. It won't be the last one they ever drink together, but it'll be the last one brewed in this cracked, yellowing coffeemaker on this stained wood-grain laminate desk. They've already packed up the hotplate and dishes. Tomorrow, Rohit's going to accept a job offer in Ohio. And Chaz--

Chaz, shaking grounds into the filter, is damned if he knows what he's going to do. He can stay here, but it wouldn't be a permanent position. Not yet, though of course things might develop. He can go to California, where the sun is hot and the waves and the women and the cliffs catch sleek highlights from it. He glances out the window, his chest full of needles. Ramona was from San Diego.

Or he can try Manhattan on for size, and see if a metropolitan region of 17,799,861 (2000 census: larger than the population of the Netherlands) can offer enough distractions to keep a lonely--and bored--assistant associate adjunct professor of statistics in sufficiently engaging trouble for a while.

He flips the switch. Something inside the coffee maker hisses. Something else New York City has: an awful lot of big buildings. It also currently has the most justifiably paranoid police force and private security in the nation, which would be an... interesting... challenge.

Brown, aromatic fluid drips from the opening in the coffeemaker basket. The drip becomes a trickle; the trickle matures into a stream. An aroma like roasted heaven fills the room. His stomach rumbles, and where is Rohit with the food?

Maybe, Chaz thinks, you're having a hard time deciding because you don't want to be an academic, cowboy. Well, he knew that going in. Grad school was a stalling tactic all along. Chaz Villette has always secretly intended to be a hero.

Now he has to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Taking one of the job offers would at least give him a place to start. It's the logical and expected follow-up to a doctorate--or two--even if right now it seems like the first step down an endless tunnel toward cages and clipped wings.

You could always become a professional gambler. Or you could have taken the NSA up on their offer. But spookery doesn't really seem like heroing. He'd make a lousy firefighter: too clumsy. Maybe he could go into some kind of disaster preparedness or recovery work. That has potential.

He's wondering how you get to be a hero in New York City just as somebody beyond the open door clears his throat.

A flexible light baritone says "Doctor Villette, I presume?"

Chaz turns. The man in the doorway is about forty-five years old and about five feet seven inches tall. His broad nose is made broader by the lines framing an expressive mouth. His skin is a glossy horse-chestnut color five or six shades darker than Chaz's raw-sienna tan, his thinning hair cropped close to his skull in black coils. His suit is impeccable, his shoes shined, and he has small, deft hands which Chaz notices in particular because the right one is extended.

"I'm Chaz Villette," Chaz says, the coffeepot in his hand as an apologetic excuse not to shake.

The man glances at it and drops his own hand, countering with an easy, charismatic smile. "I'm Doctor Stephen Reyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and I can tell you what you are."