Shadow Unit


"Single Bullet Theory" - by Chelsea Polk

Act I | Act II | Act III
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.

Part 1

Act I

Washington, D.C., October 2012

That bit about bartenders being confessors is true, so Dice usually kept an eye on that one stool when a new person came in. But he didn't expect Tyler to ignore his favorite seat by the window to sit up at the bar.

"Gin fizz, short."

"Straight up or twist of the week?"

Tyler stabbed a Guinness coaster with one finger and made it spin. "What's the twist of the week?"

"Blackberry sage simple syrup and the usual lime."

"Oh hell, I'll try it."

Tyler should have laughed, or smiled. Instead he took out knitting needles and a solid-looking mass of a sweater, bumpy and winding with crossed cables. He nodded once without looking up at the soft tock! of the glass landing on the wood bar and left the drink untouched to examine his knitting against a paper chart folded and covered in neon highlighter pen lines, apparently absorbed in finding his place.

But he had taken The Chair. "That's the same sweater you were working on last week, yeah?"

"Yeah. Pretty much have the pattern down."

There were dishes to move out of the washer from the lunch hour and plenty of slicing to do...conveniently near The Chair. So Dice brought a tray of stemmed glasses over, and a fresh basket of lemons and limes to slice for Happy Hour, when the first of the after work crowd would be coming in. "Complicated stuff like that. I couldn't do it."

Tyler kept his eyes on his work. "Day shift still killing you?"

"Nah," Dice said. "Taking that melatonin stuff, it works decent. Still don't want your day job, though."

That was it. Tyler was here too late. He ought to have been in at lunch hour, ready to go home after a shift of waiting in line for a lobbyist. And he still hadn't touched his drink.

He could be focused on the complex pattern of knitting, but-- Oh, what the hell. "Okay, Tyler. Something shitty happened."

Tyler finally looked at Dice, full-faced, but not surprised. "How'd you know."

Dice shifted backwards to give Tyler a little space, turned to break eye contact. It's never a confrontation. "Bar's dead, your favorite seat is empty, sky's got good light. But you're sitting in the Problem Chair."

"It's got a name."

"And a function," Dice confirmed. "You sit there, you're in the one place where no one is nearby except the bartender. So it's the right place to sit if you want--"

"Confession," Tyler finished, and that got a laugh from him. "All right, how do I start? Not "Bless me, Father," I imagine."

"If this place was like a book I read once, you'd huck the glass into the fireplace after, but you can start by making a toast." It's just a deft movement to turn over a short glass for himself, to press the soda button on the hose, the light bubbles sliding over a slice of lime. A few seconds, to let him think about it.

"A toast," Tyler muttered, and he raised the short glass, offered Dice a smile full of nails. "Here's to double jeopardy, then."

"Double jeopardy," Dice echoed, and he gulped down a swallow of club soda and lime. "Tyler, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but that's a fuck of a toast. Care to talk about it?"

It took an extra moment for Tyler to swallow, and nod. "Yeah. I do. You need to polish glasses or something?"

"Tradition demands it," Dice said. "Soon as I'm done with this." "This" was the limes and lemons, half-done with slicing and freshening. Something to watch, besides Tyler's face or the perfectly imperfect haircut.

"It's okay? I don't want to dump all my problems on you. Besides, it's weird."

"Weird and double jeopardy? Give it."

But Tyler changed the subject. "I saw Stone Soup out there. You got him fixed?"

"Stone Soup is great, the new crank is ping and click free, the ratio's easier on my knees, too."

"How's your track stand?"

"My sides are sore."

"Fuck you, get harder," Tyler said, and they shared a laugh in the moment before he untangled his fingers from the yarn and picked up the gin fizz. "This is good, you know."

"Thanks. We'll probably sell out of it tonight. Dennis hopes so, anyway."

Tyler nodded, and gazed at the purpling red drink. "It's really weird. Crazy, even."

"Try me." Dice went back to slicing citrus. No eye contact. It's not a confrontation.

"Okay. I watched a girl I used to know get away with murder. I know she did. I just don't know how. It's crazy."

"Reasonable doubt?"

"Yes. But I know her. She did it."

Dice swiped his knife with a clean wet rag, and busied himself with drying it. "So you know that she's capable of murder. That's a bit spooky, you know. One sec. I'm going to make sure we've got some time."


Dyson went down the long bar, upending short glasses with sliced and quartered lemons and limes into a tub, stacking the dirty glasses, replacing them with fresh, and left the tub of discards next to the manual juicer in the obsessively white and steel kitchen. "Dennis."

Dennis looked up from the stock pot and turned down the music--a wall of guitar worthy of My Bloody Valentine, and a man singing about continuous thunder. "Sup."

"Got a customer in the chair. Is it all right if I stick to him a bit?"

"Sure. I can juice those for you, I'm doing fuck all."


"You check the taps?"

"Yeah. Debbie gonna be late?"

"Yeah. Problem?"

"Never. I'll log her in on time."

Dennis nodded at Dice, and his grateful smile wrote his relief. "Thanks."

Dice took his bus tub off the counter, ran the old cups down the conveyor washer and headed back. "Sorry. But I've got a little time now. I still say that knowing someone you believe capable of murder is spooky."

"It is. It's fucked. I had to go see it. Even though I--just had this feeling that it wasn't going to go right. But I have to go way back to explain."

Dice raised a fresh polishing cloth. "Go for it."

"Okay," Tyler said, and wound the yarn around his fingers again, needles moving with soft clicks. "Met her in school. My psych degree, undergrad. And I was a nerd, right."


"Me," Tyler said with a little grin. "Gingers have no soul, all that. Too smart, bike riding wasn't really athletic, it was how losers with no cars got around."

"You're still a loser with no car," Dice said.

"You don't get to talk until you can track for a full light and not bitch about it."

"Okay, okay, you were a nerd. Magic the Gathering or D&D?"

"Magic. Shit, I still have my cards, don't tell anyone. I joined the gaming club. And she was that girl. The pretty one who loved to play Magic the Gathering and was in a LARP troupe. That girl. Big groups tend to have one, you know, and they get a lot of shit."

"Pretty fish in a nerdy pond."

"Yeah. Except she needed to be the pretty one. The attention, that fairest of them all crap, and it didn't help that she really was beautiful. But she wasn't one to cross. At all. And those who crossed her...had bad fates. That were never her fault."

"Anybody die?"

Dice waited while Tyler did something to twist a bunch of stitches around each other, then stuck the short, grooved needle behind his ear. "No. But people got sick. Or overdosed, there was that one girl... That was awful. She left school after."

"Christ, do you mean what I think you mean?"

Tyler nodded and then raised his knitting to pull out a few stitches. Busy. Can't look up. "She was at a party. Somebody found her in one of the back bedrooms, and she was damn near dead from booze, blouse torn. It was all over school. Not a single guy got a moment's discipline, she dropped out. I have no idea what happened to her."

"And you are saying that Beautiful Gamer Girl was responsible, but you don't know how she did it."

"She was at that party too, I heard that. But nobody died. No wait, that's not true."

"Somebody died?"

"Her father," Tyler said, and set his knitting down to drain the glass. "Another?"

"Sure," Dice said, and stepped a little ways off to mix it. "What happened there?"

"Diet pills."

"He was concerned with his weight?"

Tyler cocked his head and said, "Isn't everyone? Probably he got hooked. They're stimulants. If they were magic weight-loss pills I'd guess that's how she'd do it. Never met a woman who was that uncaring about carbs, fat, anything."

"So none of that dressingless salad and half an apple thing."

"No way. She could demolish an entire pizza on her own and go looking for ice cream, never gain a pound. BMI of 18, but lanky is in."

"How old was she?"

"Just before college. And she became a trustifarian who played Munchkin."

"No mother?"

Tyler shook his head. "No. Lung cancer. Apparently when they found out she was way too gone, less than six months to live, all that. I think the girl I'm talking about was... fifteen? I think."

"So she was in pretty tight with your group."

"You could say that," Tyler said wryly. "She was my girlfriend."

"Oh. Damn."

Tyler gave Dice a half-mouthed smile and raised his glass. "Haven't had another girlfriend since, actually."

"That bad, huh?"

"Aw, it was fucked up. I mean that I liked her a lot and she liked me, too, but we never called it that and it was deeply complicated and then it was over. Which is glossing a lot of shit over, because of brevity and all that."


"It's pathetic anyway."

"Probably not, actually. You said it yourself--she was really beautiful. And she liked things that you liked, too, and you were, what, eighteen? Freshman year?"

"That's right."

"We're all kinda dumb at eighteen, Tyler. Especially about sex. Especially about love. I could tell you stories, too, only they wouldn't include winning the--"

Dice fumbled a glass, caught it, and made a small noise of irritation. Careful. "Winning the lady's favor. So you loved and lost. It's on the list of Everybody Goes Through It at least once, you know?"

"You're right."

"Damn right. This stuff happen after you split?"

"Actually, it was before. I kick myself. I knew she was trouble, but she was overwhelming. In a way. Something about her. And if you were alone with her, she had a way of making it like you were the only people in the world. It's like she--"

Tyler faltered, biting back what Dice heard in the silence. "Cast a spell?"

"That was exactly what I was going to say. It was like she cast a spell. And the next thing I know, I'm doing shit to impress her, and I couldn't wait to see her again."

"So you had it bad."

"So bad. I even convinced myself that my initial distrust was just misplaced, intimidated attraction to the prettiest girl I ever saw with a holy forest deck."

"But the spell broke. What happened?"

Tyler shook his head. "Nothing. I mean, it isn't like I caught her doing something that made the scales fall from my eyes."

"But gradually..."

Another pause, as Tyler used his short grooved needle to move loops around and knit them crossed over each other. Dice put polished glasses up on the hanging brass racks, coming back when Tyler was through the tricky part.

"I was doing some work with a group of psychology majors who wanted to make a group specifically for high knowledge of the man behind the curtain--how psychologists interview and direct conversations, the therapeutic attitude, and the like--but who were depressed or anxious or just, whatever." Another smile. "You don't do too badly at it yourself. Ever thought of doing psychology?"

"No way could I afford it. But it sounds like your group helped."

"Yeah. It helped. But I think it only happened because she was gone. And pretty soon people started pointing out that the way I talked about her was fucked up, and I spent a lot of time marvelling over how stupid--no. How out of character that year was."

"More than just being eighteen?"

"Yeah, a lot more. I thought I put it behind me, and then I saw her in the paper, and it all came back. After all those years."

Dice used rolling his neck to hide forcing his shoulders down, and waved at the trio of suits who walked in. "Can't feel good."

Tyler caught the wave, and gave Dice another of those half smiles. "I guess I dumped it all on you anyway."

"Don't worry about it. Sometimes you gotta tell someone. But Tyler--"


"You want to talk about it again, feel free."

"Thanks, Dice. I appreciate it."

Dyson nodded and turned back to the first three customers of the happy hour rush. By the time he was done, Tyler was already headed out the door, a nice tip tucked under the coaster.

Act II

Happy Hour was that slice of time where the suits came in and commingled with the people who delivered their briefs and court orders and motions, but only just. When Dice first started at The Crank he'd never see the long table flanked by benches that dominated the front of the bar as anything but the territory of the couriers who chipped in for shared pitchers and rehashing last night's polo match. But the switch to day shift meant he saw the odd moments where lawyers and aides sat with couriers, messengers, and line-standers, affably talking and even occasionally chipping in for a pitcher. He'd made the switch to help Debbie go back to college and finish her degree. He worked late on Tuesday so she could attend an important class.

"I logged you in and I did a bunch of your counting and orders already," Dice said to Debbie, and got his feet under him in time for her hug.

"Yooooou are awesome, is what you are, and I'll do it for you on Thursday. Eighty eight minutes more beauty sleep."

"I'll need years," Dice said, and pretended to wince when she punched his shoulder. "Ow! Hey!"

"That didn't hurt, you big faker. Are you hanging around?"

"No, I gotta clean my apartment," Dice said, and that was all the excuse he needed, at least until he tried to walk past the big table, now filled. He got away with only a little ribbing about not coming to play polo (again) and a few invitations to sit down and have a beer before he was rolling Stone Soup onto the street, and he was at speed in time to catch the light, ducking down less busy streets, standing up for the one climb he had before he was poised at the last intersection before his building, wobbling back and forth on fixed pedals while the light took its sweet time changing.

Isabella's boyfriend was coming out as he was coming in, and he held the door so Dice could just put the bike on his shoulder and hit the stairs, up three flights to his apartment. Somebody was cooking spaghetti, by the smell, and somebody else was listening to the television on top volume, and the hallway light was replaced, but Dice didn't waste any time getting in and closing the door behind him, or of putting his bike on the wall and out of the way. His laptop was still on the counter where he'd left it that morning, and he swiped his fingers over the trackpad to wake it up.

It was a moment to check "Acquitted murder D.C." and find the day's news reporting the complete collapse of the prosecution's charges against Kylie Tennant and Natalie Summers-Barrington for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. A photograph showed Kylie and Natalie leaving the courtroom, and Dice studied it.

Natalie had to be the one, judging from the photographs. She looked bird-boned even dressed for the cool weather, startlingly vivid red hair spread over the shoulders of a soft gray coat, the collar cosied up around a scarf in that blue-green color that seemed made for fair-skinned redheads. She had one glove on, and the hand that reached out to Kylie was slender and long. Kylie had been captured in a moment where she looked at the crowd of reporters with fear, groping blindly for Natalie's hand.

Dice had a dozen different tabs up in a few moments, ritually saving each one to his bookmarks and to Evernote. Websites disappeared all the time, after all. He stopped to read about the trial, and had the creepy feeling that it was straight out of a Law and Order episode: The prosecution argued that Natalie had paid Kylie to poison Sheldon Barrington with martinis that were actually mixed with 95% grain alcohol instead of the usual 40% vodka, which caused the alcohol poisoning which led to his death while he attended a "Spring Break" party promoting Kylie's new nightclub. Natalie hadn't attended, but she had called 911 the next morning. An ambulance had come but Sheldon had been dead for at least an hour.

The defense had neatly overturned every assertion the prosecution had by countering that they had no actual physical evidence, that the sizeable sum Kylie had supposedly been paid to deliver the drinks doctored with 191 proof grain alcohol was actually a selfless gift to a friend, and how the prosecution couldn't find any evidence that 191 proof grain alcohol was even present at the party where Sheldon Barrington had consumed three vodka martinis. And the real bombshell came when news media were sent a video of Kylie dressed in a neon orange string bikini dancing while mixing shaken martinis for three partygoers--Sheldon and two of his friends--from the same bottle of vodka, and secured their declarations that they had drunk the same martinis as their friend, and didn't suffer the same alcohol poisoning.

But it was weird, just as Tyler had said. And impossible.

Dice got up and erased the Wall. Maybe it was just the fury of a man scorned, but if it wasn't, it was a hell of a puzzle, and it wouldn't fit anywhere else. He wrote the map of what he knew, the map of the unanswered questions, switching colors depending on fact or speculation. Maybe it was nothing.



Dice got through Wednesday, and that was the important part. He'd talked to Eddie about the things that Eddie liked, did his duty as his brother, and got out of Idlewood and drove. Back into the city and into his parking space and back onto Stone Soup and rode the long way around to home, pedaling like he had something to run from. Well, he did. He danced Infernal closed and slept like a stone, but woke up too early and used his extra eighty eight minutes Thursday morning to run a load of laundry while he stood in front of the Wall with his laptop crooked into his right elbow, going between writing more on the Wall and dragging up more searches on Natalie Summers, and the wealth of information gave him a sinking feeling. She was a celebutante, curse that ugly word, and that meant lawyers ready to chase down so much as a syllable of libel.

Money, money, money. It was all over the place. And power, most probably. He'd had ten notes and questions down on the board before he had to jump into BDU's still warm from the dryer, bending over to roll up the right leg and shove his feet into socks. He tucked his laptop along while he poured out some cereal and milk, paging through results in images and reminding himself to not to get ahead of himself for the sake of a good story. Then it was time to go, so all he wrote on the Wall was "Crawl around looking for Weird Shit stories involving an N" before he careened out the door with Stone Soup on his shoulder, the u-lock tucked through his belt.

He was getting pretty good at the impatient shuffling dance that was standing still on a fixed gear with both feet on the pedals, ready to push back up to speed and make the light timing. He wasn't as daring as a messenger would be in taking the intersection as his own, but he could make the six mile ride to the Crank in good time. The rack was mostly empty, but Tyler's bike was there, and Dice locked up next to it and went in.

He was sitting in The Chair again, and back to his usual ginger ale--that was good, right? And he nodded at Dice, knitting still in hand--it was still kind of a lumpy mass but it was bigger than it had been. He had a menu and a roll-up, so he was parked for lunch.


Dice stowed his bag, washed his hands, and started getting glasses and mugs put away for the lunch rush. Debbie had already done a lot of the work, and for that he gave her a hug that lifted her off the ground and yelled ow! when she punched his shoulder, stumbling around like she'd decked him. She had brothers, growing up. She treated him like one. He liked how Debbie treated brothers.

The coffee was fresh and he made himself a cup to sip while the first of the lunch crowd came in. He could set his clock on his regular lunch-at-the-bar patron, who always ordered a glass of Guinness to go with whatever Dennis had put in the slow cooker that day, so he was setting it down at her favored seat just as she took off her gloves and coat. He kept an eye on Tyler's glass, but he didn't have time for much beyond a hello as he dove straight into pouring beers, dashing out the occasional tray of orders, and keeping the bar tidy.

Tyler stayed right where he was through it all, knitting with headphones in, lifting it to show a curious woman who'd been in for lunch, patiently waiting out the midday crowd. He'd ordered a Port City IPA and made it last through Dice's grinding through the backed up glassware and changing tills with short reports, waiting tables while Rachel reckoned up balances for the deposit and the running tip count.

So when Dice finally set down a huge bunch of thyme stalks to prep for drink garnishes, he'd literally been waiting hours.

"You basically go non-stop for lunch, don't you?"

"Yeah, it's fast-paced. Sorry about making you wait." It was simple work--strip off the smaller leaves, leave the tips as is, and the smell was nice.

"Oh, no, I got a lot of this sweater done, no worries. I just wanted to, you know, sorry for telling you the crazy story yesterday."

"Don't worry about it. Think if I possibly knew a...serious criminal, I'd have a hard time keeping it in." Some things you just had to tell someone, if only to know that you weren't alone.

Tyler nodded, but he didn't look convinced. "It's kind of far-fetched, though."

Maybe to somebody else, but Dice wasn't sure Tyler was ready to hear his theories. Hell, he didn't even know if they were true or not. "Look, you're not far off from being an actual psychologist, right? Who'd know better than you?"

Tyler smiled and looked down at his beer before looking back at Dice. "That's nice to say. Truth is, looking back I really feel like an idiot. I was taking a degree in examining people and personality, and look what happened to me."

"First year, though."

"Yeah, you're right, freshman year."

"What did Beautiful Gamer Girl take?"

"She was in science."

"So were you."

"Egghead science. Chemistry courses mostly, some Biology, not really committed to a program but she was a geek."

"Okay, so. Here?"

"Here. Georgetown."

"A fine Jesuit school," Dice said soberly, and that made Tyler laugh.

"And me a good Catholic. Well, not actually, but grew up in the culture."

"Yeah, me, too."

Tyler gave him a smile that said I know. "And I didn't want to be a priest, but I did want to help people, so psychology."

"Think about going back?"

Tyler nodded, slowly. "Could do graduate work at American. I have thought about it. I am paying the shit out of my student loans and I have my degree...and I'm standing in line for a living, but it gives me time. I read, I stay on top of things. Honestly, I'm hoping to start next year."

"I think you can do it," Dice said.

"Thanks," Tyler said, and then grinned at him. "You know, you've still got a bit of eyeliner on from clubbing last night."

Dice went for a bar cloth and had his glasses off in a swipe. "Oh tell me now, after I've been wandering around like that for hours!"

"It doesn't look bad," Tyler says. "It goes, actually. With all the piercings and the VNV Nation t-shirt."

That made him stop and check if Tyler was joking. "Yeah? Okay," Dice said, and got his glasses back on. "So was Beautiful Gamer Girl good at school?"

"What?" Tyler blinked, and then his brow smoothed out as he nodded. "Oh yeah, sure. She did good work, and she knew a lot. She could write down molecular structures from memory, explain what the parts were. She did it with drugs. Caffeine, THC, alcohol, stuff like that."

"You mean those diagram things with Os and Ns and stuff."

"Yeah. She even wrote down some neurotransmitters once, helping me with some material specifically about the chemical brain, and those are some monsters."

"Heard a bit about that. If you're stressed your brain makes cortisol, serotonin does something with mood, you know, stuff here and there."

"Oh yeah," Tyler agreed. "It's hard to talk about because it gets a bit scary for people to think that everything they feel, think, and believe is just the product of chemicals."

Dice stopped stripping leaves for a moment. "Wait, is that true?"

"Strictly speaking or my opinion?"


"My opinion is that nihilists are boring," Tyler said, and finished his beer in three swallows. "There's enough evidence to put me on the side that the concept of free will doesn't exist the way people understand it, but that it's way more complicated than that."

Dice held the last thyme sprig in his hand and scraped a little round leaf off his thumb and into the bowl. "So...don't give up hope?"

"And that choices do matter. And self-awareness gives you power-- Aw, I'm going on, you should stop me when I do that."

"No," Dice said, and lifted one finger to signal for him to wait while he dashed the thyme up to the kitchen, returning with lemons and limes. "It's interesting. A lot of people don't think about stuff like this, so I don't know if I could really, you know, give much of my own opinion."

"Everybody's got one, though," Tyler said. "Where do you stand on free will?"

"You want another one of those beers, or are you on your way out?"

"I ought to get going," Tyler said. "But you didn't answer my question."

He offered Dice the empty beer glass, and Dice set the paring knife down to take it. "I think--"

How did he explain this? He thought of Eddie, of himself. How It had skipped the first born and took hold in the younger son. Could he tell Tyler about that?

He wanted to.

But not today.

"People do what they do because that's what they know how to do, and it's hard to choose a different way. But you can still choose. Even if it's not easy." He realized he'd been running one finger around the lip of the glass, stopped, and shrugged. "Even if you fuck it up most of the time. Even if you keep sliding back into what you know, you can still get wise to it and head back towards what you choose."

Tyler eyed him for a moment. "So you also think nihilists are boring."

"The angry bits set to 120 BPM aren't so bad."


Arlington, Virginia

Dice had to take the long way home because of Secret Service in the way, but made it there as fast as he could pedal, running his hard cranking playlist with the volume blasting off his handlebar speaker, turning heads with the heartbeat rhythms and industrial machine sounds that built into a glitchy, scratchy...Charleston, just to make things really weird.

Dice had seen cyclists taking a lane in the traffic around the Lincoln Memorial, but he was fine with not being quite that cool, and opted to jump off the bike and make like a pedestrian to get across the parkway. He touched the base of Aspiration and Literature as he waited on evening traffic to let him cross over to Music and Harvest, and he crossed the Arlington Memorial Bridge, pedalling hard to put Sacrifice and Valor behind him. He took the pathway along the Virginia side of the Potomac murmuring follow the evidence, don't invent connections like a mantra.

But he fucking had to get home and check out the science angle. He'd steered the conversation away from that neatly enough, but it had sunk tiny hooks in his thoughts, never that far from his mind for the rest of the shift, but he had to get to his laptop so he could check it out on his anonymized system. He could feel sweat starting up on his back under his messenger bag, and muttered a fuck you, get harder for that discomfort. He waited for a light next to a Camry with a nursery-school aged girl in the passenger seat watching him inch the bike back and forth on the pedals to keep his balance. When she stared up at him he smiled, and she waved at him, patting the window glass.

Then it was time to sprint and catch the next light before it changed and then crank back, skidding the Cross-Check to stop in front of the market. He grabbed a pack of 5 A.M. Saint, a frozen pizza, and two golden-red apples, paying in cash, and then he was lugging the weight of the glass the last two blocks to his apartment, vowing to get a front wheel rack even if it made locking his bike a sovereign pain in the ass.

"I've got beer, wide load," he called, hearing someone on the landing as he wrestled his way into the vestibule.

"These are toll stairs, you need to pay me beer tax," Bella answered.

"A likely tale." But he set his bike down and got one to give to her anyway.

When Isabella emerged on the first landing, she had a laundry basket on her hip, barefooted, in a pair of skintight pvc pants and an ancient Washington Capitals t-shirt big enough for four of her.

"Let me guess. Laundry day."

She accepted the beer and swaddled the cap in her t-shirt hem to open it. "You gonna need the laundry tonight?"

"Did it this morning."

"You got up in the morning?"

"I know, Ragnarok's coming."

"I'm gonna be doing laundry all night," Bella groused. "Mister no job couldn't figure out the washing machine and take care of things while he's sitting around playing Guild Wars two or whatever the hell it is, so this is my night off."

"I feel like I should give you two beers," Dice said.

"Nothing fucking doing, he'd take it for himself. Thanks, by the way." and she was headed down the stairs to the laundry room.

He said, "Good-night, Bella," and went up, listening to the creaking of the wood beneath the ancient, threadbare carpet on the landings, and that one spot that squeaked just by his door. Once inside, he opened one bottle, put the other four in the fridge, and had the pizza stuffed in the pre-heating oven. "Set the timer this time," he muttered to himself, and wound around to the Wall, and oh boy, his fingers itched to get the words "Chemistry Biology knowledge of chemical structures," listing the ones Tyler had mentioned. Caffeine. Alcohol. THC. And then Neurotransmitters?

Another chalk, orange, and Dice wrote, "needs attention," and then "who's giving it now?" and connected it to Sheldon Barrington's name. If she had killed her husband, what reason would she have? Gossip news, maybe, but Dice settled in front of the counter he used as a standing/barstool-height desk and opened up TOR-protected browsers, searching her name in Google, opening new tabs for images and news, and started scrolling down the page full of pictures. The first ones were mostly of her at the trial, elegant, reserved, especially next to the glass face of her friend and co-defendant, who often looked like she was trying to figure out who to pray to so she could end this when she wasn't staring at Natalie.

He scrolled until the images started to turn up results that weren't mostly of her, and switched tabs to read news articles, most of it around the trial, hoping that in the midst of the sensation somebody might have spent some time telling a story of her life--it wasn't far-fetched. People enshrined murderers all the time. A beautiful wealthy woman accused of murdering her young, handsome, wealthy husband? Somebody would have wanted to examine her life beyond shocking photos and secret hotel romp tabloid stories.

It didn't take long to find a story focused on the relationship between Natalie and Kylie, but the tone was ambivalent. Sometimes the implication was that Natalie was the dominant partner and Kylie was a grateful follower. But the writer balanced that scurrility by wondering how they managed to plan the murder of Natalie's husband without leaving any evidence of their communication. Nothing, in an era long past shock over taped telephone calls or the terrifying wealth of personal data held in an individual's Gmail account. The story talked a bit about Natalie growing up as the only child of a wealthy captain of the melding between marketing, food, and science that produced nutraceuticals--Dice let out a Huh! as he recognized the brand that manufactured his melatonin capsules.

"Worlds colliding!" Dice cried aloud, and jumped up at the insistent buzz of the kitchen timer. He would have burned dinner for sure. He shut the laptop and set it on the wall rack where it lived, out of the way. No greasy pizza fingers on his keyboard.

And no greasy pizza fingers on his Wall, either, but paper would do fine. He doodled and scribbled with his left hand--he'd never get praise for penmanship, but he did it left-handed just because he could.

"Science in school to take over the family business?" he scribbled, and bit into the pie. The rising crust stuff wasn't too bad, but it wasn't Chicago style. And the following drink of the 5 a.m. Saint could make make Dice forget if he was eating cardboard, frankly.

He kept the pad and paper nearby and pulled his magazine-in-progress off the windowsill, running down the reviews, and made a note to bring in some Blithering Idiot to run as a limited offer with the autumnal switch to Dennis' Quebecois onion soup and the tourtieres that Dice worried some diners might get into a fork fight over last year. They were good. They cost an arm and a leg because of all the handwork, but when Dennis made pastry the smart money ordered it.

The rest of the pizza disappeared with haste, and Dice washed the grease off his fingers before pouring a second glass of ale and getting back to work on searching the Internet--going back to the image search and looking over the pictures now that they'd become less pure. He took care to hover over each one to read the captions and make sure that they weren't his subject.

It was that care that meant he found the picture of a pre-teen girl, lifted off her feet into the embrace of a man in a navy ballistic vest stencilled with FBI. She had specks of blood on her face, mostly on the right side. She didn't hide her face into the man's shoulder, but rather stared directly into the camera lens, her expression blankly curious.

It was one image in a collection of photojournalism, mostly pictures of women and girls taken after traumatic events, illustrating an article about women's placement in news--the piece argued that portrayals of women as victims were more than twice as likely to be depicted in the media than women as authority figures. Dice frowned a bit when he read that, and then thought of all the TV and movies that used women in peril for plot devices and muttered, "That sucks."

The caption read, "Natalie Summers, aged 12, photographed shortly after FBI rescued her from her kidnapper."

Her kidnapper. Oh Mary, Mother of God. That blood on her face--Dice shuddered. He got up off the stool and headed for the Wall, writing it down, and then shooting a little line off it with the word, "crack?"

They must have shot him. That was stippled blood on her cheek, not a stream like you'd get from an arterial laceration-- This was not helping. He had the whim-whams.

After a moment a distant, oddly detached part of him thought no, this was worse than the whim-whams. It went right past the leaping wigguns and straight into red that burst like somebody'd put their thumb on a hose to make it spray, and the hot, wet slap across his face and he screamed--he screamed, Eddie hadn't--no

make it go, wash it

Go now.

He listened to that distant voice. He got into the shower, and turned the water up so hot he had to put his head between his knees when he got out. He dressed in flannel pants and a shirt with sleeves long enough that he'd cut a thumb hole in them and he clicked the Big Bell track and stood still and breathed, and when the resonance faded he set it to sound again in an hour, which is when he would drop everything he was doing on the Internet and stop.

It was right to go back so It didn't beat you, but it didn't help to push endurance. And it was okay that he didn't drink the rest of the beer. He could take that bottom blade steak out of the freezer and let it thaw. He did it right away, and added some dehydrated onion flakes, some salt, and some pepper, snapped the lid on and stuck it in the fridge. He could dump it in the slow cooker and be able to shred the meat with a fork by the time he got home. It would be good.

Beat you again, he thought, and took the trash out.


After a long night's sleep Dice woke up early again, and had that steak in the slow cooker while he cooked bacon and then fried eggs in the fat. It was a good thing. He didn't normally get through a carton of eggs without having to toss them. He put the bacon and the eggs on toast and ate them with a knife and fork. Two home cooked meals in one day? That didn't happen often. Team Resilience wins.

He took a little time on his laptop. He'd probably still have to figure out exactly what day of the week his schedule allowed him to get to the library while it was still open, so he could spend an hour trying to find the story on the newspaper archive. He'd have to do it himself. It wasn't that he didn't want to pay someone at the Post to do the research for him so much as he didn't want to leave any kind of a trail, and requesting microfiche was more on the grid than he wanted to be.

But he knew of someone, an Internet someone, who kept her ear to the ground for weird stuff. Geraldine collected this sort of thing, and a slim chance was better than none. He opened up his laptop and used the amanuensis9981 identity to send her a note:

Geraldine, hey;

Have you heard any stories in the last decade about people dying of drug overdoses that seemed suspicious, but couldn't be proven, that were especially weird? I'm thinking of someone who took a medication and died of an overdose of that medication, but the pill count was accurate or a witness could verify that the deceased had taken the usual dose, so an overdose shouldn't have been possible.

He considered for a moment, then wrote:

I'm not even certain I have something truly weird here, but I caught wind of an odd story and I'm looking for background.


He knew Geraldine would think of the most recent acquittal but that was all right. He didn't like the kind of attention that came with publishing that stuff, so she'd have the chance to publish it with her own credit.

And that was enough for today. He'd run over to the bakery and buy some rolls before work.

Part 2