Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Washington, D.C., April 2009

Nicolette Lau should have, by rights, never run into the girl.

Even before she'd started training to pass the PFT and the twenty weeks at Quantico that came after, she'd been proud of what her body could do. Not the way her sister-in-law was proud, but of its reflexes, its awareness, the way it could put off calm or angry or trustworthy or notice if someone was walking just far enough behind her at two in the morning. All those things were assets at My Sister's Place, where trained volunteers were always a little bit overworked and most of the residents had read tea leaves in the hitch of a husband's, a boyfriend's, a parent's shoulders every night for years, trying to anticipate the punches. Nikki Lau paid extra attention on her Thursday nights at the shelter. She made sure the weather around her body was kind, that she wasn't pushing into anyone's personal no-man's-land.

She should have never run into the girl.

But for once, she wasn't looking where she was going. Part five of the open-ended serial of Martha Kaplansky's brother's Big Gay Wedding was screening right behind her left shoulder, narration and pantomime both, and there was a blind turn at the corner of the stairs: the kind that made you wish that women's shelters had the kind of money to design their own spaces and not just take whatever urban castoff was in a good enough neighbourhood. She was watching Martha's puffy, white hands when she came around the corner--

--and ran straight into somebody small enough, thin enough that even Nikki Lau could knock her over.

She wasn't thin enough that Nikki Lau could knock her over and still keep on her feet. She went down hard too, butt bouncing on the white lino-and-rubber stairs. The reflexes kicked in quick enough to tuck her chin, loosen her limbs, keep her neck and spine from dancing with the staircase while her calves fought to get her back on her feet.

"Shit!" she heard Martha say, instinctively hurl herself back. A lot of the volunteers at My Sister's Place were also survivors. There was an ingrained reaction to violence. "You okay?" was the second reaction, and it was probably to both of them, her and whoever she'd just gone head-on into.

Was she okay? Butt sore, legs sore. Blinking with adrenaline. Her hand at the small of her back, under the jacket. Where the backup gun was.

God. Her fight-or-flight was firing. Lau stuffed it down, deliberately breathed deep and even. The common room was quiet, too quiet; everyone was watching. She needed to cut that shit out before it scared the residents.

The girl she'd run into was on her ass too, right at the bottom of the stairs: a woman in her late teens or very early twenties, copper-dark skin, dark hair skinned back in a ratty ponytail over a big, floppy Georgetown tee-shirt that had seen better days. Her dark eyes were wide, the pupils too big. Desperately afraid. Oh, hell.

She should never have run into that girl--

"Shit, I'm sorry," she said, rising not to her feet but into a crouch, so she didn't tower over the girl and make it worse. Lau held out a hand to help her up, rubbed her own thigh with the other. You and me. We're in this together. Nothing to be afraid of here. "You okay? I should've been paying more attention."

The girl shied away from her hand, seemingly as autopilot as Lau's going for the gun that wasn't there, before shaking her head. She got one clear look at the way the tendons moved, the bones standing out stark against her skin in a way Lau recognized all too well--

And then the woman blurred, as if she'd pulled a curtain; a soft voice murmured, "I'm fine, I'm fine, no harm, no foul," nervous and soothing.

And then she wasn't there.

Lau blinked. The other day upon the stair / I met a man who wasn't there / He wasn't there again today / I wish that man would go away jangled through her head, and then, more clearly: Oh, shit.

"Who was that?" Lau asked, standing now, dusting herself off. No gamma to the right; no gamma to the left. No, she didn't know the girl was a gamma. Not with that soft voice, the way she'd elided herself neatly from the landscape. No beta to the left. Oh man, oh man.

"Who was who?" said Martha. "Woman, you need to be more careful. They'll say I pushed," and grinned.

Oh man.

"One sec," Lau said, remembering those big, dark eyes. Feeling the memory blur in the back of her head. She dusted her palms on the legs of her jeans and booted it to the front desk.

Grace was on duty behind the high counter: the front desk had been a snack bar in the small community centre before all the kids had moved out of this neighbourhood and the city had sold it to My Sister's Place for the equivalent of a cursory dollar fee. She looked up, creased concern on her forehead under the carefully-straightened hair. Grace was a nice lady; she wasn't loud about her vanities. "Hey, you all right there?"

"Hey," Lau said, quick terse smile. "I'm fine. Do we have someone new in today? Small, late teens, black girl? I think I knocked her over just now." This was normal. Any iffy contact with residents was to be reported. Everything had to stay on the up-and-up here.

Grace opened her book, scanned down the names. "Not that I know," she said. There was a look in her eyes, faraway. Blank and puzzled.

Lau swallowed. Now she couldn't remember the hair, whether it was long or short. The logo on that big tee-shirt that maybe wasn't so big, just that the ribs and belly and chest underneath them were way too small...

Act fast, she told herself. Pulled out a crisp, official business card and snapped it onto the counter.

"Just if you see her again?" Lau asked, suddenly bitter certain that Grace wouldn't see her again, even if her eyes did. "Let her know I have some friends who are like her. I can maybe help her. With everything."

"Right," Grace said, clearly not sure what the hell had blown in on her quiet weeknight shift. Lau nodded, exhaling, and took herself back into the common room. Her leg was sore. Bleh.

When she looked back, Grace was noodling at the ancient computer on her desk, calm and smoothed of all worry. The card wasn't there.

Nikki Lau grinned; one second of relief, of hopeful victory before she forgot why she was smiling, why she'd come over there at all.