Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Washington, D.C., March 2009

Solomon Todd does not read his own fanmail.

Oh yes, he still gets some; as long as there'll be colleges there'll be disaffected college students, the kind with long hair and vintage Che Guevara tees or the type of beard that just begs for the gentle, godly touch of a pair of old-style clippers, and as long as there are college students he'll still see that compact royalty cheque for Life By Misadventure every six months. It's in its thirteenth printing. They slowed down some once the internet came out, but Todd doesn't mind. He was never really in the thing for the money.

He pays a perennially out-of-work philosophy major with long, swinging Scando-dreads to take it in like laundry. Geraldine tosses all the panties and saves the nudie pictures, autograph requests, and anything being offered for the low, low cost of free. Anything truly weird goes as tithe to his liege lord Stephen Reyes, to live in photocopy eternal in the collection of blurry alien autopsy pictures, first-person accounts of the secret war in Heaven starring Tom Hanks, and missives all in capitals fingering neighbours and other local annoyances as government agents or rogue bodysnatchers, all admirable as examples of subjectivity in journalism. The letters from jailbird bikers, once lush and plentiful, are quietly disappeared before he ever sees them. Conflict of interest's a bitch.

The unsinkable Salome Todd, soeur, used to do it gratis, back in the days when he didn't have his own regular address. It was the kind of thing that gave her a laugh until the first really detailed piece of hate mail came in and he had to talk her out of getting a second shotgun. Now he pays someone, and meets at a prearranged rendezvous in Adams Morgan for the handover every first Sunday of the month. They're reasonably surreptitious; you hand me the briefcase--or in this case, the beat-up canvas tote bag—and I slide you the manila envelope with ten crisp unmarked bills.

Sometimes, he buys Ger a coffee.

Today is one such day: blustery March cool, with the rain blowing against the windowpanes of Geraldine's local, a trendy converted-house coffeeshop of the subtype that always feels to Todd like the coffeehouses of the sixties run through the photocopier a few too many times. None of the mugs match and the floors are creaking wood. Both the outdoor and indoor signage--CounterCulture in bright blue-and-green letters--are handpainted.

"Got an interesting one," Ger says over chipped blue nailpolish and a latte bowl painted up with an impressionist rendering of the Stonewall Inn. It's amazing, the things that become souvenir fodder. "I held it back for you."

She removes it from her coat pocket. The envelope's slit open at the top, white and wrinkled. "Hans Gruber," he guesses, taking it from her hand.

"Nah. I didn't read past the first paragraph." And that raises Todd's eyebrows, because Geraldine is usually ruthless in her efficient triage, assignation, and absorption of other people's business. "It seemed, well. Private."

Curiouser and curiouser.

Solomon Todd opens the letter right there. Anything else is asking for a dance with a logging truck on the way home, the kind where they find the incriminating letter right next to the dirty underwear and your dead body never lives it down.

Mr. Todd, it says. It's handwritten. You can tell an awful lot about a person by their handwriting; it's Todd's policy to always type. This person, from their--her, he corrects, after glancing to the end--blue-ballpoint penmanship, is young enough, smart enough, and horrifically nervous.

You don't know me, it starts. Many of Todd's letters start that way. But very few of them continue: My dad was Wally Pasqualero. You'd have known him as Fresno.

Fresno wore a black leather jacket and beard in the summertime in 1976, but everyone did. He babied his cobbled-together Harley and was bluff and quiet where other people were bluff and loud. He could make a chili verde that would burn your testicles off with only one cast-iron skillet and a spare chassis rod for a spoon, cooking over a cooling Caddy engine block in the middle of the high Nevada desert at midnight. He was a one-percenter to the bone--and a terribly inaccurate label that was, but even inaccurate labels could get reclaimed by the people on the other side of the sticker--but you'd not know it for sure at first, looking at him. And Fresno, thinly disguised in the way that journalism about the Hells Angels required, was a central character of Life By Misadventure.

"So, Hans got your wife?" Ger asks. Her organic, fair trade, soy milk, half-sweet latte's empty. Todd has perhaps been staring.

"And my kid, and my plane, and some teenage hackers and my fish," he replies.

Geraldine offers him a terrorist fist-bump, which he doesn't rise to. She knocks it gently on his balding head instead and tucks her filthy lucre down her bodice. "See you next month," she says, and sashays out the door in a cloud of solvency.

He dumps the envelope onto the table.

There are pictures inside. Family birthdays, poses with that Harley, grinning summertime porch shots with the bottle of Bud only half-hidden behind a scuffed black leather boot. Fresno looks bizarrely old, though the grin's the same. People do get old; Todd knows that, intellectually. Even when you're not looking. He looks at them carefully before he reads from the letter again.

My dad died this year, it says. It was a heart attack; we kind of knew it was coming, and he went in his sleep. I found your book with his things.

I didn't know most of those things about him.

So since you told me the beginning, I figure it's fair I tell you the rest.

Fresno got married to a girl he picked up working security at an obscure concert in Dayton, Ohio. The band didn't last the year, but Fresno and his girl (pictured in a brown and orange floral dress and too much mascara, holding his hand) bought a pastel blue house with aluminum siding, settled down, got jobs. Had some kids. He stopped being Fresno for a while. He started being Wally.

It didn't last. There was a mortgage, so there were runs with his old buddies. And there was jail time, once or twice or three times, and long stretches of silence in the pastel blue house that lingered for months after he came home. There were drugs. He kicked the drugs. He got into NA. His wife left anyway. He sent his son and daughter to college.

They came home to hold his hand when the illness that took the brass knuckles to his heart showed up, and didn't leave until it finished the job six months later and they buried him. He died, peaceful, in his bed.

That is the end of the story.

There are a lot of stories Solomon Todd can't tell, and a lot of things he can't say but in stories. That can be crippling. Working with the ACTF, and the BAU before it, drove home the knowledge that there are some things that don't have a beginning, middle, and end; most things, in fact. It's only sheer luck or providence that ever lets you turn the last page on something, close the cover and put it down clean. The rest is wondering, and learning to put things away; forgetting all the things you knew. That's the trick of subjective journalism; pretending the story is over when the lens turns away.

He keeps the letter in his pocket on the drive home, separate from the rest of his fanmail like the Hope Diamond plucked out of a fountain's worth of tarnished, soggy pennies. He slings the bag next to the fishtank when he gets in, forgotten, and goes to his writing desk.

There's a return address. You get that even less often than the whole story.

Thank you, he writes her on a fresh sheet of lined paper, the only kind he's ever bothered using, with his semi-retired fountain pen. Above his desk, on the bookshelf, Fresno's grinning young face stares at him out of the one photograph he had; a clutch of young men in worn denim straddling their bikes, shadows cast onto a pitted California highway, and Solomon Todd, hands in his pockets, beside them. For telling me the end.