Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Paine Lake, MN, January, 2008

"...I know how to use a tranq gun."

Solomon Todd had been expecting the blank look, the disbelieving eyebrow. So he'd been ready with an explanation that wasn't, really.

"Kenya," he'd said. "1977."

And Nikki Lau had blinked at him, bitten her lower lip, and slowly nodded. "Kenya."


"Right," she'd said, and sucked her teeth in the most unladylike manner possible, "So how much sedative do you figure it takes to bring down a gamma?"


And that was how Solomon Todd came to be freezing his balls off at sunrise, in Minnesota, in January, aboard an antique, doorless, bubble-headed game management helicopter while the rotors ground laboriously up to speed. Who, what, when, where, and why: the whole shooting match.

Five red-feathered syringes rested ready in a case between his legs, one empty space beside them. The .50 cal CO2 rifle was clipped beside the chair. "You know," he said, "I devoted a tour in 'Nam to not being a door gunner."

"And yet here you are volunteering." His partner on this venture, Special Agent Nikki Lau, looked different with her hair slicked back under the helmet, her eyes puffy from early rising. Older, sterner. Still pretty. She perched on the seat beside him, on-edge as a bird dog, and fussed the headset microphone and said, "Chaz is sure he's on the ice?"

Todd imitated her gesture, sliding the microphone to the edge of his mouth so it would pick up words rather than heavy breathing. Just like old times. "Chaz called me up three in the morning his time, fevered off his ass with flu, to make damned sure we looked on the ice. Chaz is sure."

She nodded without looking at him. He'd be surprised if her eyes left the window until the chopper set down again. "Ready?" she asked.

Sunrise glided broken rays between the January trees, casting endless blue ice-shadows across the lake. "Daylight," he answered. "Let's do this thing."

Lau touched her microphone unconsciously, and stuffed her hand back into her armpit. "Take us up," she said.

The chopper tipped and lifted.

Light, shadow. Ice fishermen's huts. The frozen surface of Paine Lake, the weary flatness of the Minnesota horizon in winter. And then a moving shadow, black rather than blue, head down across that flatness as if pushing into a brutal headwind. Todd tracked him through the telescopic sight on the CO2 rifle. Useless for sniping--the gun wasn't powerful enough. But he'd duct-taped it on anyway, so he didn't have to juggle the weapon and a pair of field glasses like the ones Lau had nailed to her nose. He glanced sideways and caught her adjusting them with an ungloved right hand, fingers paling where they touched icy metal.

"No obvious weapons," Todd said. Knowing Lau would know that left a lot of territory uncovered. Knowing the host could have a concealed handgun. Knowing Lau would remember the unscathed bodies stacked in the cabin, tucked neatly--gently--under newsprint pulled up to their chins.

She said, "He doesn't need a gun."

"Sure it's the host?"

"There's not supposed to be anyone else on the ice."

He didn't answer, and after a beat, she said, "Right," her voice clear and level in his ear despite the thunder of the rotors. "Let's go violate the Constitution, Duke."

He wished he thought it was funny. Even the ridiculous nickname couldn't cheer him up.

The chopper swung wide, kicking up crystal curtains of ice and snow. Through the scope, Todd saw the host lift his head, shading his eyes with hands bulky in two or three layered pairs of mittens.

Lau must have seen it too, because she drew a breath. "He was just cold."

Todd said, "Get us lower."

Lau spoke to the pilot, and as he came around again, Todd braced and leveled the rifle, cold wind stinging across his thighs and the backs of his hands. He would have bet a vintage Incredible String Band album that Marlon Perkins got paid a heck of a lot more than he did. "Lower. Lower. This is not going to work."

"Duke," Lau said, in the kind of low warning voice that tells you your passenger has just spotted an oncoming semi.

Inevitably, the host reached into his coat. Commit or pull back? Todd paced his breathing. "Closer," he said. The trigger lay searing cold against his finger. Despite fingerless gloves, he wondered how many shots he had before his hands froze enough so he wouldn't be able to feel the trigger pull.

Lau relayed, and the pilot obeyed. And Todd sighted, took a soft breath, let it out, found the pause before the next one began--and let his finger move against the trigger. Phut, the gun said, and he scrambled to eject the used CO2 canister and slap in another dart, because the host had only clapped a hand to his neck and then started groping under his parka again.

The rifle whuffed again; the host scrabbled a handgun free. Lau made a noise in her throat like a hunting dog straining the leash. "Where'd he get that?"

"Victim?" Todd asked. It didn't matter. He couldn't talk and shoot. One more dart, and the host fought his weapon up through wind-whipped snow. "This could kill him,"

"Bring it down," Lau said, as the host squeezed a wild shot somewhere in the direction of the chopper.

"Special Agent--"

The pilot's protest didn't survive her second order. "Way down. Pretend we're doing an evac."

The pilot's helmeted head bobbed, decision made. "All right then."

A vet, probably, because his flying suddenly got a whole lot less conservative. Todd slid a fourth dart into his rifle just in case, flinching back as the hard slap of another handgun shot rose over the chopper roar, penetrating his noise-damping headphones.

They came in low and he hunkered into his ballistic vest, trying to protect his throat. No use at all--

The shift of air behind him was his only warning that Lau had just done something mind-bogglingly dumb. He turned in time to witness her helmet and headset hitting the deck as she crouched, hands white-knuckled on the metal edge of the opening. She swung her feet down as he struggled one-handed with his harness release. "Nikki!" He lunged across the cabin as her slim form vanished over the door jamb, and got there in time to see her swing from the chopper's runner and thud feet-first, smack in the middle of the host's chest.

The host splatted against the frozen lake and skidded several feet, sliding out from under her as she rolled to come up on all fours. Her skinned palms left pink on the snow. She must have ditched her remaining mitten with the helmet. The host scrambled away on feet and hands, and Lau coiled to go after him.

"Get this thing on the ground!" Todd snapped, and yanked his helmet off. The chopper lurched down, far enough away that Lau wasn't under the rotors, and bumped hard. It hadn't really settled when Todd piled out, running flat-out with rifle upraised like a club. Under his boots, snow squeaked cold.

Nikki knelt on the host's back, his left arm bent up between his shoulders, but he still made fishy, swimming progress across the ice. He twisted; she rode him like a bronc buster determined to make eight seconds, groping for her cuffs with her free, bare left hand.

Todd was never stopping in time on the ice. He dropped the dart rifle aside like a major-league batter and just dove across the host's free arm, groping for a hold.

Starvation-stink of acetone. Yes, this was the host. The gamma, incredibly, fought him. Got a hand on the ice and pushed, and neither Todd nor Lau had the weight to keep him down. Todd's hands stung with cold, numb chill creeping up his wrists, and the hand he had a decent grip with was the weaker left one. Nikki's shoulder banged Todd, hard, his lower lip and nose mashed bloody, but he locked fingers he couldn't feel on the host's wrist, got his right hand into it, braced both knees, and hauled. The gamma was strong enough to resist him--but the host's shoulder and elbow were not. His trigger finger poked through a ragged slit in the palm of the mitten. Something snapped sharply as the arm came back and around.

The host screamed against the ice, and Lau twisted the cuffs and slammed them around his wrist.

Todd rocked back, blood spattering the front of his Kevlar, and slapped his cuffs into Lau's outstretched fingers with blue numb hands. Lau pushed up the host's sleeves, peeling off his mittens with seeping hands to add the second pair of cuffs over bare skin.

It was impossible to overestimate a gamma. Even a drugged and restrained one. "Jesus," Lau yelped. "Ow. He's freezing my damn hands--"

Not just her hands. Her breath would have hissed blue clouds between her teeth no matter what, but Todd could see the bruised color creeping up her wrists, and winced in sympathy. Lau closed a hand jerkily over the cuffs and squeezed, and the host shouted. "We'll get you warm," Lau said. "Dammit. Ow! Stop. I promise, I promise. I'll take you someplace warm. Right now. You'll never ever be cold again, but you have to stop doing that."

And just like that, the host went limp, collapsing into the ice. Lau looked up at Todd, shaking each set of fingers out by turns while Todd rubbed his own numb ones. She always kept one hand on the cuffs while she did it.

"Let's get him inside. Now, while the tranq is still working." Three darts, she said with her eyebrows.

Hands on his knees, heaving from the sprint and the struggle, Todd shook his head. "James Unbefucking Bond. Lady, I'm supposed to be the crazy lucky one."

Knee in the host's back, shifting her weight before she stood, she grinned. "Gotta think invincible."