Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Baltimore, MD, June 2008

Once upon a time, at the end of the dark night of the world, Fox and Coyote were playing cards.

Draw, stud, hold 'em--each hand was a new puzzle. Each puzzle was a handful of time snatched and saved from ruin. The well filled up over the waking day, until by night it brimmed with memory, fear, lost chances, dread, nightmares-in-waiting, deep enough to top the head of even a very tall man and drown him.

Sol Todd knew it from experience.

Except for the occasional outbreak of restrained bluffing, it wasn't chatty poker. Usually for Sol the best part of a poker game was the commentary, the puns, the patter of his fellow players. But these games on these nights were mathematical exercises, games of statistics and probability. Whatever filled that well, it was made of words and emotions, not math.

They played for toothpicks, because that made it real.

On occasion, a nurse would appear at the door. "You'd better wind this up, sir. You're keeping Agent Villette from his sleep." They would raise their heads from their cards and nod to keep the peace. Either of them could have said, "That's the point."

Neither was foolish enough to admit it out loud. The trick only worked if you didn't explain it.

Sol always shuffled and dealt. They didn't talk about that, either.

He'd played cards with Chaz more often than he could count. It was one of the ways the team tested each other and themselves and pretended they were just passing time. When Chaz shuffled, his spider-leg fingers looked awkward, but the cards flew and blurred, fanned and bridged and flipped in the sharper's distracting seven-veils dance. He dealt like a casino pro, swift and precise.

The first time Sol shuffled the deck on the hospital's overbed table, the fingers of Chaz's cast-bound right hand twitched. Only once, and never again. Chaz's eyes followed Sol's hands as they squared the deck the first time. After that, during the deal, they settled anywhere else.

Sol wondered how and when Chaz learned to play cards. He planned to ask someday, when he thought Chaz could choose between an answer and a story.

A person ought to be allowed to choose between non-fiction and fiction, at least among friends. Non-fiction and silence was a lousy choice, after all. Someday Chaz would have a story about learning to play cards. Someday he'd have one about that house in Texas, too. Maybe a handful of them. But it took distance and long practice to turn terror and pain into a narrative, then into one that could be shared.

And killing, in the end, was just another story.

"Fold," Chaz said, and mucked his cards.

Chaz folded more often than he used to. Sol wouldn't have called him a reckless player, before. But he could figure the odds, and he wasn't afraid of losing. Now, without even pennies at stake, he was a stone.

Sol nudged the little heap of toothpicks toward himself with a fingertip. "Just in time for corn on the cob season."

A muscle in Chaz's throat twitched; his gaze flicked up and away. "Month and a half still," he said, as if offering a hypothesis.

You could lose time with PTSD, like a drunk with blackouts. Your memory could be written over. "Among us decent folk accustomed to properly-grown corn. We know it's only knee-high by the Fourth of July. Though honestly, I don't think I ever saw corn that short on the Fourth that wasn't flooded out. But people will insist on grilling corn on Independence Day, so some heretics must be perverting nature for their own ends."

"You ate four unnatural ears last Memorial Day."

"I can't afford to miss an opportunity to eat even inferior corn on the cob. Someday I'll be awash in regret and denture adhesive."

Chaz grinned, which turned into a yawn. He didn't bother to hide it with either hand. Sol tried to remember if that was normal for Chaz, but couldn't bring an instance to mind.

"Time I blew this pop stand." Sol stood up. His ass ached from the plastic chair, as always, but as always, he didn't wince or groan. "Have to be home for a phone call." He reset the table height so it would clear the bed and Chaz's knees.

"From the Left Coast?"

Chaz had made a joke of sounding wistful over Liz's calls from San Diego. An agreeable fiction that let him, and Sol, pretend he wasn't wistful. The note was missing this time, replaced with nothing at all. "Yep," said Sol. He watched Chaz hold neutral up before his sallow, bony face for a count of three before he looked away, turning to the clock as if it mattered what time it was.

That was something to think about on the ride home.

Sol stretched and walked to the door. "I'll tell the valkyries at the nurse's station they can come and tuck you in."


He turned back. Chaz had settled against the slant of his bed, but his eyes were open, his face intent. "Are you ever going to tell anyone how you lost the fingers?"

Sol wrinkled his brow and thrust his lower lip out, just enough to be too much. It was a reflex; it happened before he could decide if it was a good idea. "I have told you."

Chaz didn't protest, or laugh. He just waited. Sol thought of Reyes: the same unchanging face, the unblinking eyes, the relentless, ruthless patience. Reyes wouldn't have needed to ask again, either. "I may," Sol said. "If I need to."

Chaz's eyes narrowed; he nodded.

As he walked down the hall to the desk, Sol wondered what Chaz had just heard. He hoped it was good.