Teasers & Deleted Scenes
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., June 2008
Nikki Lau stood at the rear of shooting booth number four, watching Hafidha load .40 caliber cartridges into a magazine. Like watching a t'ai chi master, she thought. Perfect focus, perfect relaxation, no motion wasted. Hafidha's thin brown fingers compressed the spring feed, pinched cartridges from the box, popped them in place. Her face said there was nothing in the world except cartridge, magazine, countertop, the semi-auto lying on it. Here, now. All else is illusion.
Lau watched, and thought about what it meant to be bulletproof.
"You are not, of course, making me nervous," Hafidha said, without looking up.
"Because nothing makes you nervous." Once, Lau would have believed it.
Hafidha locked the magazine into the Glock, racked the slide, and laid the pistol back on the counter, muzzle pointed downrange. Then she looked up and smiled. "Are you planning to make actual holes in paper, or are you gonna dry-fire and slack off?"
"I only had to load ten. I'm shooting the squinky little gun today."
"Did I call the Walther 'squinky'?"
"You did, you beast. Its feelings were hurt."
Hafidha shook her head. Light caught the red and silver beads on the scrunchy that held back the cloud of her hair. "Oh, man. Tell it I apologize. I don't want it to misfire if you're saving my ass."
"I'll take care of that right now." Lau stepped around the partition to booth three. You can talk later, chica, she told herself. Head in the game. Then she thought, Chicken.
Lau had lost count of the number of times she'd used the basement range in the Hoover building. But there was still something strange and wonderful about it, and about her being in it. It smelled of machine oil and hot metal and smoke, like the inside of an engine. Everything in it was functional, purposeful.
Commercial ranges had ad stickers on the airlock doors, jokes (many of them annoying) and trophies and memorabilia in the front room. Here the surfaces were plain, clean, and bare. Signs only told shooters things they needed to know. Do the work, this place said. Leave your ego, politics, sex, race, and religion outside.
She hooked her electronic muffs off the scuffed countertop (how many people had stood here before her?) and settled them over her ears. She flipped the lever that brought the target holder on its cable zipping back to booth three, clipped the silhouette on it, and called, "Twenty yards to start?" She took off her watch and laid it on the counter.
"Works for me," Hafidha's voice replied from the other side of the partition.
The whine of the two cables carrying two targets out to the twenty-yard mark sounded like a mosquito through her hearing protection.
The little Walther snugged into the hollow of her palm when she closed her fingers around the grip. The Taurus PRO she carried on her hip held more rounds, shot Bureau-standard .40 caliber, and performed just as it ought. But with the ten-shot nine millimeter Walther, she understood why people shot for fun. Because of that, she tried to practice twice as often with the Taurus.
Hafidha fired first. Lau resisted the temptation to see where that shot had gone, and checked the second hand on her watch instead. Push-pull grip, sight picture, squeeze, sight again, squeeze... Lau counted ten shots as the action locked open. She checked her watch again. Six seconds. Meh. Hafidha's target was already swooping back toward the firing line. Lau thumbed the lever to bring hers in.
"Evildoers beware," Hafidha crowed from her booth.
"That good, huh?"
"False modesty is beneath me. How'd you do?"
The holes were grouped loosely, high and left. That wouldn't have killed William Villette. The little shock was almost familiar now, the cold, sick feeling that started behind her eyes, ran down her skin, and finished in her gut. Anxiety response. The one she woke with in the middle of the night, convinced Chaz was still lost and she had to find him now.
She swallowed. Perky voice, Valley Girl cheerleader. "Let's say I'd have been in trouble if Mr. Target hadn't stood still."
"That's because you're thinking about whatever you want to talk to me about."
Well, shit. Lau laid the Walther down on the counter and rounded the partition into the next bay. Hafidha was already taking out her earplugs. They had the range to themselves; it was all right.
Lau's palms were damp. If she didn't shake hands or wipe them on her trousers, no one would know that. "I could use some advice. Sort-of-advice."
"As long as it's not about romance." Hafidha made it "RO-mance," drawling and satirical. She turned to unclip her target; Lau couldn't see her face when she said, "I've decided I have no clue about that."
Lau was tempted to chase that one. Hafs had speed-dated her way confidently through a host of interesting and decorative guys, and had seemed content to have it so. Nuh-uh. Follow through, girl. "Which makes two of us. But no. This is about hospital visiting protocol."
Like a click of the pause button: Hafidha, hands still raised and holding her target. Then she looked over her shoulder, eyebrows arched above her glasses frames, and the video went on. "Call first. No one wants a girl he has a crush on to see him in a hospital johnny."
Lau started to laugh. And was horrified when her throat clenched on the sound, when she gulped and coughed air, when tears stung in her eyes.
There was no place to sit. She pressed her back against the partition, and felt Hafidha tuck a tissue into her fingers. She swiped at her eyes and blew her nose. "Sorry," she gasped.
"Yeah. It's-- I don't want to do that to Chaz."
"He'd hate that."
Lau nodded, bit her lip, and looked up into Hafidha's face. "I've got a friend...my best friend. She was... Her father abused her. She told a few people, after it stopped. It was so hard to know what to do. If I ignored it, that would have been a lie. But if it changed how I treated her--even for the better--I'd be saying it made her someone else. I didn't want to hurt her. And I didn't know how not to."
Hafidha listened with her head tipped, frowning. "Ah. And now it's Chaz."
"Yeah." Dana had chosen to tell her. If Chaz had been able to choose, would he have hidden away for a few months and come back healed, so he wouldn't have to face his teammates and know that behind their faces was the memory of him broken and helpless? She could tell him it didn't matter. She couldn't say it didn't exist.
"This girl who was abused." Hafidha turned back to the counter, dropped the empty magazine out of the Glock into her right palm. "You still friends with her?"
"Still my best friend. Even after her brother and I split up."
"Then you got it right that time." Hafidha nodded and began to reload the magazine. "I'm going to see him after work. Want to come along?"
It would be easier, just for this first time. And Hafidha wouldn't offer if she thought Lau would screw it up. "Please."
"Have you reloaded yet? Come on, sugar. I need to kick your ass at twenty-five yards."
Lau took a deep breath and let it out. "Yeah, good luck with that." She sounded almost normal. Which was enough.