Blunt Force Kharma
Copyright 2016 M.E. Purfield
Previously published as Kharma’s Abrasive Contusions
Published by Trash Books
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of total fiction
jesus freakz + buddha punx
Party Girl Crashes the Rapture
Fountain & Fairfax
A Black Deeper Than Death
In A Blackened Sky Where Dreams Collide
Blood Like Cherry Ice
Bawling Sugar Soul
A Girl Close to Death
Heart on the Devil’s Sleeve
Sinking Stones in the Sky
In Heaven/Let Down
Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style & Others
Joy Rides for Shut-ins
The man in the suit standing on the edge of the midtown forty-floor stone building had a serious expression on his face. Kharma, down on the street and looking up with the rest of the people, had no doubt that he was going to die. The only question was, when? As soon as she noticed the jumper, the FOP approached in their hover vehicles with their sirens screaming and lights flashing. Traffic above cleared, restricted by the floating traffic signs that suddenly rose up. At first only a few people were watching from the ground, Kharma being one of them. But the FOP’s grand show grabbed the rest of the city’s attention and inadvertently invited them over.
“When’s he going to jump?” a woman in her mid-thirties and wearing a red apron with brown stains on it asked. Kharma guessed she worked at the caffeine café on the same block.
“He’s not going to jump,” a man behind Kharma said, his voice deep and gravely.
She kept her back to him and her eyes on the jumper standing on the highest ledge between two windows. The building belonged to Live Corp. The guy in the suit fit the description of someone who worked there. Live Corp had tight security and also hired the FOP. If someone did sneak into the building for whatever reason, they wouldn’t be like this guy. No. If someone snuck in they would appear scared. Using her tablet, Kharma opened the telephoto on the camera app to grab a decent shot of the jumper. His face was sweating, but he didn’t seem scared or trapped. He appeared determined.
By now, three crafts floated around the top of the building. Two belonged to the FOP and the other had the local media insignia on the side. Kharma silently laughed to herself. The hovercraft model used by the FOP hasn’t been updated since her time with them. It was still the same two-seater with semi-auto and auto discharger. It’s been a few years, she was sure that they would have upgraded to the four-seater so they could take in prisoners.
“Jordan Pacheco,” a voice from one of the FOP hovers said through its speaker. “You are in violation of the law and endangering the lives of citizens.”
“Not really,” the gravel-voiced man behind Kharma said. “I’m sure we could clear a space for him to land and not hurt anyone. No one wants a body to crush them.”
Kharma smirked. The man had a point.
“If he’s going to jump,” a woman in a fur coat and leggings said, “Then the least he could do is let us know where he will hand. I don’t want to get blood on my clothes. God, then I’d have to sue his family.”
“Jordan Pacheco,” the FOP craft said, “You have thirty seconds to remove yourself from the ledge and submit yourself to the officers inside.”
The jumper craned his neck out and gripped the building. A few people backed away, thinking he was going to jump. But he wasn’t going to jump, Kharma was sure of it. The guy was going to do his family a favor and avoid any lawsuits from the likes of the fur coat lady.
Thirty seconds went by. An FOP officer leaned out of a window on the same level. He wore the standard dark blue armor and held a pulse rifle. The jumper tensed. Kharma wasn’t positive but his lips might be moving in prayer. The FOP officer fired at the jumper. The blast broke through the side of the man’s chest. He grabbed the burn and screamed out. In the next second, his body disintegrated from the inside. Nothing was left but ash that flew into the wind.
A few people opened their umbrellas or placed their tablets over their heads so they wouldn’t get dirty. Kharma shook her head and understood why the FOP never upgraded to the four-seater.
Vera Mueller stood outside the storefront office on Grand Street. Although she wasn’t that far from her own home a few blocks away, she didn’t feel completely safe being here. She hoped she didn’t have to wait too long. The sign under the one that read Kharma Investigations and Security, said ‘Out to Lunch. Be Back Soon.’ How soon was soon and when did they go out to lunch? Vera had hoped that the door would be open and that she could wait inside; at least sit and be out of the cold.
She checked her watch and saw that she would have to start her shift cleaning at the hospital soon. Even if this person were to return she wasn’t sure she would have enough time to tell her story and hire the detective. Vera decided to give up, maybe try again tomorrow, and walked down the street. Not two feet away did she notice a woman approaching. She was almost six feet tall and in her mid-thirties. As she moved closer, Vera Mueller noticed that something was wrong with her skin. She had all the features of an African American woman, but there were pink patches on her face. One side had missing pigment from her eye to jaw line while the other side was spotted from her cheek to her forehead. Her hair was long and braided. She wore dark pants and a black jacket that ended a few inches from her knees. Vera made out the gray cotton of a sweatshirt reaching the top of her jacket.
“Um, excuse me,” Vera Mueller said to the tall woman. “Are you Ms. Kharma?”
The woman stopped and nodded her head.
“My name is Vera Mueller and I would like to hire you. Are you returning to your office now?”
“I am,” Kharma said. “C’mon.”
Vera followed Kharma back to the storefront. She opened the door with her keycard and showed the woman inside. As Kharma turned on the lights, Vera looked around the office space. Although it was long and narrow and had a desk with computer, chairs, and couches for a waiting area, she could still see the remnants of a small market that used to be here before it went out of business. She noticed the missing tiles on the floor, the water stains on the ceiling, and the drywall filled with holes. At first it bothered her; seemed so unprofessional, but then she remembered what she had heard from the others who hired Ms. Kharma.
“Mind if I keep the shutter down?” Kharma said, motioning to the metal sheet covering the front window. “Thing has been jamming lately and I haven’t the money to fix it yet.”
“It seems bright enough.”
Kharma showed Vera to the large cushiony seat in front of the desk. The detective took off her jacket, hung it on a plastic coat-rack that had so many scratches that it must have come from the garbage, and sat behind her desk on the squeaking chair.
“So, what can I do for you, Ms. Mueller?” Kharma asked.
“Mrs,” Vera said.
She wrung her hands and took a deep breath. “You were recommended to me by a few people, Ms. Kharma. They said you are a good detective.”
“Anyway, you used to be with the FOP?”
“But you left.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Is this why I need to charge you for my services, Mrs. Mueller?”
“No. I’m sorry.” She forced a smile, hoping to change the stern expression on the detective’s face. “I have never done this before. I’m nervous, I guess.”
“I understand. Now, please, tell me why you want to hire me.”
“It’s my daughter,” Vera said. “She has gone missing.”
“How old is your daughter?”
“Fourteen. Going to be fifteen in May.”
“And she’s been missing how long?”
“The FOP has no leads?”
“I cannot afford the FOP.”
Kharma leaned forward with her patched hands crossed over the desk.
“Not a lot of people can. Tell me how your daughter disappeared.”
“She went missing on Monday. The last we saw her was in the morning before school. I was home and her father dropped her off at the Riley Brothers Academy.”
“Good school, from what I hear. She must be smart.”
“My daughter, Jessica, is very smart. Very bright. Anyway. She was at the school. She made the attendance list throughout the day and was seen leaving the school with her friend Janine Flowers.”
“Her father doesn’t pick her up from school?”
“Not at that time of day. We are both at work. In the morning the sun is not yet up and we are nervous about Jessica walking to school. We know the Flowers so we alternate carpool. But when school lets out we feel more comfortable with her walking home as long as she is with someone. She walks home every day with Janine.”
“The girls take 3rd Avenue home. We live on 10th Street and the Flowers live on 8th, so the girls part ways at 10th. From there Jessica only has to walk one block to our building. It’s a safe block with other working class families and a church across the street. She never came home.”
“Does Jessica have a tablet?”
“Yes, I know where you’re going with that. When we got it for her we did activate the GPS app. We performed a trace and found her tablet on 3rd Street. It was in an alley next to the Mexican Diner. We asked around there but no one has seen her.”
“And you haven’t heard from her since. No ransom message or…anything?”
Suddenly Vera felt her eyes swell. She quickly opened her bag and pulled out a tissue. As she dried them, she noticed Kharma turning away as if to give her privacy.
“I’m sorry,” Vera said. “It’s been very hard for us. Even for my husband. Jessica is our only child and one that we were not meant to have due to health reasons on my husband’s end.”
“Where is Mr. Mueller? Did he not want to come here today?”
“He couldn’t. He has a very important bid to work on for the city. He wanted to come, but…he’s been working very hard to pay for Jessica’s education.”
Mrs. Mueller slapped her hand to her mouth as if she said the wrong thing.
“I understand,” Kharma said. “Can I offer you a drink?”
Vera glanced at her watch. “No. I’m afraid I can’t stay. I need to get to work soon.”
“St. Magdalene’s. And no, I am not a doctor,” Vera said and smiled.
Kharma smiled back. “Okay. Well, I can try to find your daughter. I charge 300 credits a day plus expenses. If I can’t find her in five days then I’ll drop the case and recommend you go to the FOP.”
“Money is a problem for us. That’s why we chose to come to you. Also, you are one person, not some bureaucratic business that puts their bigger clients first. We trust that you will give the matter your full attention.”
“Let’s just see how the next few days go, then,” Kharma says. “I’ll take three days in advance.”
“Like I said, the money is the problem.”
This time Vera turned away. She cracked her fingers and almost rubbed blisters in her skin.
Kharma sighed, leaned back on the squeaking chair, and crossed her legs. “As you can see, I can’t afford to work for free, Mrs. Mueller.” She points around the office. “If you think this place is bad, you should see my apartment upstairs.”
“What if…Mr. Mueller owns his own contracting business. Perhaps…Maybe we can fix your building up in exchange for the fees.”
“Mrs. Mueller, it would cost two weeks of fees to fix this place up.”
“Then that should give you plenty of time to find Jessica. And if you find her before the two weeks we will still repair your building. My daughter’s life is worth more than that.”
Kharma looked up at the water stain above her head. She screwed her mouth to the side and then smiled.
“Deal,” Kharma said.
Vera smiled and tried to keep herself from jumping over the desk and hugging the tall woman.
Mrs. Mueller had just enough time to fill in some basic information for Kharma before she went to work. She still needed pictures of Jessica Mueller. Mrs. Mueller promised to email them to Kharma overnight after work. For now, for the rest of the afternoon, Kharma sat her butt behind her desk and worked on the computer. In her experiences, the family usually perpetrated kidnappings and kids that ran away were usually running from the parent. So instead of going through the motions and finding out later that the family kidnapped the child or caused their own child to runaway, for whatever reason, she decided to investigate Mr. and Mrs. Mueller.
Kharma ran the Mueller’s social security numbers through all the legal databases her license afforded her; utilities, FOP public records, government agencies, etc. So far she found Mrs. Mueller had told the truth. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment on 10th Street. She worked in St. Magdalene’s Hospital and Mr. Mueller owned and operated his own contracting business. Based on consumer reports and references, Mr. Mueller appeared to be a competent contractor. Kharma smiled, hoping she could find the girl; she was growing tired of water dripping on her head.
Once done with the legal sites, she searched the bank that issued Mrs. Mueller’s credit number. She hacked into the site through an admin backdoor and gained root access. From there she scanned the Mueller’s financials. Based on savings and credit history, they seemed like a regular working class family with stable finances. Kharma could not find any monetary reason why they would fake a child’s kidnapping. Or, that they would sell their child.
Kharma glanced out the front entrance window and noticed that the sun went down. The streetlights shined bright and the foot traffic increased with people rushing to return home for the night. Exhausting what she could find on the Internet, Kharma closed up shop and walked to her car to see what else she could find out about the Muellers.
Sitting in her hover car on 10th Street, Kharma turned on the directional mic and checked the recording space on the internal hard drive. She synced up the wireless headset and placed it over her ears. She attached the directional mic on a mini tripod and aimed it out the car’s front passenger window at the Mueller’s apartment on the second floor.
Earlier, Kharma had seen Mr. Mueller return home. Based on his picture on the Division of Hover Vehicles website, she spotted him walking down the street wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and a thick denim winter coat. Like the traditional construction worker, he carried a metal lunch pale and thermos. The guy appeared totally retro, reminding Kharma of her own father. The middle-aged man with a beard and soft blue eyes entered the apartment building.
For the next few hours she listened to the man sing, fix dinner, watch television, and clean the apartment. Using her tablet, Kharma hacked into the man’s email accounts and made sure there was nothing suspicious. The man hadn’t received or sent an email in months. Mostly, he had junk mail.
By midnight, Kharma spotted Mrs. Mueller walking home from her shift at the hospital. She appeared sluggish. Twice she dropped her keys. When she entered the apartment, Kharma listened to the couple greet each other, hug, and kiss. Mrs. Mueller told her husband that Kharma was going to take the assignment. Mr. Mueller clapped his hands and said how wonderful this was for them. Then the weeping started.
“What’s wrong Martin?” Mrs. Mueller asked.
“When Jessica was born, I never thought I would be so happy that a detective would offer to find our daughter. I thought I would feel such joy when she gained acceptance into a college or married the man of her dreams or gave us a grandchild.” The man released a few more sobs. “Why is this happening to my baby?”
“I know, Martin. I know.”
When Kharma differentiated two kinds of sobbing, she turned off the directional mic and flew home.
The Riley Brothers Academy was a large, four-level gray stone building that took up almost half of the city block. A black metal gate surrounded the front of the school and protected the yards of space between it and the sidewalk. Kharma stood a few feet from the entrance. She arrived before the sun rose so she could see the kids start to enter. The female guard at the entrance eyed her, but kept her distance. Holding her tablet in one hand and a cup of caffeine in the other, Kharma studied the picture that Mrs. Mueller sent last night. One was of Jessica and Janine Flowers in large puffy pajamas on a couch, probably taken during a sleepover. The two girls seemed close. But were they close enough that Jessica told Janine secrets?
The crowd of kids grew bigger and it became more difficult to find Janine Flowers. But Kharma towered over the crowd and within the next fifteen minutes spotted the best friend walking alone to the entrance of the city school. She was about five foot three or four, had long blond hair, and wore a light blue peat coat that showed off her pale skin. The girl kept her eyes down from the world but still managed not to crash into anyone. Her back was slightly hunched from the heavy book bag on her back.
“Janine,” Kharma said.
The girl stopped and looked up at the giant woman with the pink-patched skin. Suspicion filled her eyes. She stepped back.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Kharma held out her identification, which included the investigator license. She introduced herself and told her she was working for the Muellers. “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“I have to get to school.”
Kharma checked her watch. “You still have fifteen minutes before the first warning bell goes off. I promise not to be that long.”
Janine looked around as the kids passed her by. Some didn’t care and others eyed her as if she did something wrong. Rumors of why she was talking to the weird looking woman who carried herself like FOP would probably spread fast.
“Fine,” Janine said. “But over there.”
Kharma followed the girl to the corner. Hover car traffic was thick and blowing hot wind onto the ground. Since the air was bitingly cold this morning, they didn’t mind the heat raining down.
“I really don’t know what I can tell you that I haven’t told her parents,” Janine said.
“You were the last person to see her. I don’t think she ran away. Based on what I know of her parents she has nothing to run away from. Unless…”
“You’re her best friend, right?” Kharma asked.
“Did she tell you anything? Anything that she wouldn’t tell her parents.”
“Not really. Nothing major. Our lives are pretty boring. Our parents don’t give us much room.”
“Boring can be good. Trust me, excitement can often kill you.”
The girl rolled her eyes.
“Jessica had no boyfriend?”
“No. She likes some guys, but she’s too shy to do anything about it. I’m sure they have no idea. Guys are just dumb about stuff like that.”
“They are,” Kharma said. “So you didn’t notice anything unusual the day you two walked home? No one was following you? No strangers approached you?”
“No. We just talked and walked home. We were making plans for the weekend and deciding on which movies to stream.”
Kharma smiled and shook her head.
“See,” Janine said. “Boring lives.”
“Okay. What about in the last few weeks? Nothing weird. Nothing unusual?”
Janine sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know.”
“I need you to think really hard. Just because no one was on Jessica’s radar doesn’t mean she wasn’t on someone else’s.”
The girl looked over her shoulder at the school gate. A few kids waved and smiled at her. The security guard took a few steps closer and eyed them suspiciously.
“No. Nothing,” Janine said.
Kharma nodded and accepted the fact that the girl was too flustered. “Okay.” She pulled a business card out of her pocket. “My cell is on the bottom. If you think of anything, call me.”
Janine took the card and pocketed it.
“I will,” she said softly.
“Go on. Go to school.”
Janine took a few steps away, then turned back around. “I’m sorry I can’t help you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find her, does it?”
The girl frowned and blended back into the crowd of kids.
Kharma spent her day checking out the high-end hotels first. Using the most recent picture on her tablet, she introduced herself to the house detectives and asked if they had seen this girl in the last four days. A lot of them had not. Some of them didn’t even bother to look at the picture. She understood. A lot of these hotels catered to the elite of society, people in the seven-figure range.
“Why would you check here for a runaway?” a house detective asked.
“Maybe she was working a client here,” Kharma said. “Maybe a Daddy’s keeping her hidden.”
“This girl is under eighteen?”
“You’re crazy. We do not cater to the needs of degenerates and perverts.”
“Do your guests have more money than God?” Kharma asked.
“Then they can afford to be degenerates and perverts.”
She walked away and said over her shoulder, “Now I know why they call you house dicks.”
After checking the high-end hotels, she went downtown to the low-end. These places didn’t have a house dick and they barely had someone running the front desks. She still hoped to have some luck of meeting someone who recognized Jessica Mueller. Maybe a junkie or pimp who resided in the hotel swiped her up and hid her until they could line up a john. Some of the desk clerks were cooperative. Especially the women. But then she would run into a few jerks.
“Nah. Never saw her,” said a man with thinning brown hair too greasy for a hat and a face fresh out of high school. “But if I do I’ll be sure to call you after I’m done.”
Kharma reached over the desk and grabbed the guy’s neck. She pulled him closer and asked, “Done doing what? Making sure she had something to eat and a soft chair to sit on?”
The clerk held the rims of the window so Kharma couldn’t drag him out. His feet slid and kicked on the desk, trying to find traction and balance. “Get off of me you freaky bitch.”
“With pleasure.” She released him. He fell to the floor behind the desk. “My fingers are starting to itch. If you gave me a rash I’m coming back here to kick your ass.”
She turned and left, deflecting the obscenities the desk clerk threw at her. A few old men in suits sitting on the lobby chairs smiled and waved at her as she passed. When she stepped out onto the street and the sun started to hide behind the tall buildings in the West, Kharma’s phone rang in her pocket. She took it out and read the unrecognizable number.
“Ms. Kharma. The detective?”
“Speaking. Who is this?”
“Janine Flowers. I think I do remember something.”
The Flowers’ apartment was a two-bedroom deal on the fourth floor of a five-floor walk up. Mrs. Flowers opened the door and showed Kharma inside. She was a pear-shaped woman with blond hair like her daughter, only cut short. The two women smiled at each other and shook hands.
“Please come in,” the mother said.
Kharma stepped inside and into a living room complete with wide screen monitor, couch, chairs, and fifty gallon fish tank. Mr. Flowers, dressed in khaki pants and polo shirt with a retail insignia on the breast, was on the couch reading the news on his tablet. He glanced up and smiled hello at Kharma. He rose and shook her hand.
“I’ll go get Janine?” Mr. Flowers said.
Kharma nodded and glanced at the other side of the room at the dining area with a metal table and four high-backed chairs. The surface was clean except for open schoolbooks and notebooks.
“I’m sorry for interrupting your night,” Kharma said. “But it’s really important that I know what Janine knows.”
Mrs. Flowers motioned to the couch for Kharma to sit.
“It’s fine. We understand the importance. If it were Janine or Candace we would hope people would adjust for us as well.”
“Candace? Janine’s sister?”
“Yes. She’s taking her bath now.”
Janine entered the room. She still wore her school uniform; a skirt and light blue top with the school name on it and knee high socks.
Kharma kept her hands down. She always thought it best not to make physical contact with the interviewee until she acquired the info that she needed. Janine sat on a large comfy chair next to the window. The headlights of hover cars whipped by past the closed curtains. Kharma took out her tablet and opened the audio recording app. She tapped the red record button on the screen.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but if you could tell me what you remember, Janine, then I’ll leave so you can finish your homework.”
“Is it okay if my mom stays?”
Mrs. Flowers smiled and sat on the arm of the chair next to her daughter. She placed her hand on her back and moved it in gentle circles as if to wind the girl up.
“Okay,” Janine said. “The rest of the morning I tried not to think about Jessica, you know. Whenever I do I get all choked up and stuff. And I was pretty good at not thinking about her even though you made it hard for me not to but then this memory popped into my head.”
“About a few weeks ago Jessica and I were at the sims-cade. The one on 34th and 8th.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“Well, we were using the bi-booth to ski together. We use that program a lot. We talk about going to the mountains upstate to do some real skiing but…it cost a lot of money our parents don’t have right now.
“When we finished we waited outside for my dad to pick us up. He was running a bit late. He fell asleep watching the games again.”
“In all fairness, so did I,” Mrs. Flowers said with a smile.
Kharma nodded, keeping quiet, letting the girl talk.
“We waited right at the entrance where we could be seen by my dad when this guy approached us. At first he didn’t say anything. He just kept looking at us up and down. Jessica and I gave him our backs. We were used to creepers like that in this city. It grossed us out, but it didn’t freak us out. Not until he came up and tried to talk to us.”
“Did he tell you his name?”
“No. He just said ‘Hey girls, what’s up?’ We turned away from him again, hoping he would get the hint. Then he hummed in a creepy way and said, ‘You girls are prime meat for some deep pockets.’ Jessica couldn’t take it anymore and was going to yell at him but then he was gone.”
“And you haven’t seen this guy since?”
“No. I kind of forgot about it. Creepers come up to us all the time so it wasn’t too unusual. But this guy…I don’t know about Jessica, but he gave me a chill. Like…he didn’t want sex from us. I felt like he wanted to…consume us.”
“Can you describe this guy?”
“He’s a few inches shorter than you. Yellowish skin and wide dark eyes. Brown I think. Brown hair. Long and stringy. He wore dark dress pants with a white stripe down the sides and a purple sports jacket and a polo shirt. Oh, and he had this top hat on. It looked ratty.”
“Classy,” Kharma said.
“I know right?”
She’s about to close the tablet with the description when Janine said, “One more thing. He had this chip attached to his neck.”
“Yeah, like about a half an inch.”
“Maybe it’s a medical chip,” Mrs. Flowers said. “I’ve been reading that doctors have been prescribing them now for out-patients. It’s supposed to deliver medicine right into the jugular vein. Vera Mueller told me about it, too. The hospital has been installing them during same day surgeries.”
Kharma rose and held her hand out to Mrs. Flowers to shake. “Thank you two so much. You’ve been very helpful.”
Janine stood and looked up into Kharma’s eyes. “Do you think you can find him? Do you think he took Jessica?”
“It’s a lead for me to go on. I’ll check him out.”
“Where do you think you’ll check first?”
Late the next morning, Kharma drove out to the Mexican Diner on 3rd Street in the Lower East Side where Jessica’s tablet was found. It was a corner joint with a wrap around window. Since it opened at ten AM (it didn’t cater to breakfast or the suit-on-the-way-to-work crowd) she took her time flying out there. She lowered her car into a spot across the street and crossed to the travel agent storefront next to the diner. She entered the alley between the two businesses.
Kharma walked to the back where Jessica’s tablet was found. The graffiti and weatherworn walls held a mix of pleasant spices with pungent decay. She wandered around the deserted plastic cartons and, as expected, didn’t find anything useful.
Back on the sidewalk, she entered the diner and seated herself at the counter. A waitress a few years younger than Kharma with bound up blond hair and a long scar running down the left side of her pleasant face smiled at her. Her name badge read: Serena.
“What can I get ya?” she asked.
“Caffeine for now. Oh, and maybe a slice of that pie over there. Custard, right?”
Kharma nodded and the waitress smiled. When Serena brought the food over, Kharma asked, “Have you worked here long?”
“Oh, about six months.”
“It keeps me busy. Had worse.”
Serena looked around, probably for other customers.
“Have you seen a guy in here a bit shorter than me, wears a purple sports coat and a top hat; has dark eyes, long, stringy brown hair, and a medical chip on his neck?”
“Oh, have I.”
“Know his name?” Kharma asked.
“Clepper. He comes in here a lot for lunch. And to piss me off. The creep is always trying to convince me to go out with him.”
“He’s not your type?”
“Hell, no,” Serena said. “But you are?”
Kharma tucked her chin and tried to compose herself. She hadn’t expecting that curveball.
“Are you FOP?” Serena asked.
Kharma took out her tablet and showed Serena the picture of Jessica.
“She missing?” Serena asked.
“If anyone is involved it would be that guy. Even if I were into guys he would freak me out. Gives me a good dose of the creeps.”
“I’ve been hearing that a lot about him.”
“He might come in for lunch today. If you want you can hang out.”
“What about the boss?”
“I am the boss. Well, half the boss. My brother owns the other half. He’s in the back.”
“Well, Kelly Kharma. Can you do me a favor so I don’t make a fool of myself the rest of the day?”
“Since I told you that you’re my type, can you tell me if I’m yours?”
Kharma moved to a back booth with a clear view of the door. As foot traffic outside built up, more customers came in and Serena took her focus off of Kharma. Which was fine with her. She was on the job and really didn’t want to watch Serena. Although, it was difficult. Whenever Serena walked away, Kharma couldn’t keep her eyes off the waitress’s bottom moving under the skirt.
By noon, other waitresses arrived to work and Serena revealed her boss side. She kept behind the counter and arranged in- and out-going orders for her brother cooking in the back. Kharma spent her time reading the news on her tablet, drinking coffee, and eyeing each customer who entered the diner.
She found an article about the jumper that was executed by the FOB the other day. Jordan Pacheco. The press raved on about how he was an up and coming executive at Live Corp and just received a Vice-President promotion. The reporter repeated terms like sad and tragic. Kharma finished skimming the article and moved onto something more interesting: the crime blotter.
At 1:15 he walked in. He wore his purple coat that could use a deep clean or a large flame, his brown hair hung dreaded and greasy under his top hat, and his skin had a yellow tint. He approached the counter, leaned on his elbows, and called out, “Oh, Serena baby!”
Serena, who was at the opposite side of the counter, glanced across the dining room and locked eyes with Kharma. The detective nodded. Serena crossed her arms and moved over to where the sleaze perched. Kharma walked to the register as if she was going to pay her bill.
“How you doing, baby?”
“I’m not your baby. Now what do you want?”
From where Kharma stood waiting, she could see the medical chip in the man’s neck.
“You know what I want.”
“Do I need to call my brother out here?”
“Jesus, for a girl with a freaked up face you could be a little nicer. I doubt you have a lot of guys banging down your door,” Clepper said.
Serena rolled her eyes and stepped to the register.
“Wait wait,” he said. Serena stopped and gave him the cold stare. “Listen. Be nice. I ran into a lot of money the other day and I want to spend some of it on you. Girl on her feet all day deserves a little time off her feet. Preferably on her back.”
“Carlo!” Serena called over her shoulder.
The fat bull face stained with grease burns and wearing a hair net popped out through the order window. “What?” He laid eyes on Clepper and squinted.
Clepper held up his hands. “Okay, okay. Enough with this fucked up place. You had your chance, scarface.”
He rushed out of the diner and nearly took the door off its hinge. A few customers watched him go and some giggled at the scene. Kharma took off after him.
Hands in his pockets, Clepper walked down 3rd Street and turned downtown onto Second Avenue. Kharma stuck to the sidewalk across the street. Even though bicyclists and buggies and the hot air from the hover cars above blew dust around into clouds, she managed to keep a visual and followed him a few blocks until he stopped at a bodega. Kharma pretended to talk on her cell until he came out. When he did, he lit up a cigarette and continued downtown.
He didn’t move off of Second Avenue until he hit D Street. Two more blocks and he walked up the stairs to a narrow apartment building. Kharma weaved through the bicycle and carriage traffic and stopped in front of the building. It was only four floors high with one row of windows on both sides. Probably railroad apartments or studios inside. She ran up the stairs and entered the vestibule. The cramped space was home to an intercom system and mailboxes. No names were written on them. The entry door was slightly ajar, barely latching onto the lock. Kharma smiled. Clepper was probably in such a rush he didn’t check to see if the old door closed all the way. Kharma went through.
The narrow hallway had two doors on the left, one on the right, and a staircase. At the top on the second floor, she spotted Clepper turning to walk down the hall above. Kharma silently cursed herself for not bringing a gun and eased her boots up the mini-tiled stairs. Keeping silent and tense, Kharma followed him up to the third floor. Before she reached the hall, she stopped and heard a door close. She stepped onto third floor and decided that the closing door sound must have come from the front of the building. Would a slimy low life who kidnaps girls live in a studio apartment where it would just be him or in a large rail apartment where he would probably need room mates to help pay the rent?
Kharma walked down to the studio on her right. She positioned herself at the door and knocked. No one answered. She knocked again.
“Hold on a second, I’m in the shitter,” Clepper said.
Kharma waited and stared at the peephole. The locks on the other side clicked and the door opened. Clepper smiled and held up a plastic tube with a nozzle on top. Before Kharma could jump out of the way, the man shot a stream of pepper spray into her eyes. She screamed and fell to her knees. Clepper grabbed the back of her jacket and pulled her inside. Blinded and the skin around her eyes burning, Kharma rolled and moaned on the floor. Clepper giggled and closed the door to his studio apartment. He walked over to the mattress by the front window and picked up a bat. Standing by Kharma’s head, he positioned himself as if he were going to play golf. He raised the bat into the air and swung hard into the back of Kharma’s skull.
She didn’t move after that.
“Thought you could fool Morris Clepper, didn’t you?” the voice said. “I saw you way back on Second Ave. A freaky face like yours makes you stick out.”
A cold breeze blew across Kharma’s dark bare legs. Her pants were gone. A heavy weight pressed against her, something, someone was inside her.
“Uhhhh yeah, you thought you were so mmm smart”
Kharma opened her eyes. Her vision blurred like she was looking through urine, but she saw the deep dark eyes and the dirty hair. Clepper’s face bounced up and down, moving with his dick inside her.
“Dumb freak bitch,” he gasped. “Say it. Say Morris Clepper is the smartest thug you know.”
He moved faster. Kharma noticed that her hands were bound together with string. Clepper held them in place on the top of the couch. To her left she saw the mattress and the open window releasing the winter air. She started to pant hard against the dirty sock in her mouth and raised her bare legs up.
“That’s right,” Clepper said. “You want me in deeper. You followed me so you must want it. Want to tell your friends how smart Morris Clepper is.”
Kharma lowered her legs and then, with a bit of momentum, brought them up so high that her ankles crossed between their faces.
“What the…?” he gasped.
Kharma pushed her legs down and bent him backwards. He screamed as his back and neck cracked. She then shifted her weight and rolled them off the couch. Clepper landed on his back with Kharma on top of him. She quickly straddled his stomach and smashed her bound fists down on his mouth. Teeth broke. Blood sprayed.
As Clepper whimpered and sobbed, Kharma bit at the knots on her wrist and freed her hands. She gripped his neck with one hand and punched him in the face with the other.
“Oh, God leave me alone,” Clepper sobbed.
“You sorry sack of crap,” Kharma spat. “I should kill your useless ass.”
Kharma punched him in the mouth again. Her skin broke and bled, but she didn’t feel it.
“God, I am so sorry,” he whines. “What do you want?”
She grabbed him by his greasy hair. “I’m looking for a girl. Fourteen,” slammed his head down to the floor, “brown hair,” again, “about five three,” again, “wears a school uniform,” and again.
Clepper tightened his eyes, fighting from going unconscious from the pain. “Sure. Okay. I can find you a girl like that. Whatever you want.”
Kharma pressed her thumb onto his broken front tooth. Clepper’s feet drummed the floor as he screamed.
“I want the one you swiped four days ago,” she said.
“I don’t…ohh God…have her.”
“Who does? What did you do with her?”
“I sold her. I sold her the next day.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Matters to me.”
She smacked the side of his head.
“He’s dead. The guy I sold her to is dead,” Clepper screamed. “The FOP vaporized his ass on the ledge of a building a few days ago.”
Kharma was studied the filth under her for a moment and then stood up. The man rolled onto his side and held his face. Kharma went to the kitchen and grabbed a dirty steak knife from the sink. She walked back to Clepper.
“What are you doing?” he squealed. “I told you what you want to know. I’m not lying.”
Kharma pressed him flat to the floor with her foot on his stomach. With one hand she grabbed his flaccid penis and with the other she lopped it off with the knife.
Kharma left Clepper crying and whining on the floor of his studio apartment and rushed back to her car parked at the Mexican Diner. A block before she reached her car she stopped at a public garbage disposal unit and dropped Clepper’s rag-wrapped penis inside it. The machine hummed on and compacted the garage.
In her car, she took out her tablet from the lock box in the dash and booted it up. Jordan Pacheco, the vaporized jumper. Why the hell would a low level executive at Live Corp buy a teenage girl and then make the FOB kill him?
She ran a media search and found his obituary. Pacheco left behind a mother and father, a brother and sister, and a wife. No kids. Based on the date of the article, a funeral was already held yesterday. Kharma assumed they found some of his ashes and buried a small box.
Using the utilities database, she searched for Pacheco’s address. He lived in a midtown condo over-looking Truman Park. She took out her phone and dialed the number attached to it.
“Hello?” a worn voice on the other side said, then sniffled.
“Mrs. Pacheco, my name is Kelly Kharma with Kharma Investigations and Security.”
“If it’s at all possible, I would like to speak to you in reference to a case I’m working on.”
“A missing person?”
Kharma felt her stomach drop. “Um, yes.”
“What time would you like to drop by?”
Kharma spotted her harried reflection in the rearview mirror and started to feel the pain in her hand.
“Ninety minutes work for you?” she asked.
Showered, douched, bandaged, and redressed, Kharma entered the building and found it as she expected. The white stone structure stood over fifty floors tall. Gargoyles squatted guard on the parapet and the planet’s flag waved above the entrance. Kharma walked across the imitation Persian rugs to the doorman sitting behind a marble-topped desk. She pressed her thumb to the sign-in pad.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Pacheco.”
“ID, please.” The doorman’s voice was squeaky, clashing with his husky body and light brown soul patch that hung an inch over his chin.
She showed him her identification and investigator’s license. He compared the cards to the information on his screen that her thumbprint provided.
“She’s expecting you,” he said. “Twelfth floor. Unit D.”
Kharma entered the elevator, closed the security gate, and pulled the lever that sent the car up. Like in any elevator, she vibrated from the propulsion deck underneath. It made her miss the old cable pulled elevators that were installed when the planet was first colonized.
On the twelfth floor, she walked down the maroon carpeted hall and read the white doors until she found unit D. She knocked and waited. The door opened. Mrs. Pacheco stood on the other side. The woman, in her late twenties, wore dark pants and a yellow top. With red rimmed, blue eyes behind a pair of glasses, she glared at Kharma. She assumed the woman hadn’t stopped crying since her husband’s death.
“Ms. Kharma?” Mrs. Pacheco asked.
The widow showed her into the condo. Kharma walked over white carpet and immediately wished she hadn’t worn her boots. She remained in one spot as not to dirty the rest of the room. To her back was a wide-open space complete with matching white couch and marble tables. All the furniture was aimed at the theatre-sized monitor and the small gas fireplace underneath it. The other section of the room catered to a glossy dining area with matching table set and curio.
“Would you like to sit down?” Mrs. Pacheco asked.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I feel too dirty even to be standing here.”
She smiled at the detective.
“Don’t worry. Stain absorbing carpet. It never gets dirty.”
Kharma nodded and walked over to the couch. She placed her butt on the edge of it and took out her tablet.
“I really appreciate you seeing me, Mrs. Pacheco. I understand you’re going through a lot right now.”
“It’s all related. It’s the least I can do.”
She sat on a loveseat to Kharma’s side.
“I just need to verify a few things.” She loaded up the picture of Jessica Mueller and showed it to Pacheco. “This is the missing girl I’m looking for.”
Pacheco glanced at the picture. “I’ve seen her.”
“Is she alive?”
“When I saw her she was unconscious. Drugged, I believe,” Pacheco said. “Her belly was still moving.”
“And when was the last time you saw her?”
“The morning my husband committed suicide. Or I guess the official cause of death is that he resisted arrest.”
Kharma placed the tablet on the table. “Your husband bought Jessica from a slug named Clepper.”
“I guess he did. He handled that. It was his problem.”
The widow took a deep breath and sighed hard. Her shoulder’s sagged. She placed her face in her hands and rubbed her eyes.
“My husband and I were not born from money. Although I work for the city in the records department, I don’t make much. My husband had worked for Live Corp for over ten years. Three of those he performed in the mail room and worked his way up the banking structure.
“His bosses always liked his work. He streamlined processes and made departments more efficient. But even though they liked him he couldn’t move past office management. Jordan wanted to be an executive. But in order to be one, like the others, he had to make a sacrifice.”
“I’m not sure I’m following you, Mrs. Pacheco.”
“We can’t have children,” she said. “I could. My husband couldn’t. We didn’t find this out until last year. You see, a baby from Jordan’s blood was required.”
“Okay, so what you’re saying is Mr. Pacheco bought Jessica to give to the company as a sacrifice?” Kharma asked. “To receive a promotion?”
“That’s exactly what he did. In order to move up in the company one must sacrifice their child and never see them again.”
“But didn’t you say that it had to be blood related?”
“It does. Since they were aware that Jordan couldn’t have children, they told him that he could use another child. But he could never move up to president level or a board member of the company.”
She shook her head as if to clear the garbage out of her ears.
“Where is Jessica now?” Kharma asked.
Mrs. Pacheco leaned back in her chair. Fresh tears coated her cheeks. Her breathing shimmied.
“The morning that Jordan gave her to his boss, he called me up from his office. He cried so hard he made me cry. He didn’t say a word. I just heard it in his…sorrow. He had given up on life. I guess he didn’t like what he had to do.”
“He didn’t have to do anything, Mrs. Pacheco. He could have just settled for where he was.”
“He wanted to die. I don’t know if he wasn’t brave enough or stupid enough, but he just couldn’t seem to jump off that ledge. Or maybe he wanted the FOP to execute him. You see the insurance policies have a suicide clause.”
Kharma stood and stared down at the top of Mrs. Pacheco’s head. Her fists tightened.
“Where is Jessica Mueller now?”
The widow looked up at the tall detective, her eyes wet and her lower jaw loose. “Jordan delivered her to his supervisor Leon Berg that morning at his home. Maybe she’s still there.”
Kharma landed her car on the roof of the Kennedy building next to the large dumpsters filled with the garbage of high society. It was one of the tallest buildings uptown, overlooking Downtown and keeping guard. As expected the pad was clear for the entry of the garbage trucks that usually picked up at this hour of the night.
Dressed in black, her backpack stuffed with necessary tools, and her sidearm in the holster at her side, she locked up her car and walked to the stairway entrance. As expected the door was left open. From her time with Robbery in the FOP she learned that the janitorial staff always left certain doors open due to laziness. Some thought no one would enter through the roof since it was illegal to park on one and some hated the tenants so much they didn’t care if they were robbed.
Before she started down, she checked the stairway for cameras. Not that anyone would recognize her in her black nit mask, just that she didn’t want to attract attention. Clear of digital eyes, she walked down the stairway to the thirty-fifth floor. She kept close to the wall and eased her feet down the carpeted floor until she reached the door for unit 3504. Kharma took the lock pick device out of her bag and placed it in front of the scanner above the knob. Silently, the device ran through the millions of codes and found the one for the door. She entered the condo.
The moonlight from the wrap-around windows lit up the large space furnished with minimalist furniture. Kharma shook her head at the décor as she walked deeper. She found three doors and a hallway. One door was for the kitchen, one to a small pool, and the third to a game room. She entered the hallway. If Berg were still keeping Jessica here, Kharma thought, he would probably hide her further from where anyone could hear her.
She eased down the long hall, passing the closed doors. At this hour she expected Berg to be sleeping. Based on his bio at Live Corp, he was single with no kids. If there were to be any interruptions there would be just one.
At the last door, Kharma turned the knob. Locked. She pressed her ear to the door and listened hard. She couldn’t hear a thing. Using the lock pick device, she opened the door. A strong scent of copper rushed up her nose. She swung her face away and tried to gasp fresh air. Forcing herself to grow accustomed to the odor, she opened the door wider and turned on her flashlight. On the right side of the room blood covered the off white tiles and a salad of human organs and bones rested by a floor drain.
Dizziness overwhelmed Kharma but she managed to hear a muffled scream.
She turned the light to the opposite corner and illuminated a girl in a school uniform. Jessica. Her arms and feet were bound by rope, a ball gag held in her mouth. The remains of a spaghetti dinner were on one side; a waste bucket was on the other. Kharma rushed over to her, careful not to slip on the blood. Taking her knife out, she cut the strap of the ball gag.
“Don’t touch me,” Jessica whined.
“Shh, I’m not here to hurt you,” Kharma said. “Your parents sent me.”
The girl’s eyes lit up, drowning out any fear that was once there. Kharma started cutting her legs and hands free.
“You have to hurry before it wakes up,” Jessica whispered, her eyes on the open door behind them.
Her legs and hands free, Kharma helped the girl to her feet. “Just keep calm and quiet and we’ll get you out of here.” She took the girl by the hand and led her to the door. For a captive, she was in no hurry. By the time Kharma reached the threshold the girl was a good arms distance away.
Kharma peeked out into the hall. Empty and quiet. She turned to Jessica and motioned for her to follow. The girl shook her head and locked her eyes to the floor. Kharma motioned to her again.
“It’s out there,” Jessica said.
A door opened in the hall. A man in his early sixties with white hair and a day’s worth of stubble on his face moved out of the bedroom. He tightened his robe over his flannel pajamas. Kharma recognized him as Berg from his picture on the Live Corp site. He flinched at Kharma and remained still.
The detective held the frightened girl in the other room with one hand and took out her side arm with the other.
“Don’t move,” Kharma said.
Berg smirked. “Where are you going with my food? Do you think you can sell her to a higher bidder after I’ve fattened her up the last few days?” He stepped forward. His face rippled, a wave of darkness turned his skin purple. He blinked and his eyes changed from blue to green with wide black pupils. They kept swelling as the bone around the eye sockets widened large enough to accommodate baseballs. His jaw dropped lower and lower, cracking and stretching to reveal a row of shale-like teeth.
Kharma skittered back and aimed her gun at his – its – head.
“Don’t let him eat me.” Jessica screamed and pulled Kharma into the room.
The Berg-Thing stopped two inches from Kharma’s barrel. She pulled the trigger. The blast collided with the thing’s face and threw him back. He landed on the floor. Kharma waited a moment for the charge to start disintegrating the Berg-Thing from the inside. Nothing happened.
“C’mon,” Kharma said. “No more screwing around.”
She dragged Jessica out of the room, pressed her to the hallway wall, and pushed her forward. She positioned between the Berg-Thing and the girl as they passed. When they cleared it, the girl ran ahead of Kharma.
The Berg-Thing grabbed the detective’s leg, causing her to fall forward. Landing on her side, Kharma fired two more charges into the creature’s face. It thrashed and thumped the floor as it absorbed each blast, releasing Kharma’s leg.
She scrambled onto her feet and met the girl in the main room.
“To the roof and keep quiet,” she whispered to the girl.
“Is it dead?”
Something banged down the hall.
“I’m not waiting to find out.”
The woman and the girl made their way up to the roof. Kharma threw her into the back seat of the car and rose up into the sky. From above Kharma checked to see if anyone followed them. No one was there but it wouldn’t matter if they did. The car had no plates tonight.
“Are you all right?” Kharma asked Jessica in the back.
“Yeah,” Kharma said. “Me, too.”
“What was that thing back there?”
Kharma opened her mouth, then closed it. She didn’t have an answer.
Vera Mueller lay in bed next to her husband. She had been home from the late shift over three hours. She used to fall asleep when her head hit the pillow. Now that Jessica was gone all she could do was lie in her husband’s arms and watch television all night. Once in a while she tried closing her eyes and took deep breaths, but fear and a horrible imagination would always spring her lids back up.
Mr. Mueller kept his arm tight around his wife while his other hand held the remote and flipped through the channels. Nothing much was interesting this time of night. Most of the time he would settle on an old sit-com or nighttime soap and space out along with his wife. Like her, his imagination took most of his attention.
The doorbell buzzed.
Mr. And Mrs. Mueller exchanged glances.
“Maybe it’s the DeVaughn boy locked out of the building again,” Mr. Mueller said.
The bell buzzed again.
Mrs. Mueller pulled the blankets off and moved out of her husband’s arms. “I’ll let him in if it is.”
She walked down the hall to the front door and the intercom box. The monitor did not reveal the forgetful DeVaughn boy.
She slammed her hand on the Open button. Jessica and Kharma entered the building, leaving the camera’s sight.
Mr. Mueller came up behind her and asked, “Did you say Jessica?”
Mrs. Mueller didn’t answer. She rushed out of the apartment and through the hall. She took the stairs down two at a time until she met Kharma and Jessica on the second floor. The fourteen-year-old girl squealed out, “Mommy,” and ran into her mother’s arms. She squeezed her daughter and released tears into her hair.
“My baby is home,” Mrs. Mueller sobbed.
She cleared her eyes. Kharma stood a few feet away. Mrs. Mueller grabbed the tall woman with the pink-patched face and pulled her into the hug. No one was safe from Vera Mueller. When Mr. Mueller came down, he was drawn in as well. The four of them stood as one sobbing statue.
Kharma landed her car across the street from the Mexican Diner just before ten that morning. Her body ached and her mind buzzed. After she brought Jessica back to the Mueller’s she went home but couldn’t fall asleep. The Berg-Thing kept popping into her brain.
“Where was she?” Mr. Mueller asked earlier in the morning back at their apartment.
Kharma watched Jessica hug her mom. The two females cried so hard she couldn’t tell if it was out of joy or sadness. “It’s best I don’t say.”
“But will they come back for her?”
“I don’t think so,” Kharma said. “I think she’s easily replaceable.”
Monster, demon, alien? She had no idea. All she knew was that the thing wanted to eat Jessica or any child that an employee was willing to sacrifice in order to move up the money chain. She also knew that with all the kids who go missing and were never found in this city, Jessica shouldn’t have to worry about being taken back.
The diner’s sign flipped to Open. Kharma exited her car and crossed the street. Serena was moving behind the counter when Kharma entered. The blond woman with the scar running down her face smiled.
“Hey hey,” Serena said.
Kharma sat on the stool across from the co-owner and smiled. “I came back to settle my bill from yesterday.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did. I always settle my debts.”
Serena shrugged and took Kharma’s credit card. “Did you get what you needed from Clepper?”
“I did. And I found the girl. She’s home now.”
“That’s great. Lucky girl having you in her life. I bet any girl would be.”
Kharma tucked her chin down to hide her smile.
The waitress rested her arms and tried to connect with Kharma’s eyes.
“So, you really didn’t have to come back. You just drank caffeine and ate a piece of pie.”
Kharma locked with her eyes.
“You’re right. I also wanted to know when you get off work so I can take you out.”
Serena placed her soft hand over Kharma’s callused palm.
“Where you got in mind?” she asked.
Kharma sat in the waiting room and read the news on her tablet. Her back to the window, hover cars rushed left and right through the city street. She faced the others in the room, various men and women dressed in their best clothes hoping to score a job with the temporary agency. Yesterday after she hung up the call with Resources Unlimited, she researched the company. They handled most of the temporary labor for all the major companies and political agencies in the Central District.
“Ms. Kharma?” the red-headed secretary behind the computer said. “Ms. Rowe will see you now.” She smiled and revealed a gold incisor.
The others glared at Kharma. All of them were waiting before she sat down. She ignored them and walked down the hall next to the redhead’s desk. She passed a few rooms with open doors. Some were offices, some were classrooms, and some were empty. At the end, a middle-aged woman dressed in a gray suit stood outside the door and smiled. She offered her hand to shake.
“Ms. Kharma, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule,” Rowe said.
The detective shook her hand and didn’t argue. “You’re welcome.”
Rowe showed Kharma into her office. Like the rest of the rooms she passed, there was nothing spectacular about it. Gray carpet, white walls, matching desk and computer, and a few chairs for visitors. It all seemed new and temporary, as if the office could pick up and go to a new location at a moment’s notice.
Rowe closed the door. Kharma faced a man sitting on one of the chairs in front of the desk. He was in his mid-twenties, short brown hair cut just right, and wore the standard temp uniform of dress pants and white button down shirt.
He stood, offered his hand, and revealed the metal braces in his smile.
“This is Jameson Leese.” Rowe sat down behind her desk. “Please, be seated.”
Kharma nodded to the kid and sat down with him. “So why did you want to see me, Ms. Rowe?”
“Straight to the point.” She smiled at Leese who smiled back as if on command. Kharma kept a straight face. “Are you familiar with our company?”
“We prefer a human resource.”
“In this progressive age human beings in the executive work force have become scarce,” she says. “Not one hundred percent mind you, but diminishing and lower every year. I guess that’s the price you pay for progress.”
She smiled at Kharma. The detective kept looking at her.
“Jameson here has been an employee with us for over five years. You started when you were in college, right?”
“Yes, Ms. Rowe.”
“He’s one of our best and often most requested employee. For the last year he has worked with our Fidelity Insurance account.”
Rowe paused for Kharma’s questions. None came.
“Last week,” Ms. Rowe said, “A Fidelity employee was sexually assaulted in the building. Jamison was accused and arrested by the FOP.”
Kharma glanced at Jamison Leese. The kid wasn’t smiling anymore. His worried expression focused on his wringing hands.
“If convicted, Jamison could serve fifty years in jail,” Rowe said.
“What does his conviction have to do with Resources Unlimited?” Kharma asked.
“Everything. Besides the PR nightmare it could create with the public and the damaging affects with our accounts, all employees are benefited with legal representation. Like medical benefits it’s taken out of their pay. You would be surprised how many accounts accuse a temp of stealing and violence. Sometimes the employees in these accounts think the temps are fourth-class citizens and are entitled to abuse.”
“What would you like to hire me for?” Kharma asked.
“We would like you to go undercover in Fidelity Insurance as a temp and find the man who raped the employee so that we can clear Jamison’s name,” Rowe said.
Kharma stared at Leese. He focused on his hands.
“Did you rape the girl?”
His mouth opened in shock.
“Look at me,” she said.
Leese connected with Kharma’s dark eyes. She could see the fear in them, the instability.
“No,” he said. “I did not rape her.”
Kharma turned back to Rowe. “May I see the FOP report first?”
Kharma sat in one of the non-descript empty rooms. She opened the file on the wide hard plastic desk. No windows were in the room but the vents blew in cool air. She faced the closed door and the digital note board positioned next to it.
The victim’s name was Gabriella Stoker. She works in the claims section at Fidelity Insurance, focusing on health and disability. She was working overtime on July 8^th,^ which was a Wednesday evening. Normal business hours for claims were 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM. At 7:00 PM she had just finished her work and logged out of her computer for the day. She left her cubical to use the bathroom before she packed her personal belongings to go home. The floor was designed like a circle. The offices and cubicles were in the outer rim, the hall to the bathrooms and elevator in the middle circle, and the staircase in the center. Stoker walked down the hall to the bathroom. She entered a stall and proceeded to urinate. When she finished and flushed, she felt something soft and strong wrap around her neck from above. It might have been scarf. She knew that there was someone in the next stall trying to strangle her. She tried to scream, but the noose was so tight, making it come out silent. The person above continued to pull Stoker up. She thought she was going to die. Her vision turned dark and her body weak. But she didn’t die. She woke up bent over the toilet. Her skirt was around her waist and her panties around her knees. Her hands were tied behind her back. The material around her wrists felt soft, possibly the same scarf that strangled her. One hand held her face to the metal feed pipe and the flush handle. A few times her cheek activated the lever. She also felt a large male enter her from behind. When asked if the attacker said anything to her, she stated that they said, “Think you’re so rich and beautiful that you can look down on people like me, don’t you? So much better than the people in the mailroom. You’re just a little whore like the rest of them.”
When asked if she suspected anyone who could have attacked her, she reported Jamison Leese. For the last six months the two had a friendship. She said they never had sexual relations, but they often flirted with each other. One time he even made a pass at her. She rejected him and he grew angry. He asked her if she was too good for him because he was a temp who worked in the mailroom. She said no, she just wanted to focus on her career.
Kharma skimmed the investigating officer’s report. Besides having said similar words as the attacker, Jamison Leese was also in the building at the time of the attack. Although there were no witnesses or video showing his presence, the logs had him entering the building at 7:24 that morning. Employees scan their card through the turnstile at the entrance of the building. Leese’s card was never scanned that evening. Leese said on record that he left that day at 4PM though the back loading dock where there was no scanner. He did that often as did a lot of temps in the other departments.
The back of the file had pictures of Gabriella Stoker and her wounds along with her rape kit. She had bruising around her neck and wrists from the scarf and also on her face from being held down on the metal pipe and lever. The scarf was never found. She was an attractive girl in her mid-twenties with blond-streaked brown hair. Her green eyes appeared broken and strung out. A flash of anger erupted in Kharma.
The rape kit found no semen or material inside of Stoker’s vagina, but an irritation was apparent. Stoker had gone on record that she often got a rash from latex. The attacker must have had worn a condom. Nonetheless, she was still tested for sexually transmitted diseases. At the time of the report, she tested negative.
Kharma flipped to the perpetrator’s statement. Although it has been printed out for the file, she removed the mini disc attached to it, wanting to hear Leese’s words for herself. She slipped the disc into her tablet and opened the media player.
Starr: This is Detective Sergeant Roddy Starr of the Fraternal Order of Police. Case number 38629B for client Fidelity Insurance. This is interview one with the perpetrator Jamison Leese. He has been charged with sexual assault of Gabriella Stoker. Leese is currently in the room with me. Have your rights been read to you, Mr. Leese?
Starr: Yes, what?
Leese: Sorry. Yes, sir.
Starr: Where were you on the evening of July 8th between 4 PM and 7:30 PM?
Leese: I left work at the Fidelity offices at 4 and I went home to my apartment.
Starr: Can you prove you were there? Do you have any witnesses?
Leese: Well, no. I always walk home and I live alone. I don’t recall talking to anyone.
Starr: Probably because you didn’t leave that night. You remained at the Fidelity building, didn’t you?
Leese: No. I told you I went home.
Starr: How long have you known Gabriella Stoker?
Leese: (sighs) I’ve known her for more than six months.
Starr: Why did you rape her?
Leese: Oh, my God. I did not rape her. Stop saying that.
Starr: Is the guilt starting to get to you? Does it bother you that you raped her?
Starr: You don’t look like it, but I guess you’re a cold-hearted bastard, huh? Raped a nice young girl like that with a bright future ahead of her. Now you don’t feel bad about it.
Leese: I did not rape her. I feel bad about what happened to her. She was my friend. But I did not rape her.
Starr: But you wanted to fuck her. She even said you tried to before the 8th.
Leese: What? No. I asked her out and I tried to kiss her one time.
Starr: And she rejected your sorry ass.
Starr: She rejected you?
Leese: Yes. She said no. She said that she didn’t want to date anyone. She wanted to focus on her career.
Starr: And that made you feel like a sap. Right?
Leese: Yeah. I felt bad about it.
Starr: She was better than you. She quoted you saying, “You don’t want to go out with me because I’m a temp with no future or chance of promotion.”
Leese: No. That’s not what happened.
Starr: So she lied?
Leese: No. I did. I said it but I was angry. I felt rejected. But I felt bad about it saying that. I even apologized.
Starr: By strangling her in the bathroom and raping her against the toilet.
Leese: No. Please, stop saying that. I did not rape her!
Starr: Calm down, Leese. I’m starting to feel threatened. Don’t make me use excessive force.
Starr: Listen, Leese. I feel bad for you. Look at you. You don’t look like a rapist. Girls probably reject you all the time and the ones that give you attention probably think you’re harmless. I bet they push you around. You don’t look dangerous.
Starr: But I understand you. Appearances can be deceiving. Guys like you often work hard at appearing innocent and harmless. But behind your eyes you’re just a fucking monster that likes to attack smart, beautiful, and well off women.
Leese: I don’t want to talk to you anymore.
Starr: Fine. Then just sign this confession and you can leave.
Leese: I’m not signing anything that says I did it. I’m innocent.
Starr: C’mon, Leese. You don’t want to go to trial with this. The prosecutor will dig into your past, into your love life, your sex life. And the press loves stories like this. You don’t want them to get wind of your freakish sex life do you? Or maybe you don’t have much of one since you have to rape girls.
Leese: Fuck you.
Starr: Make it easier on yourself. Sign the confession and deal. Maybe your story won’t make it past the blotter in the crime section of the local news.
Leese: I won’t sign. I’m innocent.
Starr: Have it your way, freak.
Kharma knocked on Rowe’s open office door. She kept the file under her arm. Rowe looked up from her paperwork on her desk and smiled.
“Are you all done, Ms. Kharma?”
“I’ll take your case.”
“Excellent,” Rowe said. “I’ll set you up and get you into Fidelity for tomorrow morning.”
Serena stood behind the register and rung up a customer. Tonight she wore her blond hair up in a tail and showed off the scar that ran down the side of her face. The Mexican Diner was almost empty except for the table finishing up at the side; an old couple in a suit and dress that took full advantage of the side dishes, soup, and salad. She was in no hurry to get rid of them. Her brother cleaned up the kitchen in the back and the bus boys worked on the tables and floors. The other waitresses went home twenty minutes ago.
A knock at the glass door caught her attention. She smiled at the detective in her mid-thirties dressed in a jacket, blouse, and dress pants. Her long dreaded hair was pulled back into a ball. Serena approached the door and waved to Kharma on the other side. She unlocked it and let her in.
“Hey you.” Serena planted a kiss on the other woman.
“Hey, am I too early?”
Serena closed and locked the door. They walked back to the counter. She noticed the old couple watching them as if they were good entertainment. Serena smirked and patted Kharma’s butt as she went around the counter. “No. You can hang out if you want. Just need another thirty minutes.”
Kharma sat on the stool and placed her tablet on the counter. Serena brought her a glass of ice water with lemon.
“Did you get that job today?” she asked.
“What’s it like?”
“They want me to go undercover to find a rapist.”
Serena cleaned off the condiment bottle and placed them on the metal racks in the counter. “Is it dangerous?”
“Insurance company. As dangerous as the streets.” She smirked and then, using a low voice, explained the details. Not like anyone was paying attention to her. Except maybe the old couple that chanced glances in hope of seeing another kiss between women.
Serena leaned closer to Kharma.
“Wait, so this temp rapes a girl working at this company and you have to get him off?”
“I don’t think he raped her,” Kharma said. “At least, now I don’t think he raped her.”
Serena dug her short nail into the counter, almost breaking through the hard glossy surface.
“And if he did?”
“Then I still get paid and he goes to jail,” she said. “Trust me, Serena, I didn’t take this case lightly.”
Kharma cradles her soft hand and rubs her thumb over the top.
“I know. I’m just sensitive about this kind of stuff.”
Kharma leans over and kisses the scar on her face.
“So am I,” Kharma said.
Serena leaned back and smiled. “So, you’re going to be in some big wig corporate place and need to catch a freak?”
She sips her water.
“What are you going to wear?”
“Something like this I suppose.”
“No, no, no. You are one beautiful woman but what you got on would scare them off.”
“I’m not scary.”
Serena stepped to the kitchen window. Pots bang around and water runs.
Serena’s brother appeared on the other side. A large man with dark hair in a net and three chins under his jaw.
“Yeah. Oh, hey Kelly.”
Kharma nodded to him.
“Is Kelly scary to men?” Serena asked.
“Scares the shit out of me.”
“What are you getting at?” Kharma asked.
“Tonight you stay at my place, I’ll show you what I mean.”
The old couple smiled and giggled.
The sun wasn’t up yet. She planned to report to the Resources Unlimited office first before she went to Fidelity Insurance. As soon as she woke up after five hours of sleep, she took a shower and sharpened her senses with cold water. She then stood at the bathroom mirror and applied a foundation spray to her face, neck, and the top of her right hand. The color matched her dark pigment perfectly. She had two different colors for jobs, one also to match the pink patches. Sometimes she could pass for an albino but it was hard since her nose was wide and a bit flat and her lips were so pouty. If anything she could pass for mulatto. The foundation was a special latex/gelatin blend that wouldn’t melt in the heat and helped her skin breathe. She had used it before in other cases. She’d rather not use it in this one but it would help her blend in with the crowd and appear more attractive.
“Wow.” Serena sat under the sheets and blanket in her bed. “You look like a different person…sort of.”
Kharma, dressed in bra and panties, walked up to her and sat on the bed.
“Sort of the purpose. You like it?”
“Eh. I prefer a natural woman.”
“So what do you think I should wear?”
Serena, naked, slipped out of the bed and walked to the chair for her satin robe. Kharma kept her eyes on her the whole time and wished she would keep the robe off. She loved how Serena moved in her flesh, so naturally confident like she owned it. Not like Kharma, who had never gotten used to the cards she was dealt.
The blond stood at her closet and shoved the hanging clothes around. She picked out a top and skirt and held them up for final consideration.
“Here. Try these on.”
“You know I’m a bit taller than you.” Kharma took the clothes and frowned at the skirt. “I’m going to look like a slut in this skirt.”
Serena made her eyes jump.
“C’mon. This is serious.”
“Listen. You want to catch a freak you got to send the signal out, right? You have killer legs even if you don’t know it. Some guy will notice them. So perv guy. Right?”
Kharma sighed. She had a point.
Kharma stepped into the Fidelity Insurance building in midtown. The large glass window and revolving doors opened to a row of turnstiles and a security desk. She stepped up and smiled at the white-haired FOP guard staring at the flat monitors. The younger guard stood by the turnstiles and nodded greeting to all the incoming suits and skirts with precision hair and make-up.
“Hi, my name is Kelly Williams.” Kharma passed the Resources Unlimited work identification to the guard. His nametag over the FOP badge read R. Corr. He glanced at the card and pulled out a tablet with a sign-in app.
“Just need to you to sign in until we get you a pass,” Corr said.
Kharma used her finger to sign into the screen, glad he didn’t ask for a thumbprint to verify. She handed it back.
“Someone will come get you,” Corr said. “Hold tight.”
“Mr. Lapaglia, right?”
Kharma smiled at him, said, “Thank you,” and stepped to the side. She watched the men and women run their pass cards over the censor and walk through the turnstile. Most of them glanced at her legs, even some women. A few chanced a trip into her eyes and smiled. Kharma stayed in character and smiled back. She reminded herself to thank Serena in a special way tonight.
Lapaglia came down and approached the turnstiles. “Ms. Williams?” He was a little guy with a big gut. He wore the traditional dress pants and white shirt and tie. His hair was a mix of gray and brown but his eyebrows were shy of the gray and still holding on to the brown.
Kharma reached over the turnstile and shook his hand.
“Nice to meet you Mr. Lapaglia.”
“Oh, yes. And you, too,” he said. “If you will follow me, we’ll set you up with a Fidelity ID so you don’t have to wait every morning for me.”
Kharma stepped through the entrance and followed the little man down a hall to the back offices. They stopped at the door labeled ‘Security’. Lapaglia left her there where she filled out a few forms requesting personal information – the same info that Rowe gave her – and had her picture taken for the ID card.
“Make sure you go in and out of the front entrance and have your card scanned,” the dark-skinned FOP behind the desk said. “That way we can tell when you enter and exit. We’ve had some problems before.”
“Oh?” Kharma asked. “I can’t imagine.”
“Best you don’t.”
Kharma received her own cubicle with a computer. Three other cubicles surrounded hers in the aisle leading to the window that looked out from the 32nd floor. Lapaglia introduced her to Tillie Suarez who was going to train her. The old woman with poorly died red hair and white roots closed her cardigan over her long, confining shirt.
“Nice to meet you,” Kharma said, holding out her hand.
Tillie glanced down Kharma’s body then bounced up fast with a big toothy smile.
“Nice to meet you, too!”
The rest of the morning Tillie sat with Kharma and explained how the mail system worked. All company email came into a server and funneled to each building around the Districts. From there, Kharma had to scan each email and figure out who it should be assigned to in Pre-Payment or Payment. She also had to print out any attachments, like claim forms and certificates of importance for the hard files.
“And feel free to ask any questions,” Tillie said. “I want you to get it right so you can stay with us a long time.”
“Thank you,” Kharma said. “I will.”
“Are you from Resources?”
“Oh, don’t call me ma’am. Please. I may be sixty six years old, but I still have eleven years until retirement.” She laughed. “You can call me Tillie.”
“Okay. Yes, Tillie. I’m from there.”
Kharma kept her eyes on the email and scanned each one for the signs she needed to drag and drop them to the right associate folder.
“Mm hmm, I’m surprised. I thought we would have stopped dealing with them after what happened to poor Jamison.”
“Jamison. He was the boy who worked here before you from Resources,” Tillie said. “Is he okay?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I never met him.”
“Such a nice young man. Very sweet. Truly horrible what happened to him. Just ridiculous. I’ve been praying for him.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Oops. You sent the letter to the wrong associate,” Tillie said. “Don’t worry we can fix it.”
Tillie never brought up Jamison again, neither did Kharma.
Throughout the rest of the day, Kharma kept her eye on the job and all the people she encountered. Sometimes she had to bring documents to the claim specialists down the path of cubicles or to a customer service specialist. Everyone seemed nice. She received a few dirty looks from a couple of the huge, married women, but she expected jealousy. So far if the rapist were someone into Kharma’s legs, then almost all the men on the floor would be guilty.
While dropping off a folder of forms to someone in Payment, she slowly walked past Gabriella Stoker’s cubicle. It was still empty and had her nameplate on the wall. The computer was off.
“You have something for Gabby?” a woman in the cubicle across asked. She wore the standard casual business attire: a skirt and a loose top. Kharma noticed a tattoo pattern on the woman’s hand that must have ran up her arm. That would explain why she wore long sleeves when it was so warm in this part of the building.
“What?” Kharma asked.
“She’s going to be out of the office a few weeks,” the woman said, tucking her long dark hair behind her triple-pierced ear. “If you have something for her I can hold onto it.”
“Oh. No. Thank you. I don’t have anything for her. Was just admiring the pictures.” She pointed to the digital frame that showed a vacation image of the beach. Gabriella and one of her friends wore bathing suites while standing in the low clam water.
“Yeah, think that’s on Earth. Jamaica,” the woman said.
“It’s beautiful. Is that her on the left?”
“Yeah. She’s cool. I’m Katina by the way. If you ever get lost, let me know.”
“Thanks. I will.”
Kharma shut down her computer and cleaned the day off her desk. Tillie, already dressed with her bag on her shoulder, approached Kharma.
“Going home now?” she asked.
“You did so well today. I told Mr. Lapaglia all about you.”
“Oh, thanks. I was nervous.”
“No no no. You did wonderful.”
Tillie looked around. A few people either prepared to leave or walked by but paid them no mind. She moved closer to Kharma.
“Are you saved?”
“Uh, for what?”
“No. Are you saved? Have you taken our Lord Christos as your personal savior?”
Kharma forced a smile. She remembered that religion from Primary School when she was a kid. She had to take a Universal Religion Class. She was hoping she would never hear about it again.
“Oh. Um. Yes.”
Tillie patted her hand. “I had a feeling. We’re going to get along just fine.”
Kharma stood at the entrance of his cubicle. It was bigger and had a larger desk. Stacks of paper and two computers took up most of the space. His harried eyes looked up from his work. He smiled.
“Oh, Ms. Williams. How can I help you?”
“I just wanted you to know I was leaving.”
His eyes dipped, landing somewhere on her breasts.
“Oh, okay. How do you think you did today?”
“I hope I did well. I made a few mistakes, but Tillie said they were not serious.”
“Mistakes on your first day are to be expected.”
His eyes went back to hers.
“Then I guess I did fine.”
She smiled. He smiled back.
“Well, good night,” Kharma said. “See you tomorrow.”
She turned to leave.
Kharma turned back around.
“Yes, Mr. Lapaglia?”
“So you know, we encourage overtime here. Even with the temps. So if you need the extra money, please let me know.”
“Okay. I will.”
Lapaglia nodded and went back to his work.
Kharma took the mass shuttle to the Resources office building. From there she walked back to her office and apartment on the second floor. Before entering, she walked around the block a few times to make sure she wasn’t followed. Inside, she kept the lights and steel shutter down and sat at her computer. She typed up her daily report to Ms. Rowe and emailed it to her.
Her cell phone vibrated on top of the desk. A text from Serena. Be at your place in 10.
Kharma shut down her computer and turned off the lights. She entered the back door to the steps up to her apartment. Ten minutes was enough time to clean the foundation off her face and to put on more comfortable clothes.
Serena crawled up Kharma’s length and kissed her. They held each other’s naked bodies while Kharma pulled the blankets over themselves to battle the cool breeze blowing in from the open window.
“So how is it over there?” Serena asked, resting her head on Kharma’s shoulder.
“Weird. Like any other office environment.”
“Any suspects yet?”
“No. Then again…you were right about the outfit. All the guys were looking at me in that way. Any one of them could have been the attacker.”
Serena smiled bright.
“Good thing I brought more outfits for you.”
“In that bulky bag?”
“How come I never see you wear those kinds of clothes?”
“You’ve only seen me in my waitress uniform.”
“It’s very sexy.”’
“When I get some free nights coming and we have time to go out, I’ll wear one for you.”
“That will be torture,” Kharma said. “All night I’ll just want to see you naked.”
Kharma sat in her cubicle and sorted mail on the touch screen. Behind her, Tillie sang old Earth hymns about Christos. Her voice moved up and down and dragged out of pitch. The few times Kharma had to ask her a question, she saw that Tillie had ear buds in to listen to the music. She was singing along to it. Singing along quite badly.
“Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?” Gladys, another permanent mail person, sat in the cubicle to Kharma’s left. “You put on ear buds to avoid distracting others with the music and then she sings through her nose like that.”
Kharma chuckled. She tried not to let it get to her like the other workers in the section. Throughout the morning people would throw dirty looks towards Tillie’s direction or ask someone where the dead cow was and to put it out of its misery.
“Oh, is it lunch time?” Tillie called out to herself.
Kharma made sure she was prepared five minutes before noon to head down to the cafeteria so she didn’t have to reject Tillie’s invitation for lunch again.
Downstairs she loaded up a tray of food and scanned the room for a place to sit. She weaved through the full tables in the front and headed for the back.
“Hi!” Katina sat by herself at a table. Garbage left behind by other people surrounded her. She still had her own half eaten tray of food. “Looking for a place to sit? I’m almost done here.”
“Thanks.” Kharma placed her tray down and carefully sat in a chair to avoid her skirt slipping over her ass. Times like this she wished the assignment were over. “Katina, right?”
“How are you liking the temp work, Kelly?” she asked, still picking at her sandwich.
“It’s okay. I’ve had worse.”
“I bet. But are you getting along with Tillie?”
“She can be a handful but she’s harmless.”
“Did she invite you to her church yet?”
“Yes. And gave me a pamphlet.”
“Yeah, she tried to invite me but I told her I wasn’t interested. She gave me a dirty look that could filth up a newborn baby. But she never gives up. That same time she approached me she asked Gabby.”
“The girl in the cubicle across from you?”
“Yeah. She said no too but went even further and said she didn’t have time for that shit.”
Kharma laughed. “Oh, my God.”
“Yeah. Did not go well”
Kharma worked on her salad.
“So is that girl Gabby on vacation again?”
“No. You didn’t hear?”
“I thought that since you come from Resources Unlimited that you might already know about Gabby,” Katina said.
“No one has told me anything.”
“It was just awful. She was attacked and raped in the bathroom one night.”
Kharma hugged herself and raised her brows.
“Yeah. Tillie found her. It happened during over-time,” Katina said. “Mr. Lapaglia said it was terrible. Gabby couldn’t stop crying.”
“Mr. Lapaglia was there, too?”
“Yeah, he’s always working over-time. I guess he doesn’t want to go home to his wife and kids. Sometimes it would just be him and Gabby staying really late. I used to tease her that she had something going on with him.”
“Oh, no. But then again, she used to say that he made passes at her.”
“But she turned him down.”
“Well, yeah. It’s okay to flirt with a supervisor as long as he runs your department. Sure he’s in Pre-Payment but really he’s just a glorified clerk.”
“I hear ya,” Kharma said.
“Well, I better be running,” Katina said. “If you like, I’ll meet you down here tomorrow, too.”
“Thanks for the seat.”
The payment specialist gathered her bag and garbage and walked off. Kharma focused on her salad and made a few mental notes for later.
Kharma sat back down at her cubical, switched on her computer, and refreshed the latest batch of mail. She sensed someone behind her and turned. Tillie flinched.
“Oh, you scared me,” she said. “You almost looked like some killer or an FOP officer.”
“And you were the one coming up behind me.”
Kharma forced a smile.
“Anyway, do you have a moment?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
Tillie placed her hand on Kharma’s shoulder.
“You’re so smart and beautiful, Kelly,” she said. “You remind me so much of my own daughter.”
“But I have the feeling no one told you yet.”
“Told me what?”
“That you don’t have to dress the way you do to still be smart and beautiful.”
Kharma’s legs tightened together.
“I’m not so old fashioned. It’s okay for a woman to dress the way you do,” Tillie said. “As long as it’s for your husband or in the privacy of your own home. Outside of that, you’re just going to send men the wrong message. You don’t want to be like the other women who dress bad in this place. You don’t want to be thought of as a whore do you?”
The corners of Kharma’s mouth flexed, fighting a smile.
“No. Of course not.”
“We had this one girl that worked here, she thought she could get away with wearing low cut tops, short skirts, and tight clothes. And do you know what happened to her? Some devil raped her in the bathroom.”
“Oh, I heard about that. Gabby something right?”
“Poor girl. I found her, you know.”
“You were working overtime, I guess.”
“I hear Mr. Lapaglia was there too.”
“Yes, I ran to him for help.”
“You too weren’t working together?”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t understand the type of work he does. He’s a supervisor. I was just doing the filing and the scanning and the back log of mail.”
“So you were both working at your own desks.”
Tillie frowned, revealing her confusion.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Thank you for telling me, Tillie. You gave me a lot to think about.”
The older woman smiled.
“I’m glad I can help. Christos bless.”
“Oh, Ms. Williams. What can I do for you?”
“If you need me, I can work over-time today.”
Kharma stood with her hands crossed in front of her and a big smile. Lapaglia smiled up at her from behind his desk.
“Um, oh. That’s fantastic. Sure.” He clasped his hands. “Why don’t you come see me at four and we’ll have something for you do to.”
“Maybe I can help you with your desk.”
“What? Oh, right. It is a mess. But, um, I have it organized. Sort of.”
Kharma held his gaze. Lapaglia wasn’t sure where to look or how long he should smile.
“Well, I’ll come by at four,” she said.
“You do that.”
Kharma entered the Mexican Diner. The clock behind Serena at the counter read 8:34 PM. She was still in her office clothes and dragging the customer’s eyes along with her. Serena smiled and leaned over the counter for a kiss. Kharma obliged and sat on the stool, her legs uncrossed and slightly open out of habit from wearing pants all the time.
“I was worried about you,” Serena said.
“Sorry, I wanted to contact you but…”
“You worked late at the office.”
“Yeah, started doing overtime.”
Kharma took Serena’s hand and rubbed her callus thumb over her smooth skin and veins.
“How did that go?” Serena asked. “Any leads?”
“One. He’s definitely a perv. Married, though.”
“You should know better than that, that’s part of their disguise.”
“Oh, I know,” Kharma said. “I know all too well.”
“So are you going to be doing this a while? Working late?”
“When they let me, yeah. You going to be okay with that?”
“It’s your job. I can’t say much about it.”
Kharma kissed her hand.
“Kelly?” Tillie asked.
Kharma turned from her computer.
“Hi, what’s up?”
Tillie’s eyes moved up and down Kharma’s clothes. Disapproval covered her face.
“Excuse me, but I know it’s not my place.”
Kharma raised her brow.
“I saw that you’ve been having lunch with Katina the last week or so.”
“That’s right. She’s very nice.”
“Okay. That’s fine for you to say. But I just want to warn you. She was a good friend with that poor girl Gabby who got herself raped. I see that you still haven’t come to a conclusion with my advice, and that’s fine. But I can’t help but to warn you. I like you so much. I want to see you stay with us for a long time.”
“What are you trying to say, Tillie?”
“You need to keep away from Katina. Oh, sure. You can be friendly and work with her, but forging a strong friendship with her will only lead you to trouble. I have heard stories about that young woman. Sinful stories,” Tillie said. “I really wish girls like that would be like my daughter. She stays home with me every night and only goes out to church. She doesn’t fill her head about finding a man like those other girls do. She’s confident she will find a nice man in church. One that will be respectful and she can be respectable with.”
“Uh, okay, Tillie. Thanks for the warning.”
“Such a nice young woman, you are. Christos bless.”
“What’s so funny, Kelly. Let me in on the joke.”
“I might as well,” Kharma said. “It’s about you.”
“Oh, yes. You must,” Katina said.
“I was just thinking about Tillie trying to scare me away from you yesterday.”
“That wrinkled cunt. Oh, my God. What did she say?”
“Nothing serious. Just that she thinks you’re some kind of slut and that you’re going to get raped like Gabby.”
Katina dropped her fork and placed her hands on the tabletop. She held still as if she was going to puke.
“Oh, God. She is just…”
“Don’t take it serious,” Kharma said. “I don’t.”
“I know. It’s…I mean, so what. I like men and I like to have…fun with them. Is that a crime?”
“As far as I know it’s not.”
“I bet she wants me to be more like her daughter.”
“She brought her up.”
“You haven’t seen her daughter yet, have you? The girl looks like a total basket case. She dresses to cover all her skin and her head is always down and her hands are always over her crotch like she has pain down there. It probably hurts from rubbing it so much. I doubt she’s had a man at all.”
“Oh, my God.”
Kharma covered her mouth and laughed.
“I bet if Tillie got fucked once and a while she wouldn’t have such a tight hole.”
Both women laughed, grabbing the attention of the other employees in the cafeteria.
Kharma stood at the huge, long filing cabinet behind Lapaglia’s desk and worked on the pile of files. He sat in front of her and focused on his work. Every so often, he turned his head and took in the view of her ass. Kharma knew what he was up to and held to the position he wanted her in.
Katina entered the aisle and stopped at the cubicle to Lapaglia’s left where the Payment Supervisor worked. She handed her boss the file and asked a question about a claim. As the Payment Supervisor spread the folder out and reviewed it, Katina bent over the desk, keeping her knees straight and her butt out.
Lapaglia gawked at Katina’s ass. He then noticed Kharma, who smiled down at him. The middle-aged man blushed and said, “Excuse me.” He carefully rose from the desk, placed a file in front of his lap, and rushed away.
Kharma frowned and shook her head.
“It’s been two weeks and you’ve been doing all this over-time,” Serena said. “Is that normal for a case?”
Kharma sat on her couch, wearing sweats and a tank, fresh from a shower. Serena, still in her waitress uniform, lied across it with her head on Kharma’s lap. The dark-skinned woman played with the blonde’s hair.
“No,” Kharma said. “Not really. But…I feel that this guy has to be the one.”
“The Prepayment Supervisor.”
“Yeah. The guy is such a dog. Not only do I catch him gawking at me and accidentally rubbing me, I saw him having a conversation with Katina in the break room. As they were making coffee he was whispering jokes or something in her ear. She kept giggling and touching his arm.”
“She likes him?”
“I don’t think so. She thinks lowly of him since he’s in a different department,” Kharma says. “But…she has admitted to me that she likes to flirt with guys.”
“I bet if you left the room something would have happened.”
“I doubt it. I heard her give a firm No and she left before me. I smiled over at the guy like I was more interested than her.”
“Oh, my God. Show me.” She sat up and looked at Kharma. “Show me the look you gave him.”
The detective turned away and smiled.
“No. It was stupid. I’m sure he thought I was some freak slut.”
“Well, isn’t that what you want the guy to think?”
“How is the client taking the wait?” Serena asked.
“Not well, but they understand it takes time.”
“Maybe something will strike soon.”
“Or maybe I need to up my game and do some risky digging,” Kharma said.
“Hi, Mr. Lapaglia,” Kharma said at his desk. “I’m ready for you.”
The middle-aged supervisor looked up at her from his work and revealed the shock on his face.
“Ready for me?”
“Yeah. Don’t you have something big and hard…for me to do.”
He smiled and his eyes dropped down and up her body. Kharma moved her hands behind her back not only to stick out her chest for him but to tighten her fists.
“Oh, you mean overtime,” he said.
Kharma faked a giggle.
“Yes, yes. Um, I believe Claims Specialists 321 and 594 need help with their hardcopy filing. And when you’re done with that, I have some scanning for you.”
“Great,” Kharma said. “Um, if you don’t mind me asking, are you feeling okay tonight, Mr. Lapaglia?”
“You look stressed out.”
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” he said, rubbing his thighs. “Thank you for asking.”
“I bet that bad wife is no help,” Kharma said. “Man like you needs a regular amount of play.”
He focused on his work and smirked.
“Well, like I said. If you need anything more from me tonight, let me know.”
He nodded his head fast. Kharma giggled and walked off.
She walked down to the cubicles that needed filing. One of them was in the same aisle as Katina’s. The Claims Specialist sat at her computer and typed up response letters to claimants.
“Hey,” Kharma said. “Working late, too?”
“Yeah. Been backed up.”
“I’ll be filing if you need help.”
“Cool,” Katina said. “Thanks.”
They smiled at each other. Kharma walked to the cubicle a few spots away and found the files left on the desk. She grabbed the step stool from under the desk and used it to stand on for when she filed the top row. She didn’t need it since she was tall enough but she wanted to make sure she had a good view of Lapaglia’s desk a few rows away.
As the hours went on, Kharma finished the filing and went on to the scanning. She stood at a cubicle and fed the papers from the closed files into the scanner, which digitally sorted the information. After making sure the files were properly scanned, she dumped the paper into the shredder.
“Ms. Williams,” Mr. Lapaglia said.
Lapaglia stood at the entrance of the cubicle. He had his jacket on and held his briefcase.
“Please. Call me Kelly.”
“Okay. Are you almost done, Kelly?”
“Just this one bundle. I should be done in fifteen minutes.”
“Okay. It’s late. You should get your rest. I don’t think anyone else is still around.”
“Katina’s still here,” Kharma said.
Lapaglia leaned back as if he would be able to see Katina in her cubicle.
“Is she now?”
“Yeah, and I think Tillie is here, too. I heard her singing ten minutes ago or so.”
“Yes, I need to talk to her about that.”
“So there’s nothing you want me to do for you before I go?” Kharma asked.
“No. Not tonight. But possibly tomorrow.”
“I’ll be ready, Mr. Lapaglia.”
They smiled at each other.
“Good night,” he said.
She watched him walk off and turn the corner to the exit doors. Kharma looked around. All was clear. She walked to Lapaglia’s desk. As expected, no one was around and it was dangerously quiet. She sat down at his desk and took out a pair of latex gloves from her skirt pocket. Once on, she eased open the drawers to his desk and searched.
“Shit,” she whispered.
Nothing. She found nothing that could connect him to the rape of Gabriella. Plus there was nothing personal in his desk besides a picture of his stern wife and miserable looking kids. Maybe he had something in that brief case he carried around. Maybe the scarf used to strangle and bind the victim?
Kharma sat back in the chair and moaned from her back pain. How the hell was she going to get in that brief case? Maybe when he went to lunch, but still, people often stayed behind to eat at their cubicle. She hoped she didn’t have to touch him to look inside that case. Maybe drugs were in order.
Then she heard it. Kharma straightened her back and listened hard. She wasn’t sure if she heard right, but it could have been a scream in the distance. She stood and walked into the aisle. “Katina?”
Walking closer, she pointed her ear towards Katina’s workstation. Silence.
She turned the other direction.
No response, but she could have her music on.
“Shit,” Kharma whispered.
She dashed through the heavy door and ran down the hall to the restrooms.
Kharma pushed the lever down to open the bathroom door. Whimpering and panting echoed from within the tiled room.
“Katina?” she called out.
The whimpering grew louder, trying to form words.
Kharma rushed to the stalls. All four were ajar. Seeing the feet and the familiar pants covering the legs on the floor, she pushed the stall door open. Katina sat between the toilet and the wall. Her pants and panties were bunched around her calves and her hands were tied behind her back with a dark purple velvet scarf.
“Katina, it’s me, Kelly.”
Kharma kneeled and tried to straighten her up against the metal wall. Katina sobbed and sniffled. Tears and snot dripped down her face. Bruises formed a line around her neck like a violent collar.
“Did you see him?” Katina managed to ask.
“See who?” Kharma asked.
“Jamison. Jamison snuck back.”
“You saw him?” Kharma asked.
“It has to be him.”
Just as Kharma turned to the door behind her, it slammed her back so hard that her body fell backward and her head hit the tiled wall behind the toilet. She cursed out in pain. Footsteps descended.
Kharma regained her balance and stood. She opened the door and turned to Katina on the floor. “I’ll get help.”
“Kill him,” screamed Katina. “Kill the fucker.”
Kharma approached the closing bathroom door. She swung it open and ran out into the hall. Silence filled the air. The grinding of metal on metal. None of the doors to the offices close so rough and it didn’t sound like an elevator sealing. It had to be the door to the stairway.
Kharma went around the corner and stopped at the elevators. Directly across from them was the emergency stairway. She peeked into the small wire threaded window and saw nothing but a dim light and painted cinderblocks. She pushed the door open and took a step inside. She leaned and listened. Nothing. No footsteps, no stumbling.
“Fuck,” she whispered
This was the only place the bastard could have gone. Maybe he ran so fast he entered the next floor down.
Kharma made a move for the stairs. The door closed behind her. As she reached the middle, a woman screamed. Tillie rushed out from the dark corner next to the door. Youthful rage filled her old eyes. She held what looked like a large dagger with an odd blinking handle in her hand. Kharma turned to brace herself. Tillie dove off the landing and headed straight for Kharma.
“Christos is here!” Tillie screamed.
The old woman collided into the detective and sent them both rolling down the stairs. They slammed onto the landing and the cinderblock wall. Tillie managed to straddle Kharma and slapped the front and back of her hand across her face a few times. Kharma waved her arms, trying to get a grip on the rabid old woman.
Tillie grabbed Kharma’s hair and slammed her head into the floor. The detective’s vision flashed black and white. Her arms turned to lead weights. Tillie’s free hand reached down between Kharma’s legs, gripped her panties, and tore them off.
“All you sluts think you’re so much better than us,” she kept whispering. “Better than Christos.”
Tillie held up the large dagger. Kharma wasn’t sure but it looked like Christos was on the handle. The image had the same goatee and cropped brown hair, but, unlike the usual pictures of the savior, this one had flashing red eyes.
Kharma broke through the haze and grabbed Tillie’s wrist. Shock covered the old woman’s face. Kharma punched her in the jaw and again in the nose. Tillie screamed out and fell to the side. Kharma pushed up on her feet and kicked Tillie in the head. The woman held still on the floor.
Kharma leaned back against the wall, caught her breath, and felt the sweat drip down. She glanced at the weapon on the floor. No. It wasn’t a weapon. Sort of. The dagger was really a 12-inch rubber dildo with a hand guard – making it look like a cross – and the head of Christos on the top of the handle. Its eyes were indeed flashing red.
“You sick fuck,” Kharma sighed.
The doors opened and two FOP officers came in with weapons drawn. One aimed at Tillie on the floor. The other stepped up to Kharma.
“You okay?” Corrs asked.
“Yeah. I guess. Did Katina call you?”
He shook his head. “We saw you on the monitors downstairs.” He pointed to the cam in the corner of the ceiling.
Tillie moaned and rolled onto her back. Her eyes remained closed. “Christos takes care of the birds and the bees,” she moaned. “And He’ll take care of me.”
“Such a waste of Christos’s time,” Kharma said and went back up the stairs to find Katina.
It was one of those standard cases that Kharma liked and hated. Yesterday a man named Roland Bar came into her office. Dressed well in a suite and tie, one would think he worked in the business district except that his black shoes were horribly scuffed. Kharma predicted that there were holes on the bottom of the souls. He crossed his legs and stared at Kharma from across her desk. At first he had the initial flinch from the pink patterns on her dark skin, then, like all other people, he regained himself and flashed a smile.
“I would like to hire you to follow my wife,” Bar said.
“Why’s that?” Kharma asked.
“We’re in the middle of a divorce and she intends to take me for 80 percent of my income,” he said.
“Who initiated the divorce?”
“She did. She claims I was mentally abusive. Will that matter?”
“Will what matter?”
“If I was mentally abusive. Will that sway you from taking the job?”
“I was. I don’t believe in hitting a woman, but if she gives me tongue I’m going to give it back. Maybe that’s why she was cheating. She wanted someone nicer to fuck.”
Kharma held her eyes on his, keeping a stone face.
“I appreciate the honesty, Mr. Bar,” she said. “No. It doesn’t affect me from taking the job. You want to hire me to find evidence that your wife is having an affair with another man?”
“My lawyer said it would help immensely. True, I’ll probably still have to pay her but I don’t have to live under a bridge, eat noodles, and die from high blood pressure.”
“I’ll try to supply photographic proof,” she said.
“No one uses video unless you want to get evidence of a drug deal or solicitation of prostitution,” Kharma said. “I’m sure your lawyer will tell you the same thing.”
“You’re the professional.”
Kharma accepted the job and told him her rates. Bar agreed. For the next few hours she asked him questions of his wife’s daily activities.
“I work mostly nights, so that’s probably when she sees him. During the day, I’m home in our apartment and sleeping.”
“Where do you work?”
“At the garment factory on 46th Street and 9th Ave. Company’s called Graham/ DeNillo Enterprises. Probably one of the last garment factories on this planet. Lately most clothes are being made and imported from companies on Ceres,” he said with a bit of pride. “I’m the night manager at the factory.”
Kharma was familiar with them. She remembered reading a story about how they paid the employees below legal wages and hired droganisms that were snuck into the country from the Southern Districts.
But credit was credit and Kharma needed it to pay her mortgage on the building she owned that had her office on the first floor and apartment on the second. Following spouses was simple and once she clicked the right picture she could go home and collect a week’s worth of pay. The down side was sitting in the car through the night and waiting for something to happen.
Her hover car was parked across the street from a downtown apartment building. The structure was red brick and appeared clean. Maybe because it was down the street from a park and a church. Earlier that night Kharma had started her job in front of Roland Bar’s apartment building on the east side. She watched him go to work at 9 PM. He stepped into his hover car and flew off into the air stream. He didn’t look her way or even search for Kharma’s presence.
By 10 PM, Strawberry Bar stepped out of the apartment building and walked to a taxi. Like the picture she was given, Strawberry was a woman in her late twenties – a good ten years younger than the Mr. Bar – with long tightly curled hair and pale skin. She wore a short, tight dress and a midriff jacket. The woman had curves and showed them off with every movement she made to the taxi.
Kharma followed them to an apartment building across town. Strawberry Bar slinked out and swayed up the steps to the building. She didn’t ring the bell. She entered with her own card key. Kharma was able to click off a few photos of Strawberry getting out of the taxi and entering the building with the building number in front of it. They were fine establishing shots but nothing incriminating. She still needed one of the woman’s face and one with the other man, preferably in the man’s arms or in lip lock.
So she waited. Hours. The street was deathly quiet. Kharma listened to her stomach rumble. Lights in all the apartment buildings and houses were off. The only soul that turned up after three hours was an old man walking his tiny dog around the block. He returned with a doggie bag of poop that he dropped into the garbage unit before he went back inside.
The next hour, Kharma did all she could to stay awake. She slapped her own face, read the news again on her tablet, and stuffed her face with junk food. She avoided water so that she wouldn’t have to pee. She considered calling Serena at her apartment but decided against it. Lately she’s been so tired and wasted after working and co-managing the Mexican Diner that she often went to bed right away…unless Kharma was visiting.
A sharp movement on her right. A kid ran down the sidewalk heading east. Kharma’s ears went up. Running footsteps came up behind her. Then the two men ran by.
“Shit,” she whispered.
Two guys chasing a little kid.
She bit her lip and looked at the apartment building. Strawberry Bar would probably be there all night. Her husband wouldn’t be returning from work until 7 AM. What are the chances that she would leave now?
Kharma pulled her gun out of the glove box and double-checked the charge. She then jumped out of the hover car and locked it. She ran down the street after the two men and the kid.
The street was well lit and their footsteps loud enough for Kharma to follow a few blocks. But about midway down she heard silence and stopped. She looked around. The brownstones and houses faded out to apartment buildings with stores on the first floor.
A boy screamed.
From across the street?
An alley ran between a large department store and a restaurant. Kharma dashed across and pulled her weapon out as she stopped at the mouth of the alley. The streetlights reached halfway down the darkness. All could make out was the stray garbage on the ground and the graffiti on the wall.
A boy released a whine of pain.
Kharma walked deeper into the alley. Voices grew from the silence.
“What you crying for you little freak,” Man One said.
“C’mon, thought you were supposed to be, like, genetically stronger than us,” Man Two said. “Let’s see you kick our ass.”
“Leave me alone,” the boy sobbed. “Please.”
“Please, leave me alone,” Man Two mocked.
They both laughed.
“You heard the kid,” Kharma said. “Leave him alone.”
The men turned around and revealed the little boy trying to push himself into the brick corner. The men were almost six feet tall, slightly taller than Kharma, but wiry and scrawny under their clothes. One wore gray camouflage pants and an open black leather jacket that revealed a bony chest and hairy nipples. The other managed to squeeze into a pair of skintight black leather pants and a mesh shirt under his tan leather jacket. Both had their hair shaved into shapes and spikes. Both had fucked up looks in their eyes like they’re strung out on something toxic.
“Oh, gee,” Leather Pants said. “The freak is here to save the freak.”
“Yep,” Kharma said. “That’s right. Now do I have to kick both your asses or are you going to leave?”
Camouflage Pants folded over laughing and almost landed on his knees. Leather Pants placed his hand on the wall to keep himself from tipping over in chuckles. Kharma sighed and aimed her weapon at them. The men laughed even harder.
She bit her lip. Kharma tried to bluff, but they called her on it. Yeah, she could shoot them and vaporize their bodies from the inside out, but then she would have to deal with the FOP and all that other bullshit. And if she killed them and ran off…No. It was too much of a mess and she could lose her license.
Kharma holstered her gun and then kicked Camouflage Pants in the face since he had it lowered in laughter. He snapped his head back and he landed on his ass.
Leather Pants threw a punch at Kharma. She dodged it and sent her fist into his kidneys. The man squealed and fell into the brick wall.
“Really, guys? Is that the best you got?” she asked.
Camouflage Pants jumped onto his boots and charged at Kharma. She leaned back, stuck her leg out, and pushed the man as he passed, sending him into the concrete. She then kicked him in the side just under his ribs.
Leather Pants connected his fist into her face. Kharma took the punch and glared at him. The man stumbled back and held his aching fist.
“Oh, shit,” he cried.
Kharma backed the frightened man into the wall. She grabbed his mesh shirt and punched his face in a few times. Blood broke from his nose and mouth and he fell to the ground.
Camouflage Pants was still on the ground and moaning in pain. Leather Pants was conscious but crying into his hands while his face bled.
Kharma turned to the kid hiding in the shadows. “You okay?” she asked.
“Are you going to hurt me?” he asked.
She smiled. His voice sounded so cute.
“No,” she said. “Of course not.”
“Are you FOP?”
“No,” Kharma said. “I’m not FOP. C’mon. I’ll take you home.”
The boy stepped out of the shadows and revealed his orange skin, pitch-black moppy hair, and pure white eyes. He wore denim jeans, a pink T-shirt stained with black smudges, and a red sports jacket.
“Oh, shit,” Kharma said.
The boy looked down and wrung his hands. He seemed worried. But that was okay because Kharma was too. The boy was a droganism.
“C’mon,” Kharma said. “Get out of here.”
He stepped closer to her.
“You will take me home?”
“No. Just go where ever you came from.”
“But you said you would take me home.”
“That was before I knew you were a droganism, kid,” Kharma said. “I could get arrested for just talking to you. No, go back to where you came from. I promise that if anyone asks I didn’t see you.”
“Please, bring me home.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
Kharma rushed out the alley. She stepped back onto the street and walked in the direction of her car. Maybe the night won’t turn out to be a total waste and she could still snag the pictures for Bar.
Little footsteps behind her.
She stopped and revealed angry eyes at the little orange-skinned kid.
“What are you doing?”
“I have no place to go,” he said.
“Don’t you work somewhere around here? Don’t you have parents?”
“I lost them.”
“Please help me. I just want to be with my mother and father.”
Kharma closed her eyes and shook her head.
“This is not happened to me,” she whispered.
The boy started to cry. Kharma told herself not to open her eyes. If she opened them she would see the boy’s tears and then it would be all over for her.
She opened her eyes.
“Damn,” she said.
She took off her jacket and placed it over the kid’s head. “Don’t take it off until I say, got it?”
She grabbed the kid’s dry hand and brought him back to her vehicle. She placed him in the back seat. He took the jacket off his head.
“Did I say to take it off?” Kharma shouted.
The boy whipped the jacket back on.
“Idiot,” Kharma sighed.
Her night – her job – was ruined now. No way she can complete her stakeout and click a picture of Strawberry Bar leaving the apartment building. She had an illegal in her craft. She could be arrested and lose her investigators license. Hell, she could serve fifty years in prison. But…he’s still a kid. Droganisms were so hated that assholes like the ones she ran into tonight gave their left testicle to beat the crap out of one. If it were an adult droganism, then sure, Kharma would throw him or her to the dogs and just continue on with her life. But why did it have to be a kid?
She started up her craft and raised it into the air.
“May I ask where we’re going?” the boy asked.
“Back to my place.”
The boy smiled.
Kharma landed her hover car a block away from her office. So far the street looked dead and she expected it to stay that way at this hour of the early morning. She turned to the kid in the back seat.
“You keep that jacket over your head until I say to take it off, got it?”
The droganism lowered the coat and revealed his head.
“What are you doing?” Kharma asked.
He tilted his head and frowned in confusion.
“I’m sitting in the back seat of your hover car.”
“You lowered the jacket. Did I say to lower the jacket?”
The boy jolted the jacket back over his head.
Kharma mumbled a curse and exited the craft. She looked around the street for innocent eyes and stopped at the passenger side of the craft. She opened the door and motioned for the kid to come out.
With her arm around the boy’s shoulder, they walked to her office. Her eyes stretched in her head, searching for people and trying not to appear like she’s searching for people. She led him past her office door, down the alley at the side of her two level building to the back entrance.
“Is it safe?” the boy asked when they stopped.
“No. Shut up.”
Kharma opened the door. They entered a narrow hall with a staircase.
“Okay, you can look,” she said. “Head up the stairs and stop at the door.”
The boy did what she said. At the top she opened the door and they entered her apartment. The kitchen was clean, the walls freshly painted, but the fixtures and cabinets old. She positioned the boy at the small kitchen table.
“You hungry?” Kharma asked. “Do you even eat?”
“Of course we eat,” the boy said. “Why wouldn’t I eat?”
“Right. Why not?”
“Why not what?”
She searched the kitchen for food. Kharma spent most of her time eating out or on assignment. The best she could find was a bowl of cereal and powdered milk. She fixed a bowl and mixed it with water. The boy ate it up and asked for another. As he worked on his second bowl, at a slower pace, Kharma sat in the chair across form him.
“So what’s your story?” she asked.
“I don’t have a story, but I can try to think of one if you like,” he said. “My mother used to tell me stories before bed.”
Kharma sighed and tried a different approach.
“Where are your parents? And how did you end up in Central District?”
“My parents are in the Northern District.”
“Are you from the ND?”
“No, South District.”
“So your parents were smuggled in?”
“How did you get out of the South District? I hear the boarder FOP has been increased over there.”
“My father found a man who used a porter.”
“And it only sent you to Central?”
From what Kharma understood, porters could send people and objects at least half way around the planet. Northern District, which gave amnesty to droganisms, was only a fraction of the distance.
“My father said the man used second-hand porters and that he could only use a little power for it,” the boy said.
“Using too much unregulated energy would alert the companies and the FOP,” Kharma mumbled.
“Nothing,” she said. “So why didn’t you go with them?”
“FOP arrived. I ran away.”
“But your parents went through the porter?”
“My mom went first. I was to go with my father but we got separated. I was stuck with a group of men who snuck me out. I think my father went through,” he said. “Can I have another bowl?”
Kharma passed him the box and the bottle of powdered milk she made. “Knock yourself out.”
While the kid ate, she took out her tablet and searched the net for any recent raids on illegal porters in the city. The kid was telling the truth. Last night the FOP busted one on Avenue C on the west side. The porter device was in a warehouse basement. The article stated that they arrested five men for possession and aiding and abetting droganisms but no drogansims were caught. FOP believed a few of them escaped capture but a bulk of them went through the porter before it was shut down.
The boy finished his bowl and leaned back in his chair. A belch slipped out of his mouth. He giggled.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Haven’t eaten since before the raid, huh?”
“Not really,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“You don’t need to know my name.”
“You want to know my name.”
He frowned and tilted his head. Kharma avoided his eyes. A burn rushed through her. She squirmed.
“Let’s get some sleep,” she said. “I don’t have a bed, but I have a comfortable couch.”
The door buzzer woke Kharma up early the next morning. Still dressed in last night’s clothes, she walked to the monitor by the door. Serena stood outside, dressed in her waitress uniform. Kharma pressed the talk button and leaned into the speaker.
“Hi, what are you doing here?” she asked.
“Wow, what a warm welcome,” she said. “I thought you could use some breakfast and caffeine since you worked all night.” She held up a bag of food in one hand and a large plastic cup of caffeine in the other.
“I really wish you would have called,” Kharma said.
Serena lowered the food. Anger snuck into her face.
“Why do you sound like you’re hiding another woman inside?”
Kharma smiled, glad there was no monitor on Serena’s end.
“There’s no girl here, baby. I swear.”
“Then let me in and enjoy the bounty I have brought you.”
The blond waitress winked seductively at the cam.
Kharma pressed the enter button, letting the woman in. She then opened the apartment door for her. Serena entered the apartment and planted a kiss on Kharma’s mouth.
“Missed you,” she said.
“Missed you too,” Kharma said. “Why don’t we eat these in the kitchen?”
Serena led them into the kitchen and unpacked the food on the table. She pointed to the empty cereal bowl and bottle.
“Did you already eat?” she asked. “If you’re full it can keep for later.”
Kharma grabbed the items off the table and brought them to the sink.
“No, I’m hungry. That was from yesterday.”
Serena shrugged and sat down at the table. Kharma sat across from her and sipped the take-out caffeine. As Serena prepared the bagels with a salmon-flavored spread, she talked about the low-life customers in her diner lately.
“So Carlo and I have been thinking about getting a security guard or maybe we should call him a bouncer since it’s a diner,” she said. “Then again, bouncer makes it sound like we’re a club. What would you call it?”
“Huh?” Kharma raises her brows. “What?”
“Have you heard what I said?”
“Okay, so answer my question,” Serena said. “Should I get the abortion?”
Kharma shook her head and flinched.
Serena slammed the knife and spread container down and glared at Kharma.
“Okay, who’s here?”
“No one is here,” Kharma said.
“Bullshit. You’re acting too weird and if you’re not going to tell me what is going on,” she stood and walked out of the kitchen, “then I’m going to find her myself.”
Kharma followed her down the hall. Serena opened doors and peeked inside the rooms.
“I swear to God, Serena. No is no woman here.”
“Come out come out where ever you are,” the waitress sang.
She suddenly stopped at the entrance of the front room. Kharma bumped into her back. The droganism sat up on the couch and rubbed his tired white eyes.
“I smell food,” he said. “Is there more food?”
Serena turned to Kharma.
“I said there was no woman here,” Kharma said. “You didn’t ask about a boy.”
Serena crossed her arms and focused on Kharma who leaned against the counter and told her about last night. When she finished, Kharma walked to the table and downed the rest of her luke-warm caffeine.
“So what do you plan to do now?” Serena asked.
“I don’t know,” Kharma said. “Perhaps I can sneak him out of the city and leave him in the deserts.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I’m very serious.”
“You have to help him,” Serena said.
“Uh, hello. You do see a droganism on my couch. You know they’re illegal in Central. I could go to jail. Shit, you could go to jail right now.”
“You can’t just leave him in the desert. He’s a little boy. Can’t be more than seven or eight.”
“Can you hear yourself?” Kharma said. “You make it sound like a human being.”
“They were made from human DNA.”
“Yeah, in a test tube. They mixed a sperm with an egg and whipped them together and messed around with them so they could become workers for the mines in South District.”
“Uh, hello. What is a uterus but a human test tube for sperm and eggs? They have souls just like the rest of us,” Serena said. “They’re just made differently.”
“Baby, please. I do not want to have this conversation.”
Kharma approached her and placed her hands on Serena’s hips. She leaned in to kiss her, but Serena dodged her.
“Oh, my God,” Kharma said, backing away. “You’re going to be mad at me?”
She crossed her arms and stared at the floor. Serena stepped forward.
“Don’t be like the rest of the people around here. Don’t be scared of them. You have no reason. Everyone else is because they could take their jobs away. How is that little boy going to take your job away?”
“I know he can’t take my job,” Kharma said. “It’s my life and business I’m worried about.”
Serena paced the kitchen and then stopped.
“Hey, you still got that foundation cream you use when you go undercover?”
“You have any Caucasian tint?”
The droganism boy sat on the kitchen chair with his shirt off and a towel wrapped around him. The foundation – slightly pinker than Serena’s skin tone – covered the boy’s face, neck and ears. His torso and arms were natural orange tinge.
“Don’t move your face for a few minutes so it can dry.” Kharma placed the cap back onto the spray can.
The boy nodded.
Serena smiled and lowered her head the same level as the boy’s.
“Oh, this is perfect.”
“Yeah. So far. But what about his eyes?” Kharma asked.
Excitement filled Serena’s face. She went to her bag on the table and took out her sunglasses. “These will be perfect.” She moved to slip them on the boy.
Kharma blocked her. “Wait. Not yet.”
She nodded and held the sunglasses with both hands. “We need to get some gloves for his hands. Oh, my God. No one will know the difference.”
“Yeah,” Kharma said. “I guess it will work.”
“What’s your name, sweetie?”
He held up his hand and tapped his closed fingers over his thumb and then pointed to his mouth.
“Yeah, you can talk. It should be dry now,” Kharma said.
“Ulysses,” he said. “My mommy calls me Uly.”
“God, you are so cute, Uly,” Serena said.
“I like you.”
Kharma shook her head and leaned against the counter.
“Are you going to help me find my parents?”
“Not me, but Kelly over there is going to help you.”
“Damn it, why did you have to tell him my name?”
“What is he supposed to call you? Hey, Lady?”
The boy giggled.
“Glad someone is having fun,” Kharma muttered. “So what is this plan of yours?”
Serena helped Uly slip his shirt back on, stretching the neck hole over his face as to not mess up the foundation. “I’ll keep an eye on him at the diner and you can find his parents.”
“You know I have work to do today.”
“Haven’t you ever worked two cases at the same time?” Serena slipped the sunglasses over the boy’s eyes.
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem for you.”
“And how am I supposed get him back to his parents?” Kharma asked.
“You’re the private investigator,” Serena said. “I’m sure you can figure it out.”
Uly giggled again. Kharma glared at him to shut up, but the boy only laughed.
Kharma lowered her hover car on the corner of the Mexican Diner. Serena sat next to her and Uly looked out the window in the back. He wore a knit cap, gloves, and sunglasses. Kharma thought he appeared to be a real human boy. She glanced at Serena and smiled.
“What?” the waitress asked.
Kharma stared at her hands on the wheel.
“C’mon, spit it out,” Serena said.
“Nothing…just that…you’re very smart.”
“Of course I am. And you’re damn lucky to have me in your life.”
Serena kissed her cheek and opened the door.
The boy climbed out and remained close to Serena’s side. People walked up and down the street. From what Kharma could tell, no one paid the boy any mind.
“Oh, make sure he doesn’t hang out in the kitchen,” Kharma said. “He might melt.”
The boy flinched.
“I mean the foundation,” she said.
“Be careful, okay?”
The women flashed each other a smile. Serena closed the door and moved Uly back. The craft rose into traffic and flew off with the rest of the hover cars.
“She’s going to find my parents?” Uly asked.
Serena took his hand and gently squeezed it.
“I hope so.”
“How is she going to do that?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
Kharma flew back to Rolland Bar’s apartment. She noticed that his craft was parked on the same block. Using her tablet, she ran a search on the boyfriend’s address. Only four listings came up, one for each floor. Out of the four, she noticed only one had a single name while the others had married couples sharing the same last name. The single belonged to Vishnu Darby. She ran a search on Darby and found his work address at 2nd Ave on the west side. He worked for Vishnu Entertainment. An agent for low level entertainers like clowns, acrobats, singers, and erotic talent. Maybe Mrs. Bar was hoping to be one of his clients. She then ran a search on his financials and the make of his car. The man had standard debt: mortgage on a condo, lease on a hover car, four credit cards, and medical bills. But it didn’t seem like enough that he would milk money out of Strawberry Bar. After all, her husband was middle management at a fabric factory.
Then she remembered the controversy she read about Graham/Denillo. They were under investigation by the government and FOP for using droganisms in their factories. The FOP found nothing, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Droganism importers had to be very sneaky. After all, they were gambling their lives for big rewards. A droganism had two prices to pay to escape the mining in the South District. If they paid a low price that could only get so far as the Central District where they could work low level labor jobs and constantly look over their shoulder for FOP to arrest them. Contrasting that with working underground and digging for oil, fossil fuels, and water, hoping the ground doesn’t fall on them and never seeing daylight for weeks at a time, working the Central District could sound pretty good. But if they had enough money, they could escape to the North District where the government freed droganisms and intergraded them with human society. Kharma had even read how some of them entered politics up there.
Kharma bit her lower lip and watched Roland Bar’s apartment building. He might know something about the underground importing and where the porters were hidden. But Kharma had to finish this job before she could even ask him. She didn’t want the client to think he put him before a droganism.
“Hey, it’s me. How’s it going?”
“It was busy before, but it’s starting to calm down a bit.”
“Dinner rush, huh?”
“Yeah. How are you? Anything new?”
“Not really, but I’ve got some ideas.”
“Where you been all day?”
“Staking out. Sitting on my ass and waiting.”
“How’s the thing?”
“The boy is good. He’s been in the back office watching television and eating like a horse.”
“Good. Does Carlo know about him?”
“I told him he was your nephew and you needed someone to sit with him while you finished a job. Didn’t want him to know the truth, you know?”
“Yeah. I know. I tried to keep it from you, remember?”
“Anyway. Are you coming back tonight?”
“Can’t. The subject goes out every night so I’ll have to move. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’ll bring him to my place.”
“No. You have my keys. Bring him to mine.”
“You trying to protect me?”
“Well, I appreciate it. When you’re done tonight, come to my place for breakfast.”
The sun went down. Kharma opened her third bag of rice cakes. Roland Bar had already left for work. If Strawberry Bar was a creature of habit, then she should be leaving the apartment building soon. And lucky for Kharma, the married woman was just that creature. Again, she wore a short dress under her mid-drift jacket and slipped into a cab. It didn’t fly downtown, this time it went uptown. Kharma kept one craft behind the taxi since there was so many in the city.
The cab lowered in front of a high-class restaurant called Velour’s. Kharma parked across the street in a fire zone and took a quick pic of her entering the bottom of the building. Again, Kharma only had her back and not her face. But she wasn’t worried about that yet.
Kharma parked the hover car down the street in a legal zone. She dug out a mini cam, a palm-sized digital camera the size of her thumb. What she loved about the cam was the high resolution and the 10MM lens that sucked up a room. She didn’t have to stand close to the subject. She could be on the other side of a room, click a picture, and crop it for a perfect medium or close-up for the client later in her office.
Kharma walked down the busy street to Velour’s and entered the building. She waited on line with the other patrons; it was four well-dressed couples deep. Kharma didn’t think they would let her in, not that she could afford the food here. She made her way around the line and approached the bar. No one stopped her or paid attention. The bartender, a short young woman wearing tight black pants, white shirt, and red tie – like the other employees – asked for her drink order. Kharma ordered a rye whisky and waited.
From the large wall mirror behind the bar, she spotted Strawberry Bar with a man in his mid to late thirties and dark skin and hair. He wore a sharp suit and tie and the brightest smile. An urge to kick the man’s ass boiled in Kharma. They sat at a table in the middle of the dining room and sipped their drinks.
The bartender brought Kharma’s order and walked off. The detective sipped her drink with one hand and released the mini-cam from her sleeve to her palm. She placed her other elbow on the bar and rested her chin on the back of her hand. Using the mirror, she waited for the view to be clear enough for a picture. Sometimes a waiter or bus boy or a patron crossed in front of them. But not that often. Kharma clicked five pictures.
She then paid for her drink and left the restaurant.
Back in her hover car and parked in an unloading zone across from Velour’s, Kharma waited for the couple to leave and viewed the pictures she took inside. Three of them were workable.
An hour later, Strawberry Bar and Vishnu Darby left Velour’s and entered a taxi. Kharma checked the time as she followed them. Almost midnight. Darby could still take Strawberry to a show, out to dance, or even a quiet romantic bar. Nope. The taxi took them back to Darby’s apartment. Kharma had just enough time to park on the same side of the street and to pull the camera out while Darby paid for the cab. She clicked a few pictures of the couple exiting the cab, walking up the steps with his arm around her, and even a quick kiss on the lips.
Kharma smiled and lowered the camera. She was almost done.
She strapped the camera around her shoulder and covered it with her jacket. Kharma left the car and strolled down the street. She kept her head down like any other citizen that didn’t want attention. In front of Darby’s apartment, she walked up the steps and entered the tight space that held the intercom and mailboxes. Down the list of names she found the initials V.D. 3 FL. She stepped back out and looked at the building across the street. It was four levels high to the roof. Kharma nodded and headed south.
She crossed to the other side of the street and walked around the bock so it appeared she was coming north. Just as she reached the building across from Darby’s, she turned right into the alley. As she expected, the fire escape lined the side of the building. From below it appeared the lights were off in the windows.
Kharma jumped up and pulled the metal ladder down. It squeaked and scratched in motion. She waited a moment to make sure no one popped out of the window to check out the noise. When clear, she climbed up the fire escape to the roof. She walked across the tar surface to the front parapet. From her angle, she could see into Darby’s tall front windows. The lights were on and the curtains open. Kharma took out her camera and used her arms as a tripod. She studied the windows for any movement. Nothing was happening. She could see the rugs and the furniture, but no people.
So she waited. If she could get something from inside Darby’s apartment, then she should be gold for Bar. Maybe gold enough to get some information from him about the porters and the droganisms.
Movement from the right window caught her attention. Kharma swung the camera over. Strawberry Bar stood naked in front of the pane. Kharma clicked off a few pictures. The woman smiled and looked down at the street. A pair of dark hands came around her waist and cupped her breasts. Darby’s head popped up on her shoulder and started kissing her neck. He then pulled her away from the window.
She landed on the concrete and walked out of the alley. Before stepping onto the sidewalk, she looked both ways to make sure no one was around. All clear, Kharma headed for her car. She didn’t rush. She had what she needed and all she had to do now was trim and print the pictures at her office.
A tall man in a cheap suit stood by her car. He turned, smiled at Kharma, and inhaled from his tubular vaporizer. His blond bangs hung dangerously close to his eyes. His sharp features hid behind tight skin. Kharma guessed he was about her age. She also guessed he was a cop.
She stopped a few feet from him. He pulled out his wallet and flashed his badge at her. “Godin. FOP. Immigration.” He slipped it away. “You’re Kelly Kharma?”
“Mind if I ask you some questions?”
She nodded again.
He smiled and shook his head. “I had a feeling you would say that.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Kharma said.
“True,” Godin said. “So what’s a girl like you doing out on a night like this?”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
“Stupid me. I should know better than ask an ex-FOP direct questions.”
Kharma stepped closer, in hopes that Godin would move away from her car. He remained still.
“I don’t want to take much of your time, Kharma. So I’ll be brief,” Godin said. “Last night, about four or five blocks from here, two junk freaks were found beaten. They were arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest. They said that they were chasing a drog. A boy. They had him trapped in the alley but then this, and I quote, ‘giant black Amazon with pink spots on her face’ attacked them and left with the drog.”
“You’re lying, Godin,” Kharma said. “If the two junk freaks were arrested you would have vaporized them. Dead men can’t talk. Especially ones turned to dust.”
He toked from the vaporizer and blew out mist. “True. But, no. They were charged with resisting, but they weren’t really in the condition to fight. Anyway, my point is that there are not many tall dark-skinned women on this rock and very few with missing pigment in their face. Come to think of it, I think it’s just you.”
Kharma nodded and crossed her arms. Bored.
“I don’t want to give you shit, Kharma. I understand that you were probably visiting your friend last night as well. You were walking to your car and you saw those two hop heads chasing a boy. It set off your old internal FOP alarm and you helped the boy out. But then it turned out it wasn’t a boy. It was a freakin’ drog. All I want to know is where did the drogonism go after you left it?”
“I don’t know. We parted ways at the alley.”
“Did it say anything to you?”
“It said ‘Thank you’.”
Kharma felt Godin’s eyes on hers. She connected with him for a short staring match. Finally, he turned away and toked.
“I feel stupid,” Godin said. “I come to former FOP and try to squeeze her for information. You know the laws better than these other sheep that walk around us.”
He stepped away from the car. Kharma opened the door and slipped in.
“You know, you’re still a mystery,” Godin said. “They still talk about you around the offices. Hey, Kharma can you help me out? Not about the kid. Something else.” He lowered his head so it aligned with hers. Kharma started the engine of the hover car. “No one knows why you left the FOP. People have theories and guesses, but no one knows for sure. We even have a pool going on. The winner could get ten thousand credits. Can you tell me why you left? I sure could use the money.”
“If you need money then follow the rules or take some bribes,” Kharma said.
She shifted the car in gear and rose.
Godin laughed and backed away. The hot air from under the car blew at his hair and jacket.
Kharma moved into the fly lane and accelerated. When she passed the block, she slammed her fist down on the wheel and said:
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Kelly, where are you? Still working?”
“Sort of. I’m at the office.”
“So you’re done for the night? Why don’t you come over?”
“Listen to me, okay. Are you up?”
“Yeah, yeah. What’s wrong?”
“Some immigration officer tried to squeeze me tonight about Uly.”
“Oh, my God.”
“Yeah, the two freaks I saved him from described me and now they think I know where the kid is.”
“Should we even be talking on the phone?”
“It should be safe. It’s too soon for a judge to put a tap on my phone. Besides, they can only do my business phone. Also, they don’t know about you.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Why haven’t I met any of your friends?”
“Because I don’t have any. Just you.”
“Yeah well, you’re not going to see this sweet talker for a while. I need to stay away from Uly just in case this guy is watching me.”
“What about me? Can you see me? I can sneak over.”
“I don’t want to chance it. They could follow you and find Uly. Then the both of you will be gone. Just sit tight and keep the kid hidden. I don’t think it will be long. I finished the other assignment tonight so I can focus on Uly. Okay?”
“Okay. Be safe. I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
Kharma slid the folder across her desk. Inside contained three pictures: one with the couple eating in Velour’s, one with Strawberry Bar entering Darby’s building, and the last of Mrs. Bar naked in the window with Darby wrapping around her. All three showed the faces clear and perfect. She also inserted a disc inside incase he wanted to make copies. Roland Bar flipped through the pictures. A smile danced on and off his face. In the end, the smile stayed.
“This is perfect,” Bar said. “You have gone above and beyond in my book.”
“It’s almost a crime paying you what you want for these,” he said.
“I’m glad you said that, Mr. Bar,” Kharma said. “Recently I have run into a problem with another client and I’m hoping you could assist.”
Bar slid the pictures back in and leaned back against the chair.
“Sure, I’d be glad to help. What’s the problem?”
Kharma leaned forward and folded her hands on the desk.
“You work as a night manager at Graham/Denillo. I understand that they had a problem with Immigration. They suspected the company of using droganisms in their business.”
Bar turned to the side and waved his hand.
“Yeah, but they could prove nothing.”
“I need to find the man or men that they used to porter those droganisms,” Kharma said.
“Ms. Kharma, I am just a night manager. Middle management.” He scraped his nail into the plastic of the armrest. “You’re asking me to give you information that only the highest of supervisors and executives would know.”
“If those drogansism worked in your factory, I would think they worked the shittiest hours and jobs. And we all know the night shift has all the shittiest jobs,” Kharma said.
He nodded and dug deeper in the chair.
“Mr. Bar, I’m just trying to help a client the same way I helped you. Your credit is good with me. I’m not stupid enough to rat to the FOP about you and the company you work for. Doesn’t make good business. Or reputation. I just need a name. Even if you heard it in whisper. Just one name.”
When the sun fell down in midtown and all the lights in the corporate buildings switched off, the lights in front of the smaller buildings went on. Kharma walked down the street and blended with the corporate and working class as they roamed the streets searching for entertainment. Sometimes it would be something as innocent as the Sim-Cades, where most of the kids go to play the latest games, but for adults it would be more hardcore. When a suit spends all day being controlled by their bosses, they want to go somewhere to control someone else. And when that suit doesn’t want to control their husband, wife, or kids they entered an establishment like Dreamworld. Inside one could relax, take legal or illegal intoxicants, and find a virtual role-play to fill their void.
Kharma entered Dreamworld and immediately felt the eyes on her. She knew why. Like Godin said last night, Kharma’s appearance was rare. Someone would pay her a lot of credit to control her in his or her fantasy. She brushed them off and walked across the bar area where a mix of working and corporate class drank and vaped.
She stopped at the bar. Since there were no stools she leaned against the tubular metal railing that ran in front of it. The bartender, a scrawny middle-aged man with a shaved head and bangs down to his chin, approached her.
“I’d like to see Jasper,” Kharma said.
He shook his head in confusion.
“We don’t serve Jasper here. What is it?”
Kharma took out her credit device. She scanned the barcode on the bartender’s badge. She deposited twenty credits into his account. A slight alarm went off in the bartender’s pocket. He took out his own credit device and looked at the screen.
“Jasper is expensive,” he said. “What do you want to see him about?”
“A little boy.”
“You’re wasting your time. He doesn’t do chickens. All VRPs are legal here.”
“I’m not looking for chickens,” she said. “I’m looking to return something and to have Jasper complete a transaction.”
“What’s the product?”
“Okay. But like I said, it’s expensive. Time is credit, right?”
Kharma scanned his code again and dropped a large amount into his account. She hoped it was enough to get into the door; it was all she had to spend. The bartender checked his device and smiled.
“Wait here,” he said. “Let me see if he’s free.”
The bartender walked off. Kharma turned and faced the room. A few eyes swished away from her when she connected with them. Some didn’t care who saw them. A couple with dreamy smiles giggled and worked each other’s hands under their table, not able to wait for a private room for their VRP. Kharma rolled her eyes and focused on the bar.
A Eurasian girl wearing a long skin-tight yellow dress and on the border of jailbait stopped in front of Kharma. She smiled and motioned for her to follow. Kharma stuck close to the girl as they weaved through the tables, eyes, and smoke. They entered a hallway filled with metal soundproof doors so people can keep their fantasies to themselves. At the end of the hall, the girl opened the door and nodded. Kharma stepped through and saw the stairs leading down into darkness. She glanced at the girl to be sure it was okay. The Eurasian girl nodded. Kharma made her way down the steps. The door closed behind her and brought on total darkness.
Kharma stopped at the middle of the metal staircase. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she noticed that there was a dim light below, perhaps down the hall from the bottom of the stairs. She continued on, easing carefully onto each step. When she felt a different surface, one more like concrete, she assumed she reached the bottom.
“Hello,” she said.
“Take four steps forward,” a raspy voice said.
Kharma did as she was told.
“Good. Keep still.”
Three clicks and three charges of power from different directions. Metal pressed both sides of her head. The lights came on and revealed a storage room filled with metal barrels, plastic shipping boxes piled high, and two guns at her head. The boys holding the guns couldn’t be older than fifteen. A white girl around the same age stood in front of Kharma. She blew air in front of her face and made the lock of black hair move to the side.
“I’m going to swipe you,” the girl said. “So keep still.”
Kharma nodded, her head moving against the barrel of the guns.
The girl took out a sensor rod and moved it over Kharma’s body from foot to head. She stepped back and made a skeptical expression. The girl pocketed the rod and patted Kharma down, her hands running hard over the groin and under the breasts. The girl stepped back and crossed her arms.
“No weapon or recording devices?” she asked. “Do I need to strip you?”
“I’m not FOP,” Kharma said.
“No one knows Jasper. He’s not in any databases. The FOP know what he does, but they don’t know who he is,” she said. “How do you know him if you’re not FOP?”
“I can’t say. I promised to keep my source out of it,” Kharma said. “Besides, how do I know that if I say his name he won’t get hurt? I don’t do that to people who help me.”
The girl giggles. The two boys smirked.
“Just so you know,” the girl said, “If Jasper feels you’re wasting his time or doesn’t trust you, then he will terminate you. Okay?”
“Crazy bitch,” the girl said.
The boys lowered their guns but still kept them pointed at Kharma. The girl led them deeper to a solid red brick wall. She placed each hand and one foot on a random brick and pushed at the same time. She stepped back and the brick wall swiveled. The girl pushed it wider and entered. Kharma followed. The boys stayed behind.
Another staircase into darkness.
“Don’t you people use electricity?” Kharma asked.
“If we expel the average use for the business then they’ll be suspicious,” the girl said.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, the girl flicked on a light switch. They stood in a room about 6×6 feet wide. A metal lid stood in the center of the floor. The girl slid her fingers into the grooves on the side and lifted the three-inch thick lid. Kharma refused to help her. The small girl seemed to handle the weight.
“He’s down there,” she said.
“After you,” Kharma said.
“Nuh huh. You go alone.”
Kharma glanced at the girl as if she were crazy.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s down there. If you’re telling the truth and you’re not FOP then I’ll see you back up here.”
Kharma sighed and positioned herself at the rim of the hole. She sat down and placed her feet on the metal rungs. She climbed down the ladder that cuts off into another dark room. A large space of air below her. Is she over a bottomless pit?
“I can’t close the door and turn on the light until you reach the bottom,” the girl said.
“Where’s the bottom?”
“Just hang from the last rung and drop. It’s only a foot.”
Kharma did as the girl said. Her feet landed on concrete. The girl replaced the metal lid over the hole. Total darkness. For moment. A light on the other side of a large window illuminated the room. Three plastic walls surrounded her. The fourth had a large window. The space was smaller than the one above. Kharma couldn’t spread her arms. A little bit of water puddled around the drain on the floor. On the other side of the glass, the bartender sat on a chair with one foot under his butt. He crossed his arms. Boredom covered his face.
“What’s with the whole maze game?” Kharma asked. “You could have just talked to me upstairs at the bar.”
The bartender tilted his head. “In my experience, control is everything. If you’re FOP and it’s a trap they won’t find you. Also, I just have to pull this valve and I can see how long you can hold your breath.”
Kharma spotted the drippy pipe at the top of the wall.
“So you mentioned a boy? A droganism?” Jasper asked.
“About two nights ago a porter was raided by FOP. From what the media says, four men were arrested and all the droganisms went through except for one.”
“How do you know one didn’t make it though?”
“I have him.”
He nodded and picked at his fingernails.
“What does that have to do with me?”
“I was told by a third party that you help import drogs through the Districts,” Kharma said. “Maybe you weren’t involved with the one that was raided. Since you’re the only one with balls in this district, I figure you might have.”
“Funny how humans are,” he said. “We made the droganisms to do our dirty work, the mining on this planet, because our egos couldn’t deal with hard manual labor. We gave them the purpose to be better than us. And what does society do? Society starts to fear them. They worry that droganisms will be too good, better than humans and take the jobs away from the working class. Irrational fear. But isn’t all fear irrational?”
“I couldn’t care less,” Kharma said.
Jasper pulled the lever. Water rushed out of the pipes and filled the floor. Kharma looked around the room for a way out. The only way out was above. She jumped to grab the ladder but missed it by inches.
“Look at you,” Jasper said. “You think you’re so much better than others, so precious that you will do anything to live.”
Kharma stopped and stared at him. She breathed deep and tightened her fists. The water soaked her knees.
“You’re just like everyone else in this place. All you care about is feeding your greed, hate, and delusion. Have you ever put someone ahead of your needs?”
The water started to soak her shirt.
“I mean, besides another human. Have you ever helped someone who was lower than you and the standards of society? Have you ever helped anyone lower than you for no money what so ever?
The water tickled Kharma’s chin. She continued to breath, fighting the shivers consuming her body in the cold water.
“Would you die for this boy that wants nothing more than to be united with his mother and father?”
Kharma locked her eyes on Jasper’s, even when the water rushes over her head. The pounding of the falling water stopped. Metal grinded and liquid rushed. The water lowered past her face. She stretched her neck and gasped for air. When the level reached her knees, Jasper asked:
“What’s your name by the way?”
“You really do look like FOP,” he said.
“I used to be.”
He tilted his head and smiled.
“You know. I thought you looked familiar. I know your story. Kelly Kharma. Yes, you were FOP. What are you doing now for a living?”
Kharma shook the excess water out of her dreads.
“Private investigator and security.”
“Hmmm. Common.” Jasper slid his foot out from under his butt and placed it beside his other. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “This is what I’m going to do. I’ll offer you half price to bring the boy back to his parents.”
She wrung the water out of her jacket.
“Wrong. You will do it for free. Technically you didn’t complete the job. You owe the family.”
“How do you know it was me?”
“How do I know it wasn’t you?” Kharma said. “Besides. If you say no, then you’re as bad as the ones upstairs and you should be on this side of the glass with water in your lungs.”
Jasper smiled and leaned back.
Godin sat in his hover car parked across the street from Kharma’s. He toked off his nicotine vaporizer and focused on the detective’s craft. It’s been two hours since he saw Kharma leave her car. He tried to follow her but lost her in the crowd of people on 56th Street and Park Ave. He didn’t sweat it. He doubted the drog boy was hidden in that section. Kharma could have been working a case. So he walked back through the mob of people to his car, sat, and waited.
When Kharma finally returned to her hover car, Godin noticed something wrong. He took out his mini cam and framed her up. The woman was drenched. How the hell did that happen? Godin was reminded of a few undercover immigration FOP that were found dead with water in their lungs. He knew of only one man that killed like that.
He smirked and started up his craft.
“Kharma, where are you?”
“I’m back at my office. Everything okay there?”
“Yeah. Anything new on your end?”
“I can get Uly back with his parents. It has to be tonight.”
“Almost. Here’s what I need you to do.”
Godin watched Kharma’s office from across the street in his hover car. The sun was down and the street was empty. He drank his tenth large cup of caffeine for the day. When the clock struck midnight, he’d reset the tally back to zero. The digital band attached to the dashboard hummed static and whispered FOP codes, helping him stay awake. He checked the time on his phone and saw that it was almost midnight. He considered calling his wife and kid. He hadn’t seen them in more than forty-eight hours since before the porter bust. It’s been that long since he slept, as well. But if you slowed down on the trail of a droganism then your chances of losing it would be greater.
Movement from across the street.
Godin lowered a bit in his seat and looked through the side window. The tall woman stepped out onto the street and glanced both ways. She wore a long overcoat and a wide brimmed hat to cover her face but not the dreads. Godin shook his head and sighed. He watched Kharma lug a large duffle bag out the door. She placed it on the sidewalk and locked the entrance. When she picked it up, she tilted from side to side, trying to balance the weight on her back.
“I fucking got you,” Godin whispered.
Kharma, hunched, carried the heavy bundle to her hover car and dropped it into the front passenger seat. When in the driver’s seat, she looked both ways and started up the craft.
As soon as Kharma’s hover car accelerated into the lane, Godin turned on his lights and engine and followed her. Since it was so late at night and few cars and trucks were around, he kept a distance from her, not able to hide in traffic. Kharma traveled up town and then east towards the border. She landed her craft on a business street, in front of an all night laundromat called Suds-Eze. Godin parked a few cars away in front of her. He twisted around and checked out the area. Most of the buildings were short and a few of them appeared abandoned with poster-covered plastic over the windows.
Kharma exited her hover car. Godin did the same. He crossed the street and approached her as she hefted the bag out and placed it on the sidewalk. He removed his weapon, switched off the safety, and activated the charge. He stopped a few feet from her and said:
“What’s in the bag, Kharma?”
She turned to him and said, “Excuse me?”
Godin flinched. The voice was too high pitched. He reached out and swiped the hat and long dreads off Kharma’s head. She wasn’t Kharma. She did have dark skin with patches of pink, but her hair was straight and blond and in a tail.
“Do I know you?” the woman asked.
He flashed his FOP badge. The woman held her gloved hands up.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked.
Godin scrunched his eyes.
The woman kneeled down to the large bulky bag, untied the knot, and opened the hole.
“See,” she said.
Godin peeked in.
“Shit.” He holstered his weapon and grabbed the bag from the bottom. He dumped out the dirty white towels and aprons.
“Hey,” she said. “You have no right to do that.”
Godin threw the bag down, screamed, “Shit,” and stomped back to his car.
The porter stood about eight feet tall and six feet wide. Basically it was a large ring with a depth of two feet. Jasper pressed a few buttons on the control deck at the side. Blue and green crackling energy filled the space in the circle. Kharma could still see the other side of the room through the O, but she knew that if anyone walked through, they would step out someplace else.
Uly still had the foundation on his face. When Jasper and the dark-haired girl from Dreamworld saw him, they doubted he was a droganism. Kharma then took off his gloves and sunglasses and proved that he was indeed one.
“Nice,” Jasper said, smiling.
The dark-haired girl approached Uly and Kharma standing to the side of the dirt-floored basement.
“C’mon, kid,” she said. “Time to go back with your parents.”
Uly looked up at Kharma. She nodded and said, “It’s okay.”
He hugged her and pressed his head into her belly. At first Kharma didn’t know what to do. He reminded her of a wild dog jumping on her. Then the memory went away and she squeezed him back.
The girl smiled at Kharma.
The detective flashed her a dirty look and felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment.
“Thank you,” Uly said.
Kharma just nodded and fought the choked up sensation in her throat.
The girl brought Uly to Jasper at the machine.
“C’mon, kid. I can’t keep this running for long,” he said. “When you get to the other side my man Herk will be there. No FOP will bother you where you’re going, okay?”
“Your parents won’t be there, but Herk will bring you to them.”
“Get your little butt on through,” Jasper said and smiled.
Uly turned one last time to Kharma and waved. She waved back and watched him step into the blue/green electrical current. The boy was gone. Jasper looked at the screen on his phone. It beeped. He smiled.
“Little man made it.”
Japser turned the porter down.
“Guess I’ll be seeing you,” Kharma said.
“Hold up,” the girl said. “We’ll bring you home like we picked you up.”
“I have to wear that stupid blindfold again?”
Jasper handed the blindfold to Kharma.
“Like you can’t trust us.”
Back at her apartment. Back in her bed. Back in Serena’s arms. The two women laid naked in the dark. The cool air from the cracked window dried the sweat from their skin. Serena rested her head on Kharma’s shoulder and ran her finger around her belly button. A few times Kharma giggled, but then she grew used to the sensation.
“Have I told you how proud I am of you?” Serena whispered.
“Yeah,” Kharma mumbled and felt her face burn with reluctant pride.
“He confessed that he killed her and he’s still pleading innocent?” Kharma asked.
“Yes, I know that may sound strange, but he’s hoping to get a lighter sentence,” Mr. Kareem said.
The room appeared like any other lawyer’s office Kharma had sat in. The secretary perfectly dressed in sharp clothes to match the attire of the lawyer. The office mostly made with wood, from the huge polished desk to the shelves on the wall to the walls themselves. Mr. Kareem sat behind his desk with his pale hands laced in front of him and a bright smile made even shinier by the silver tooth in the front of his mouth.
“So what is it you need me to investigate?”
“The case is really quite tragic,” Kareem said. “Miriam Redwood, the victim, was a night student at City University. She majored in business and the company she worked for, Better Light Electronics, was paying for her education. During the day she worked as a receptionist for my client, Cornelius Dabrowski. Mr. Dabrowski had an out of office relationship with Ms. Redwood for about six months.”
“Then he killed her,” Kharma said.
“Yes. He claims that he was in a jealous rage. Lately she had been talking about another man she met at her gym and he suspected that she was cheating on him,” Kareem said. “What we need is any information on Ms. Redwood. Anything that would paint her in a negative light so that my client can avoid the death penalty.”
Kharma sighed and raised her brows.
Kharma returned to her office with the digital files Kareem’s secretary had given her. She placed the take-out food down on her desk and booted up her computer. When ready, she opened the mini disc and the case files for Cornelius Dabrowski. She started with the FOP report.
At about 7:35 AM, Rebecca Corman arrived outside Ms. Redwood’s apartment, which was on 7th Ave just bordering midtown. Ms. Corman walked with Ms. Redwood every morning. Ms. Corman worked in the same building as Ms. Redwood but in the cafeteria for Better Light Electronics. Ms. Corman knocked on the door and tried to get Ms. Redwood to open it. She received no response. She thought that that was weird. She had spoken to Ms. Redwood late last night on the phone. They had talked about going to a new restaurant for lunch around the corner from where they worked. The call ended with Ms. Redwood expecting Mr. Dabrowski to visit for a few hours.
Worried, Ms. Corman found the landlord and asked him to let her in. Ms. Redwood was discovered on the floor of the living room. She wore a robe and nothing else. Her throat was cut. Blood was puddled on the tiled floor and soaked into the floor rug. Since Ms. Redwood worked for Better Light Electronics, who hired FOP for their security and their employees’ security, Ms. Corman reported the murder.
Ms. Corman informed the investigating detectives that Ms. Redwood was expecting Mr. Dabrowski to visit her the night of the murder. FOP immediately questioned the man at his office at Better Light where he confessed that he killed her. He signed a statement saying that he arrived at Ms. Redwood’s apartment where they got in an argument about a man she had made friends with at the gym. In a moment of jealous insanity he attacked her. He claimed he felt this violent rage. He wanted to destroy her for what she did.
“Hm,” Kharma said, eating her sweet chicken and noodles.
She opened up the crime scene photos and clicked through the color stills of the apartment and the victim in-situation. Everything was clean and neat. Redwood had no other wounds but the throat laceration. Even the apartment seemed clean.
Investigators found no evidence of forced entry, which would make sense since Redwood welcomed Dabrowski into the apartment. His hair and fingerprints were also found in all of the rooms. And why shouldn’t they be in there? They were in a relationship. Along with the signed confession, the prosecutor is pushing for the death penalty. It all appears so simple.
But Kharma was hired to interview the victim’s co-workers and friends and fish for any bad news on her. So she kept her mind focused on the objective.
As she finished her lunch, she opened Kareem’s suggested list of people to speak with for Dabrowski’s defense. She printed it out, finished her lunch, and left the office.
Kharma found Rebecca Corman on her lunch break in the cafeteria. The room was wide open with tables and chairs, but few people were sitting in them. She was in her mid twenties with light brown hair pulled into a tail, pale skin, and arched bitch eyebrows. She wore the same uniform as the other employees: a light blue outfit with a knee length skirt, white stockings, and white apron.
Rebecca glanced at Kharma standing at her side. The woman smiled, then tilted her head in confusion.
“Ms. Corman?” Kharma asked.
“My name is Kelly Kharma, I’ve been hired to investigate Miriam Redwood. If it’s not too inconvenient I would like to ask you a few questions.”
“What do you mean investigate Miriam?”
“I’ve been hired by Mr. Dabrowski’s defense.”
“He didn’t change his plea, did he?”
“No. He’s still pleading guilty.”
“Okay. Well, sure,” Rebecca said. “What kind of questions?”
Kharma pulled her tablet out of her pocket and sat at the table. She opened up the notepad app.
“Now, how would you describe your relationship with Ms. Redwood?” Kharma asked.
“We were best friends.”
“So you were close?”
“As best friends can be.”
“You told each other intimate things about your lives?”
“Yeah. You could say that.”
“She was open to you about her relationship with Mr. Dabrowski?”
“Oh, all the time. My God, did she love to talk about her sex life with him. Sometimes I would get so jealous.”
Kharma faked a smile and asked, “How would you describe her relationship with Mr. Dabrowski?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was it good or bad? Did he spoil her or abuse her?”
“Oh, no. He was very good to her,” she said. “I would say he often spoiled her. She never had a lot of money. Except for recently.”
“Yeah. She went on a few shopping sprees and bought new clothes for work. I noticed they weren’t at the usual budget stores we shopped at; this was some high-end stuff. Very nice.”
“Where do you think she got the money from?”
“At first I thought that Cornelious bought them for her, but she denied it. When I pressed her about it she just got defensive and said she ran into a bit of money. I didn’t push her after that. I hate fighting. Even about material things.”
“I understand,” Kharma said, typing in a few notes.
“So you’re trying to help Cornelious, right?”
“I’m kind of glad. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Myriam. And I also like Cornelious. It’s such a shocking situation to see two people you care about in such a horrible situation.”
“You’re close with Mr. Darbrowski?”
“I would call him a friend. Before he got serious with Rebecca, we hung out after work together. You know, a bunch of us would get drinks.”
“I see. Mr. Dabrowski said Ms. Redwood was having an affair. She met him at the gym. Can you tell me anything about him?”
“Oh! Him. Gee. That was news to me when I heard about it,” Rebecca said. “Miriam never mentioned him. I guess he was her little secret.” She slapped her manicured hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God.”
“I just realized something. Maybe she got that extra money from this mystery man at the gym.”
Kharma finished typing and closed the app. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Corman.”
“Please, call me Rebecca.” She held out her hand and Kharma shook it. “If there’s anything else I can do for you, Kelly, feel free to call me.”
The cafeteria worker gazed into Kharma’s eyes, making her flinch so slightly.
Kharma pulled her hand from the woman’s grip and pocketed her tablet.
“Do you have a card for me incase I need to call you?” Rebecca asked.
The detective stood and pulled a card out from her jacket pocket. “Here you go.”
Rebecca smiled and bit her lower lip.
“Can I call you any time? For anything?”
Kharma frowned, nodded, and walked off.
Before leaving the building, Kharma checked out the list of co-workers Miriam Redwood was familiar with at work. They weren’t exactly friends, but co-workers she was friendly with enough that made work pleasant. Three of the names were secretaries – two female, one male – and all were eager to talk about how great Miriam was with them. They found her murder to be shocking and senseless, but they were also surprised that Mr. Dabrowski was capable of such violence.
“What about this man she was seeing at the gym?” Kharma asked them.
All three didn’t know whom she was talking about. The only man they knew she was involved with was Mr. Dabrowski.
Miriam Redwood worked out at the U-Fit gym on 19th Street. Kharma was familiar with the business. Their gyms were peppered throughout the city and often roped people in with their one credit for the first month membership. But, as she once heard from people who went there, they charged an unreasonable price for the months after and held you for a two-year contract. Most people didn’t stick with a gym for more than a few months, either getting bored or lazy. Kharma felt it better to just work out at home, save the money, and not feel guilty about not going to a gym.
She introduced herself to the receptionist at the front desk and said, “From what we understand Ms. Redwood had a membership here.”
The receptionist, a baby-faced blond with orange streaks in her hair and wearing a sports bra and sweatpants rolled down past her outy belly button, nodded her head in awe.
“Oh, yeah. I can’t believe she’s dead.”
“Did you know her?” Kharma asked.
“We said hello and small talked a few times. But we never hung out.”
“Ever see her with anyone?” Kharma asked.
The receptionist looked up to the sky, her eyes almost rolling to the back of her head. Kharma stifled a smirk.
“No,” the receptionist said. “Not that I’m here all the time. But when I was working I never saw her with anyone. Maybe you want to talk to her trainer?”
“If she’s here, that would be great.”
“Hi, Dana told me you’re asking about Miriam?” Mayweather Thomas stood a few inches taller than Kharma. Like the other girls who work here, her hair was pulled back in a tail and she wore slight make-up. A tracksuit covered her body and it appeared she hasn’t sweated yet.
Kharma held out her hand and shook with the woman in her late twenties.
“Yes. Mayweather, right?”
“You can call me May.”
Taking her hand back, she placed both of them on her hips. People continued to pass the women as they stood to the side of the reception area. Every one of them waved or said hello to Mayweather, but she only acknowledged a few of them.
“You were Miriam’s trainer?” Kharma asked.
“I was. Strong girl. She had discipline. I liked her.”
“Ever see her with someone here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Talking. Getting close with someone.”
Mayweather shook her head.
“Not in front of me. Like I said, Miriam was disciplined. She concentrated on her workouts. If she did slip, I would push her back into the game.”
“Were you with her all the time?”
“No. I don’t get paid to spy or flirt.”
Kharma smiled back.
“I figured. I was just trying to see if she had any time alone here. Snuck off to talk to someone.”
“I guess to change in the locker room. But she didn’t talk to many people here. Just the usual salutations, you know. She was friendly.”
“Okay. Thanks for talking to me.”
“That’s it?” Mayweather asked, a trace of disappointment in her voice.
Later that night, Kharma rang on the super attendant’s door of Miriam Redwood’s building. She introduced herself to the tall, bearded Latino, informed him that she was working on Mr. Darbrowski’s case, and would like to see Ms. Redwood’s apartment.
“Sure, go on up,” he said.
“Don’t you have to let me in?” Kharma asked.
“Nah. Place is open. Cops never locked it up after they finished with it and I never changed the lock they busted.”
Kharma took the elevator to the 9th floor and walked to the apartment door. Redwood’s was easy to spot. It was the only one with FOP Do Not Cross tape across the threshold. Kharma pulled down the yellow and black ribbon and stepped inside the apartment. The front room was a mess. White powder covered the furniture and door. Drawers to cabinets and shelves were empty and the contents were on the floor. Kharma stepped over the mess as not to break anything. Not that she was worried about the investigation. She didn’t want to smash any material memories that Miriam’s family might want to collect when they come to clean the apartment out.
Slipping latex gloves on, she kneeled at a pile by the bookcase. She picked up a digital picture frame and turned it on. Once booted, she swiped through the 8×6 photographs. Pictures of Miriam as a little girl and her family dominated the beginning. As the images went on, so did Miriam’s age. The last images were of Miriam with Cornelious Dabrowski. Even through they had fifteen or more years between them, Kharma thought they made a nice couple.
She placed the frame back on the floor and searched the rest of the apartment. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for; she just knew something had to be in here.
After a few hours, she stood in the tossed bedroom and dealt with the overwhelming sense of defeat. The only thing she discovered during her search was that Miriam Redwood was an average girl in her twenties working her way through college and had a fetish for crotchless leather underwear.
A tremor went through the wall. Kharma jumped and placed her hand on her beating heart. She then smiled and shook her head for being so scared. It was just the central air conditioning turning on. Kharma looked up at the vent and heard a slight flickering sound.
She carried a chair over and positioned it under the vent. She stepped up and pressed on the metal grill. It jiggled. Still wearing the gloves, Kharma wedged her fingers under the metal and removed the grill. Right on the edge of the hole was a small white envelop. The flap was open and sticking up, making the flickering sound as the air blew hard. Kharma took the envelope out and found a mini disc inside.
She pocketed the disc, replaced the grill, and moved the chair back to where she found it. She opened the door to the bedroom, intent on leaving, and stopped short. For a split second she saw a black ski mask and a swinging hammer. The next thing she felt before she blacked out was a sharp pain in the temple of her head and the stinging aroma of citrus up her nose.
“Hey, you okay, girlie?”
The super knelt at her side.
“You okay? Want me to call an ambulance? Looks like you’re bleeding.”
Kharma sat up and shifted the pain around in her skull. She gingerly touched her temple. Bright red blood dripped down the latex finger.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Dunno. I came to check on you and here you are lying on the floor. Looks like someone hit you and knocked you out.”
Kharma shoved her hand in her pocket. Empty. She then checked all the other pockets incase she remembered wrong. Nothing.
The disc was gone.
With one hand Kharma pressed the bloodstained handkerchief to her head, with the other, she opened the front door to her office. She slipped the card key back into her jacket pocket and entered the space. The door locked behind her as she walked to her desk and turned on the lamp. She removed the cloth and gingerly touched the wound on her head. Her fingers were clean. She then opened her desk and took out a bottle of acephene and an old bottle of water. She swallowed two of the pain relieving pills, hoping to calm the thumping in her left temple.
Sitting back in the chair, Kharma took out her phone and checked her messages. None of the logged numbers moved her except for Serena’s. In no mood to talk to her or put her in a bad mood, Kharma text her: Had a bad one. Will call in morning. XO.
She placed the phone down on the desk, then her arms, and then her head. She closed her eyes in the self-made tent of darkness. Sleep was about to pull her in when a knock erupted from the door.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
Kharma remained still. At this hour, whoever it was would think the office was closed. But no. The knocking continued, this time even more frantic.
“Kelly!” a female voice said. “Please, let me in. I saw you inside.”
Kharma lifted her head and frowned. Curious, she walked to the door and peeked out the small window on the top. Rebecca Corman stood outside, looking down both ends of the street to somehow relieve the panic in her eyes.
“I’m closed, Ms. Corman,” Kharma said.
“Please. You told me to see you if I had information. I do.”
“Drop by tomorrow. I’m not feeling well right now.”
“But…I’m scared. I think someone is watching me.”
Kharma raised a brow and opened the door. Rebecca entered and stopped a good five feet from the door as if she expected it to blow up. She hugged herself tight, keeping her dark overcoat closed. Kharma locked the door and turned to her, not shy of showing how miserable she feels.
“What happened to you?” Rebecca asked. “Did they get to you, too?”
“What do you mean?”
Rebecca swept over to Kharma and wrapped her arms around her.
“They’re going to kill me like they killed Miriam.”
Kharma held Rebecca by the shoulders and gently moved her off.
“Slow down. Tell me what happened.”
Rebecca took a few deep breaths and closed her eyes.
“Okay. Just a little while ago I was getting ready to go to bed when the phone rang. I answered it and a man asked, ‘Do I have it?’ I asked him what he was talking about. He then said that if I don’t give him what he wants then what happened to Miriam will happen to me.”
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Kharma asked. “What does he think you have?”
“I think he was talking about this,” she said.
Rebecca reached into her coat pocket and took out a mini disc.
Rebecca slouched on the chair and gripped a cold bottle of water. Kharma sat on the edge of her desk in front of the girl and looked at the ordinary silver disc of information.
“How did you get this?” Kharma asked.
“Miriam gave it to me last month.”
Kharma nodded and kept her eyes on the disc.
“Tell me about when Miriam gave it you.”
“It was last month. We were at my apartment and just streaming movies when she started to cry,” Rebecca said. “I took her in my arms and asked her what was wrong. At first she said nothing. I really had to pull it out of her, make her think that there wasn’t anything that she couldn’t say. We are…were best friends. I asked her if it had to do with Cornelious, maybe they had a fight. She said not exactly. When I asked her if it had to do with the mystery man at the gym, she started sobbing.”
“You told me earlier that she never told you about this man, that you only found out about him recently.”
“I…” Her eyes leaked. She sniffled. “I know. I was scared and…at the time I had no idea who you worked for. For all I knew you could be really working for the prosecution.”
“Then what did she say?”
“Nothing much. She left the room and came back. She gave me the disc and asked me to hold it for her. She said it was a copy of something.”
“Did you ask her what was on it?”
“I did. She didn’t tell me. I asked her if it had to do with Cornelious. She said no. Again I asked her if it had to do with the guy from the gym and she said yes.”
“Who do you think called you tonight?” Kharma asked.
“I don’t know. If it has to do with this guy from the gym, maybe he did. Maybe he killed Miriam because he wanted the disc from her.”
“Was she blackmailing him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Rebecca, if you know something you should say it. No more screwing around. If Dabrowski didn’t kill Miriam…You know he’s up for the death penalty?”
She stands and widens her eyes in anger.
“I know! In my heart I know that Cornelious couldn’t kill Miriam. He’s a gentle, sweet man. He doesn’t deserve to die for something he didn’t do.”
“No one deserves that.”
Rebecca paced the office.
“Answer my question, Rebecca. Was she blackmailing this guy?”
She threw her arms down and stopped.
“I don’t know,” she said. “She just told me to hide this disc for her. So I did. And I forgot about it until tonight when the man called. Miriam had been very secretive lately. Maybe she was blackmailing him. She did have extra money the last few months. And if Cornelious didn’t give her any, then…”
Kharma nodded and squeezed the disc in her palm.
“Okay. Go home. I’ll check out the disc.”
“I can’t go home,” Rebecca said. “What if he’s there? Or maybe he’ll kill me on the street.”
Kharma moved off the desk and walked around to the other side.
“Can you stay with a friend or a neighbor or a family member?”
Rebecca revealed her wet eyes.
“I don’t have anyone. All my family is on Earth and…I don’t have any friends I could impose on, let alone tell them about what’s going on. How do I tell them that I want to stay with them tonight so someone doesn’t kill me?”
She flashed a smile though her tears.
Kharma dropped in her chair.
“Fine. You can stay here.”
“In the office?”
“Yeah. The couch is comfortable. I’ve slept on it before,” Kharma said, rising and walking back to her. “I got an alarm system and I live right upstairs so if anything happens… Okay?”
Rebecca took Kharma’s hand.
“Maybe I should just stay with you upstairs so you can keep a better eye on me.”
Kharma stared down at her. Rebecca’s jacket was loose on top, revealing cleavage. Was she wearing any clothes under the large jacket? She did say she was getting ready for bed before she got the call.
She pulled her hand away.
“Like I said, you should be fine.”
Kharma, stilled dressed in her clothes from the day and not intent on undressing with Rebecca downstairs sleeping in the office, laid on her bed. She rested her tablet on her bent knees and popped in the disc. The media player opened and started the video. The shot opened up with Miriam’s face. She smiled and winked at the lens.
“You sure no one is going to see this?” she asked.
“No way. I’m keeping this all for myself,” a man said.
Miriam tilted her head down, focusing on something below.
“What about your wife?” she whispered in a dramatic voice.
“What wife?” he asked. “Don’t be talking crazy. There’s no wife here.”
Miriam sighed in frustration and shook her fists.
The camera moved and settled, maybe on a night table or chair next to the bed. The shot was now wide and Miriam was stretched on the bed with a man. Their tight naked bodies squirm as they touch each other. The dim room had only one light source, a bedside lamp. The man was not Cornelious Dabrowski. He’s younger, fitter, and had more hair on his head. Could this be the mystery man from the gym? The man who smacked Kharma in the head with a hammer back in Miriam’s apartment? The man who killed Miriam so his wife wouldn’t find out about her and give her any more money?
Kharma continued to watch the video. The couple tried various positions and catered to the camera. Something bothered her about the video besides the unnatural and unrealistic positions of the copulating couple. Maybe it was the bad lighting. Or it could have been the repeating glitch that broke up the image for a fraction of a second. Could there be a scratch on it?
No. It was something else.
She watched them have boring hetero sex three more times before it dawned on her.
“Thank you for taking my call.”
“Sorry you had to wait. I had to finish with something.”
“It’s okay. Listen, I need to speak to Mr. Dabrowski.”
“Ms. Kharma, you do remember that he is pleading guilty.”
“I am aware of that. And I don’t understand it, but the last few days I’ve been investigating Miriam Redwood and have come across evidence that counters his plea.”
“Even if there is, Mr. Dabrowski is still pleading guilty. I tried to convince him before. He’s very adamant about it.”
“What if I can convince him to plead innocent?”
“Then we would have to go to trial.”
“Exactly. Then you can receive not only a bigger paycheck, but save an innocent man from the death penalty. Should make good media.”
“Let me see what I can do.”
The prison was a monstrosity a few miles across the desert from the city. Just far away enough that the citizens did not have to see it and that if anyone escaped they would be in plain sight for capture. Kharma flew out there in her car and was greeted by the FOP guards. On time for the appointment Kareem made for her, she was shown into a minimum-security visitors room mostly used for prisoners to meet with their lawyers. She sat down on the black metal chair and glanced around the small room for cameras. She didn’t spot any, but she knew they were around.
The door behind her opened and a guard escorted Cornelious Dabrowski inside. The man with a receding hairline seemed smaller in person. Almost meek. The guard shoved him into the seat and laced his cuffs to the ring between his legs.
“Need me to stay?” the guard asked.
Kharma shook her head.
He gave Dabrowski one last look as if telling him to behave. The prisoner cowered down and nodded. When the guard left and locked the door, Kharma said:
“Thank you for meeting me Mr. Dabrowski.”
Kharma took out her tablet and opened the recording app.
“Mr. Kareem said it was okay that I record this. Will that be okay with you?”
Kharma pressed the record button on the touch screen.
“You seem tired, Mr. Dabrowski. Are they taking good care of you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you getting sleep? Are you well fed?”
“I don’t sleep or eat much.”
“I see. Depression can do that. The census reported last year that a lot of the prisoners with minor charges usually die from Failure to Thrive. They stop eating and become suicidal. That same census also stated that most of those people where technically innocent.”
“Well, the last few days I’ve been looking into Miriam Redwood’s life to try to find some dirt for Mr. Kareem to use.”
Dabrowski lifted his head. His mouth opened in disgust.
Kharma held her hand up.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t find anything. Many people had good things to say about her. Even when I brought up the mystery man you said she was having an affair with.”
He squirmed and looked down at his hands.
“Dirty…whore,” he said.
“Mmm hmm. Do you know who this man is?”
“But you know she met him at her gym.”
“Do you know what he looks like?”
“No. But I assume he’s younger, handsomer, and thinner.”
“You shouldn’t sell yourself short, Mr. Dabrowski. A lot of people like you. Rebecca Corman speaks highly of you.”
He locked with her eyes. The corners of his mouth tremor as if he’s trying to hold back a smile.
“How is Rebecca?”
“She’s fine. As one can be. Not easy having your friend kill another one of your friends.”
He sighs. “No. It’s not. I’d imagine.”
“I’d like to show you something, Mr. Dabrowski.”
Kharma took out her tablet and opened the media player. The disc already inside, she pressed play and aimed the screen at the prisoner. She watched his face as the couple started talking.
“Where did you…get this?” he asked.
Sounds of the couple grunting and moaning during sex filled the room.
“This is a video of the mystery man with Miriam,” Kharma said.
“What? I…I…” His eyes moistened, releasing a tear down his cheek.
Kharma stopped the video.
“Where did you get that?” he asked.
“I’ll show it to Kareem today,” Kharma said. “I’m sure we can use it for your case. It should be a perfect example what a cheating slut Miriam was. Not that she deserved to have her throat slashed. But…It’s up to you and Kareem.”
“I-I’ll have to talk to him about that.”
“Mr. Dabrowski, what if I told you that I don’t think you killed Miriam.”
His eyes moved all over the room. His mouth released a nervous giggle.
“Of course I killed her. I cut the b-bitch’s throat.”
“I think you’re confessing to a murder you didn’t do. I think you’re lying for someone.”
He lowered his head and sniffled.
“Maybe you’re scared, Mr. Dabrowski. I don’t know. I do know that you should think about changing your plea to innocent. And think about if it’s worth dying for a crime you didn’t commit.”
Kharma walked into the Homicide Division. The visitor’s patch started to curl on the edges from the bad glue. Desks filled the wide-open space. All of them faced away from the windows that looked out to the distracting city and hover cars. She held her breath and looked around. She retucked her tablet under her arm and walked towards the desk of her target. Eyes glanced with curiosity and distain at her.
Detective Wadsworth was around Kharma’s age. His cropped hair stood in wet little spikes and his body fit perfectly into the sharp gray suite. Even with him wearing the jacket and typing away at the computer he seemed comfortable and professional. He landed his eyes on Kharma and smiled.
“What took you so long? You get lost?”
“Took the stairs.”
“Yeah, I remember you having a thing about taking the stairs.”
“Looks like nothing has changed the last few years.”
“Why fix it if it’s not broken?”
“Not too many people think it’s broken so why fix it, you mean?”
He leaned back in his chair and smiled.
“Same old Kharma,” he said. “I’m sure you didn’t come by to discuss morals.”
“Morals have no place in the FOP. I’d be wasting my time.”
With his foot, he dragged a chair over.
“Have a seat.”
Kharma sat and kept her attention on Wadsworth. “You were the investigating officer on the Miriam Redwood murder.”
“Yeah. You working on that, too?”
“The defense hired me to gather some negativity on Miriam so that maybe the judge will go a little easier on Dabrowski.”
“Did you find anything to help out the scumbag?”
“Please refrain from insulting my client.”
He laughed and leaned over the desk, propping his head up with his arm.
“You didn’t dig too deep in the investigation,” Kharma said. “Why?”
“C’mon, Kharma. You haven’t forgotten everything about being a detective. The man confessed and we have him at the crime scene. Man’s prints were on the knife.”
“You didn’t have the coroner check to see which hand cut her throat, it if was a righty or lefty? You didn’t test his hand for DNA that might have spattered from the wound?” Kharma asked.
“You know how clients are. They don’t want to spend the money on tests. Especially if the killer confessed,” Wadsworth said. “What are you getting at? Are you saying that the man is innocent?”
“What if he were? And the system killed him? How would that make Better Electronics look?” Kharma asked. “How would that make the FOP look?”
“Shit. It wouldn’t matter. The liberals give us enough shit about vaping people who resist arrest. They don’t care if some guy who confessed to murder is getting dusted.”
“Okay. Just so you know I’m going to present my evidence to his lawyer. Dabrowski will probably change his plea to innocent. I’ll encourage the lawyer to do those tests I mentioned. Would suck if Better Electronics wasted all that money on yearly FOP principle payments.”
She stood and turned.
Wadsworth slouched back in the chair.
“Let’s hear what you got,” Wadsworth said.
Kharma knocked on her office door. The steel shutter was down over the picture window and small curtain covered the window on the other side. The sun had set and the streets grew quiet in the semi residential neighborhood.
“It’s me. Open up,” she whispered loudly.
The little curtain parted and sealed quickly, but Kharma still saw the top of Rebecca’s face. The locks clicked and grinded and the door opened. Kharma stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Rebecca stepped away and wrung her hands. She wore a pair of Kharma’s sweat pants and a mismatched long sleeve shirt. The clothes were a few sizes too big on the woman, causing her to roll up all four sleeves.
“Why didn’t you use your card key?” she asked.
“Incase anyone was following me, I didn’t want them to swipe it while I had it out. They could get the drop on me and come get you,” Kharma said. “Everything go okay today?”
“Your phone rang a few times and some people knocked on the door, but I didn’t answer them.”
“Good. Nothing strange like someone trying to break in?”
“No. I was very safe. Thank you.”
Kharma smiled and approached Rebecca. The woman smiled back as Kharma looked down at her.
“I was a little worried about you.”
“You were?” Rebecca asked.
Kharma held her gaze. Rebecca glanced away, blushed, then reconnected with the taller woman.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you.”
Kharma eased in to press her lips to hers.
Rebecca drew away and walked to the couch. She crossed her legs and continued to smile. “So have you made any progress?”
“I have.” Kharma took out her tablet and turned on the media player. “I spoke with an old friend at the FOP and had him check out what was on the disc you gave me last night.”
“You watched it?”
“What was on it?”
“Miriam having sex with a man. Not Dabrowski.”
“Oh, my God. Could it be the mystery man?”
“It could. I was thinking maybe he wants it back so his wife doesn’t see it.”
“So this friend was able to get a picture of the man on the video?” Rebecca asked. “To identify him?”
“No. He tested it for something else.” Kharma hit play and the face of Miriam Redwood filled the screen. “I noticed something weird about the video and I had the FOP tech verify it for me. Watch.”
The two women observed the screen as the couple connected on the bed and made each other react with pleasure. Kharma pressed pause on the image.
“Pay attention to the lighting,” Kharma said. “The only source of light is coming from the lamp on the night table by their heads.”
“I see it.”
“Now do you also she how the man’s back is lit up as if a strong light was on it, but yet, Miriam’s leg, which is also facing the same direction, is not lit.”
“Yeah. Looks like someone superimposed a CGI over the original man she was having sex with,” Kharma said. “The tech was able to remove the animation and restore the original data. She’s really having sex with Dabrowski.”
“But in the beginning of the tape Miriam mentions a wife.”
“I went back to Miriam’s apartment. This time I played her disc collection. She had a few of her and Dabrowski having sex. Seems she had a thing for screwing married men and wanted Dabrowski to play along with her. I guess role playing fantasies is better than ruining real marriages.”
“I don’t understand,” Rebecca said. “Why would Miriam want me to hold that disc for her?’
Kharma slid closer to her and placed her arm over the back of the couch. She moved her face to Rebecca’s neck.
“Did you shower today?”
“You have a shower down here? I wish you would have told me.”
“You smell good. Like citrus.”
“Just my scent. A body spray. I didn’t want to smell like a pig.”
Kharma stood up and walked to her desk.
“I also went to Dabrowski’s apartment.”
“Wow, you sure did have a busy day,” Rebecca said.
“Would you believe the FOP didn’t search his apartment?” Kharma asked.
“I can believe it.”
“Me and my friend went through it and his picture frames.” Kharma pulled a digital frame from her inside jacket pocket. “He had a lot of pictures with him and Miriam out and about. They made a nice couple.” Her finger swiped the screen, moving from picture to picture. Then she stopped. “But, I don’t know. I think you and Dabrowski make a nice couple, too.”
She turned the frame and revealed a picture Rebecca kissing Dabrowski’s face. Kharma flipped to another and showed one of Rebecca and Dabrowski hugging each other in bed, the camera pointed down on their faces and smiling.
“You were seeing Dabrowski at the same time as Miriam,” Kharma said. “Probably secretly since no one at their job knew about it.”
Rebecca took her coat from the arm of the couch and covered herself as if guarding from a chill. She frowned hard and stared at the floor.
“I don’t think Dabrowski killed Miriam,” Kharma said. “I don’t think a mystery man killed her. There is no mystery man. He’s smoke. The only one having an affair was Dabrowski.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Rebecca said. “Who killed Miriam?”
“You did,” Kharma said. “You wanted Dabrowski all for yourself. So you killed her. I also think that Dabrowski foolishly loved both of you. He wants to protect you so he confessed to the murder. But that didn’t sit well with you. What kind of relationship can you have with a man on death row? So you and Dabrowski tried to lead us on to a phantom. Shit, you even tried to hide your real sexuality and came onto me. But you suck as a dyke just like you suck at hitting me with a hammer back in Miriam’s apartment where you planted the disc for me to find. Only, I walked in on you. Maybe you thought that knocking me out and taking the disc back would make your phantom suspect more believable. It might have worked if you took a shower and washed that citrus body spray off you that night.”
Rebecca smiled and shook her head.
“And now you’re going to tell Cornelious’s lawyer everything so the FOP can free him and send me away?” she asked.
“That was the plan.”
Rebecca pulled her hand out from under her coat and revealed a gun. She stood up and aimed it at Kharma who remained still.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Rebecca said. “How am I going to be with my Cornelious? No. I’ll have to get rid of you like I got rid of Miriam. Which is perfect. Everyone will assume that man from the gym killed you and Cornelious can still be released. Although, I’ll have to fix that disc. I paid enough that no one should believe it to be a fake.”
“This guy must have something for a woman like you willing to murder me.”
“Like you would understand that.”
“Oh, did you check your gun since last night? Before I left this morning I took the charger out of it while you were sleeping.”
Rebecca twisted the empty butt of the gun and then sighed in defeat.
“I think you can come out now,” Kharma shouted.
From out of the darkened hallway behind the desk, Wadsworth stepped out and revealed his FOP badge.
“Yeah, I think I heard enough.”
Rebecca raised the gun, but then dropped it.
Wadsworth walked over to Rebecca and took out his cuffs. “We have her confessing to the murder of Miriam Redwood.” He turned her around and connected her wrists behind her back. “Too bad you’re not an FOP customer or we could get her for attempted murder.”
“Not worth the principle.”
Wadsworth tossed the key card to Kharma.
She pocketed the card and sat down at her desk. Wadsworth moved Rebecca to the front door.
“Hey, Rebecca,” Kharma said. “Cheer up. Dabrowski may still serve some time for covering up a murder, but at least he won’t be on death row. Right?”
Rebecca turned over her shoulder and flashed her a look of death. Wadsworth pushed her out of the office and onto the street. Kharma smiled and went upstairs to bed.
February 2015 – October 2015
Many thanks to DS who helped me through out this long experiment.
BIO: M.E. Purfield is the author of the urban noir fantasy Miki Radicci series as well as other crime and young adult books. You can find him on Twitter @mepurfield or www.mepurfield.com.
Blunt Force Kharma is an urban sci-fi noir from the author of the long running noir fantasy Miki Radicci series. On a barely populated planet far from Earth, Kelly Kharma operates her private investigation and security business out of her downtown office in the Central District. Most of the time she takes on boring background work for corporations, investigations for lawyers, or divorces but sometimes… A working class mother hires Kharma to find her daughter who didn’t come home from school. Kharma quickly finds the kidnapper but learns that the missing girl is tied into a corporate conspiracy. Jamison Leese worked as a temporary employee at Fidelity until he was accused of raping one of their employees. Resources Unlimited, the company that employs Leese, believes that he is innocent and hires Kharma to prove it. Kharma works undercover at Fidelity, pushing beyond her comfort levels to find a rapist in a corporate world. Hide in the shadows and take pictures of the cheating wife cheating for the husband. But two low lives attack a child and Kharma has to step in. Then it isn’t really a child...sort of. It’s a droganism. A man-made slave organism illegal in the Central District and Kharma’s stuck with it. Now with Immigration on her back Kharma has to figure out how to return the kid to his parents and keep her butt out of prison. Cornelius Dabrowski confessed to killing his girlfriend Miriam Redwood but is pleading innocent in court. To avoid the death penalty, Cornelius’s lawyer hires Kharma to find evidence to paint Miriam Redwood in a negative light, that he was driven to murder. Kharma instead finds evidence that someone else might have committed the crime.