She sat in my office, looking young and innocent and scared. Kind of like a spring lamb, only with a nicer coat. She looked to be about twenty-five and probably spent more on a manicure than I did on rent. In fact, those slender white hands looked like the only work they’d ever done was digging into a trust fund.
Not that I was impressed—I’d had rich clients before. OK, not very often. I’m just an A.I. P.I.; I don’t get to choose who walks through my door. So I have to admit it was nice for a change to see someone who looked like she could actually pay for my services.
Her blond hair framed a heart-shaped face that showed just a touch of make-up. She probably should have used a heavier lipstick—it might have stopped her lower lip from trembling. It was pretty clear she’d never been in this type of a jam before, so I figured I’d better keep prompting her.
“So ... how long has he been missing?”
She stared straight ahead, her voice soft as falling snow. “I haven’t heard from him in a couple of days now.”
“How do you know he didn’t just go on a trip somewhere? You said he used to travel a lot.”
“When I stopped by his apartment just now, it had been wrecked. What an awful place. Why my brother would choose this neighborhood, I‘ll never know.”
I knew what she meant. I sure didn’t live here by choice. Couldn’t imagine why anybody would.
“Why didn’t you call the cops? Why come to a gumshoe?”
She looked up at me, uncomprehending. “A what?”
“A peeper ... a shamus …”
“Oh. I didn’t know what to do. When I left Charles’ place, I just started walking in a daze. I saw your sign and … well, I could have gone to the police I suppose, but …”
“… but you figured a guy like me could use a mercy hump. Thanks.”
I moved to the one window I had and looked out at the gathering dusk. Storm clouds were rolling toward the city in a slow motion boil.
“I must say, I don’t care for your tone," she sniffed. "I came here to offer you some work. I thought you’d be grateful.”
“Oh, I am. I’ll try not to get any kiss prints on those fancy slingbacks. Did anyone leave a note there? Has anyone called you?”
She shook her head.
“Well, I guess we can rule out kidnapping. Probably rule out fairies and elves, too.” A bolt of lightning snaked across the sky. I figured it was time to get the girl on her way before that nice coat took a soaking. I inched back toward my desk; I would have strolled, but there wasn’t that much room.
“Look, Miss …”
“Gale. I told you, Dorothy Gale.”
“Look, Miss. It doesn’t sound like a criminal case to me, all right? Your brother’s a musician, right? Maybe he was using, and he got strung out—I’ve seen it before and it gets plenty ugly. In fact, he could have pitched a fit for a million different reasons, then copped a sneak till he snapped out of it.”
“But Charles isn’t like that. When he came to see me last week, he seemed scared. Like someone was after him. Now I feel like … like maybe they’re after me.”
“Oh, now they’re after you too, huh? You know, I hear they have medication for that kind of feeling.”
“How dare you? I should have known better than to come to see one of your kind.”
“Now, now, no need to get racial.”
“I’m not going to stay here and be spoken to this way.”
She stood up and strode toward the door when I heard it: an imperceptible creak from the floorboard in the hall. It was outside the range of human hearing, so the girl didn’t pick up on it. But of course, I did.
She stopped, no doubt expecting the kind of fawning apology she was used to.
“Why don’t you get down on the floor?”
She spun around and looked at me like I’d just made a crack about her mother. “I beg your pardon?!”
Another creak—this time, even she heard it.
“Just do as I say.”
She instantly felt the danger—even a yearling can feel the presence of the wolf. She crouched down and curled up in a fetal position, but carefully, so as not to get any dust on that coat.
I snapped off the lamp on my desk, plunging the room into darkness. Switching to my infrared vision, I had no trouble grabbing the coat rack and placing it in front of the window. I whipped off my trench coat and fedora and arranged them on the rack. Then I retreated into a corner and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.
Pieces of the doorjamb exploded into the room as the result of a well-placed kick. Three hulking gunsels filled the doorway, weapons in hand. They hesitated for a second while their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. Then a flash of lightning backlit the coat rack.
Blasts from their hand lasers matched the flashes from outside. The lapels and sleeves of my abandoned coat were instantly filled with burning holes. Not bad shots. I waited a second, then flicked on the lamp.
They froze in their tracks. Maybe it was from shock as they realized they’d been suckered. Or maybe it was the glint off the silver synthetic skin covering my face and hands. Whatever the reason, it gave me all the time I needed.
“You missed me.”
I whipped up my arm and fired a blast from my right forefinger, the CO2 laser having been installed years earlier as standard police armature. The first goon cried out even before the new vent in his chest began to smoke. He fell back; the two behind him caught the body and tossed it back at me like the world's ugliest medicine ball. I caught him, but couldn’t get off a clean shot before they turned and beat feet down the hall. I shoved the body off of me; the girl yelped as it thudded down next to her.
“Stay here!” I snapped.
I ran to the door, but pulled back just as another laser shot blew a piece of the doorframe by my face. I ducked and spun into the corridor, then dropped to one knee ready to fire. But they were already scrambling up the access stairs at the end of the hall.
Good. There was only one place they could go now: the roof.