by Robert McKay
Juchae is the Korean word for "self-reliance"
If I hadn't been getting some sun by the pool I probably wouldn't have had to shoot that man. But there I was, instead of in my apartment reading a book or fixing a snack or getting a nap, and the client found me.
I first noticed him when he stopped at my feet. I was lying on a towel by the edge of the pool, my head in the shade of one of the trees that grow just outside the pool fence. At first I thought he was just admiring my figure – though there isn't a lot to my figure, especially when I'm on my back. I looked up at his face, and as soon as I did he said, "Are you Il-chae Kim?" To my surprise he actually came close to the correct pronunciation. My name is almost the only Korean I know, and it's the only Korean that I utter perfectly – my father saw to that.
I propped myself on my elbows and nodded. "That's me – but just call me Kim." Kim is my family name, but it's exactly the same as the English first name, and it's easier for Anglos than Il-chae.
"Not Miss or Ms.?"
"Nope – just Kim. It's easier for everyone that way."
"Well, Kim, I want to hire you."
I sighed. I'd taken a day off from work in the middle of the week, for I was tired out from a long and difficult case, and somehow this man had tracked me down. It's actually not that hard if you know how, but how many ordinary citizens know how? "If you'll come by my office tomorrow," I said, "I'll be happy to discuss your case. In fact, you can call today for an appointment, and my secretary will be glad to find a time for you."
"It won't wait, Kim. It's urgent."
I sighed again. "Look, I'm here working on my tan, relaxing. Can't it wait just one day?"
"I'm afraid it's a matter of life or death."
Another sigh. I was surely getting in my quota. I sat up, and grinned to myself when I caught his eyes noticing my chest. I may not be voluptuous, but I am female, and he was definitely male. And straight too – either that or a consummate actor. My friend Gary wouldn't notice my charms if I strolled naked through his living room.
I glanced at the pool, the water suddenly inviting, though before I'd had no intention of swimming. I looked back up at the waiting man. "Okay," I said, "let's talk about it. My apartment isn't set up for business, but we can at least get some basic information up there." I looked around at the other swimmers and loungers. "It's too public here."
I grabbed my miscellaneous bag – that's what I call it – from the pool apron, and gathered up my towel. I gestured the man out of the pool area, down the walk, and up the stairs to my apartment. I'm extra cautious, a bit paranoid even, and I had him walk ahead of me, and stand a few feet away while I got my keys out of the miscellaneous bag and unlocked the door. Even when I'm irritated enough to do things I don't normally do, I am not stupid. As I opened it I said, "If you'll wait here for just a couple of minutes, I'll get into something more businesslike and then we'll do business." He nodded and I stepped in, quickly closing and locking the door behind me. I don't distrust men – but I don't open myself up unnecessarily either.
I didn't take my bikini off, just pulled on a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans over it. The shirt was for a woman larger than I am, and I left the tails of the shirt out, hanging to my knees in front and back. I clipped my gun to my belt, and realized that the tails were too long in front – it would be impossible to pull the weapon out quickly if I needed to. I knotted the front tails at my navel. Now I could grab my gun with a minimum of fuss. I picked up my ASP – a collapsible baton – from the vanity top and took it back into the living room. I kept it in my hand, closed, as I opened the door. "Please come in."
He stepped in. If he noticed the ASP in my left hand he didn't show it. Perhaps he didn't see it, for until you extend it an ASP is inconspicuous. Perhaps he saw it but didn't recognize it, for it looks like a pointer more than anything else. But if you know how to use it – and I do – it can be a dangerous weapon. He equally didn't notice the bulge the gun made under the shirt – or, again, didn't show it.
I gestured the man into a chair at one end of the coffee table, and sat in another one at the other end. With the distance between us, he couldn't get to me before I could bring a weapon into play. I'm short and slender, and I need equalizers if I'm going to deal with men, who are almost all much bigger than I am. For that matter most women are bigger than I am. Distance is an equalizer, giving time to flee or prepare to fight. My weapons are equalizers as well, and I'm not shy about using them.
He sat on his chair, then moved back into it, crossing one leg over the other. He wasn't going to attack me, at least not yet; getting out of a chair in a hurry when you're sitting like that is impossible. Unless he pulled out a gun, I was safe – and if he did, I'd shoot him multiple times. He cleared his throat a couple of times, and then got started. "As I said, I'm here on a matter of life and death. Someone is trying to kill me, and has almost succeeded."
I raised my eyebrows. My father can do one at a time – either one – but I've never mastered the trick. "I'd say that is life and death. Tell me your name, and then tell me about it."
"Aren't you going to take notes?"
My ASP in my lap, I tapped my head with my left forefinger. "I'm taking them as we speak. I have a remarkable memory – for anything except languages," I added with a smile, remembering my efforts to learn Spanish in school. Perhaps my father had been right not to teach me Korean; I might not know any more if he had than I actually do.
"Oh." He seemed startled. He might well be – the ability to remember every word of a conversation is not a common trait.
"As I said," I said, "name, and what happened."
"Well, my name is Frank Delacruz." I asked him to spell it; not only do I not speak Spanish, but he looked and sounded pure Anglo and when people get that far from the roots of their name there's no telling how they'll spell it. In this case the original three words of the last name had merged into one. He then continued with his story. "I was crossing Louisiana, and this car tried to run me down." There is a whole section of north-south streets in Albuquerque named after states, and Louisiana is one of the major thoroughfares.
I resisted the temptation to say, That's it? To him it no doubt sounded fully sufficient, and certainly someone trying to run you over – even if you just think that's what happened – is enough to scare you in and of itself. But if I was going to help this guy, I needed details.
"Which direction were you going?" I asked.
"East. I work in Encantada Square, and I was going to eat lunch at Chili's." I knew the area; I knew the shopping center and the restaurant. Both were on the north side of Menaul – the former west of Louisiana and the latter on the east side.
"What was the traffic like just then?"
"The light on Louisiana must have been green for a while," he said, "because there weren't many cars. But this one – I heard the engine rev up once I got away from the curb, and he headed right for me."
Delacruz was proving to be more observant than he'd seemed at first. Most people couldn't have deduced the state of the light from the state of the traffic. Most people can't deduce the weather from the state of it when they look out the window. I went on to my next question: "What did you do?"
"I looked toward the sound, saw the car, and ran for the center island. And the car followed me!"
"You mean that as you moved out of its way, it swerved toward you?"
"Did it follow you onto the island?" The last time I'd crossed that intersection on foot, the island wouldn't have formed much of a safety zone – it was narrow, and not very much higher than the street.
"It looked like it was going to, so I kept running." With his focus on the oncoming vehicle, it's a wonder someone going north hadn't hit him. "I got to the sidewalk and the car went on south down Louisiana."
"What did the car look like?"
"It was silver. That's all I really noticed." And since the average eyewitness isn't really reliable, the car might actually have been white, or blue, or some other color close to silver. Or even not – I once dealt with a witness who swore that a truck was brown, and it turned out to be a nasty shade of bright yellow.
"Did you get the license plate number?"
"No ... I noticed it was one of the newer New Mexico plates, though, with the balloons." That wasn't any help.
"Did you get a good look at the driver?"
"I couldn't even tell if it was a man or a woman. The sun visor was down, and the driver seemed to have a hat on. And with the sun high in the sky the interior was in shadow."
As reliable as his other observations seemed, maybe Delacruz's description of the color was right too. Unfortunately, silver cars with newer plates would be too numerous to bother looking for without some way to narrow the search terms. "Did you see anything about the car that would distinguish it from any similar vehicles?"
"Not that I remember..."
"Well, if you do come up with something, it'll be very helpful. Now, before I decide whether to take the case – for on the basis of what you've told me it seems you do have a case – let me ask this: Have you talked to the police about this?"
"No. I thought I needed someone who'd be good at it."
I couldn't help myself – I blew a breath up into my bangs. "Mr. Delacruz, the police are good at...