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 it. It's true that some investigators are better than others. It's true that generally the police settle for the simplest, most obvious solution to a problem, but that's because 90% of the time the simple and obvious is also correct. It's true that there are incompetent and lazy and corrupt police officers. And it's true that the police have more work than they have time and people. Nevertheless, they are good at what they do; if they weren't, we would live in utter anarchy." It was my standard lecture. My brother was an officer with the Albuquerque Police Department, I'd been an Albuquerque cop for a few years, my mother had retired from APD, and my father had once been an officer with the Korean National Police, so I knew both from what they'd said and from my own experience that what I'd said was true. Most people don't really want to hear it, though, because if they accept those facts then they have to accept the fact that they can't expect a supercop to appear on their door 30 seconds after they call about a loose dog.
Delacruz didn't seem to want to hear it; his expression became stubborn. I waved a hand at him, noting in passing that I needed to redo my nails. They were a metallic green just now, but they'd started to chip a little and the polish was beginning to grow away from my fingers. "I'd strongly advise you to contact them about this, but either way I'll take the case. I will not," I said, "begin working on it today; as I told you by the pool, I've taken today off. That means that I won't get from you all the other information that I need to proceed. Nor will I, here, ask for a retainer. If you will pardon me for a moment..."
I got up, my ASP in my hand again, and plucked the portable phone from its charger. I dialed the office number from memory. "Sara? It's Kim. What's your earliest free slot for tomorrow? ... Okay, pencil in Mr. Frank Delacruz – delta echo lima alpha charlie romeo uniform zulu, all one word – for then. Prepare the standard agreement in his name ... thank you, Sara." I hung up.
"That was my secretary," I said as I put the phone back on the charger. "You have an appointment tomorrow morning at 10:30. We'll get started then. Meanwhile, Mr. Delacruz, here is advice which I want you to take very seriously: Watch the traffic carefully when crossing the street. Keep an eye on your mirror while driving, and if someone appears to be behind you more than ought to be the case, drive immediately to a police station or to my office, or if you see a police car get the officer's attention in any safe way you can. Stay away from windows, especially at night; don't go into dark alleys or parking lots, and don't open your door unless you know who is there. This may be paranoia, but assuming someone did try to run you over, being too careful seems to be the best course to follow."
I pulled open a drawer in my small desk. I was doing everything with my right hand, because of the baton in my left. I'm the only left-handed Korean I know, and I suspect it's my Anglo genes that made me left-handed. "Here's my card. You'll see that it includes both a business landline and a business cell phone number, as well as my e-mail address and fax number. If you have any further incidents, call me at one of those numbers, day or night. I'm taking this case because I believe someone did try to kill you, and I don't want you to fall victim to the perpetrator before I have a chance to begin working on the matter."
He took the card wordlessly, looked at it wordlessly, and put it in his shirt pocket wordlessly. I showed him to the door – ASP still in hand; once I have it I don't put it down until I can put it in its place, and besides, I was still being careful – and locked it behind him. I looked at the clock – too early for supper, and too late to get really comfortable by the pool again. "Weeping William Rex," I said, one of my exasperated expressions. "Not more than a half day off."
Disgusted with how things had gone, I ate supper with my parents that night. Normally I cook for myself, but when I'm fed up it's easier to go home to Mother and Father. They've been married 33 years, but they seem like newlyweds sometimes. Mother tells me that when they first met Father wouldn't even hold her hand in public - that's against old Korean tradition – but by now they hug and kiss and hold hands, especially at home. Father's accent is still noticeable after all these years in the United States, but otherwise he's gotten very Americanized.
And Mother's gotten somewhat Koreanized. She cooks bulgogi and makes kimchi and yakimandu, and some other Korean dishes. I know Father didn't teach her – he can't cook – so it must have been Korean friends, or perhaps in-laws. All I know is whatever she cooks it's good.
That night it was Mexican food – or the American version of it, anyway. I was born and raised right here in Albuquerque, but Mother's from Illinois and to her Taco Bell is as genuinely Mexican as what a farmer in Sinaloa eats. I'm not an expert myself, so I don't argue. I just eat her enchiladas and tortillas and beans like I enjoy them, which isn't hard, because I do.
I got back home that night much less fed up. I checked my doors and windows the three times that have become habit – perhaps obsessive habit – and slept like the proverbial log. Frank Delacruz might have ruined my day, but he didn't ruin my night. If I dreamed, I didn't remember it when I woke in the morning with the alarm clock bleating in my ear.
I'm not hung up on clothes, and it doesn't take me hours to dress and "put on my face." I've known women who do – my mother's one of them – but I don't. In fact, I don't do anything to my face; my father gave me those marvelous Korean genes which mean that when my work takes me into a bar they'll be carding me into my 40s, probably. That is not a curse. I smiled to myself as I combed my hair, thinking that. I look young just by being me. It could be worse.
My clothing that day was simple but, I thought, attractive. I put on a sky blue denim skirt that buttoned up the side – normally I wear black skirts and pants when I'm working, but I was in a mood for blue. My blouse was silk, with long sleeves, and as white as snow. The buttons were white as well, so that from the waist up there was nothing to distract. My brown hands and face, protruding from the silk, were a contrast which pleased me. My eyes, which I inherited with the rest of my features from my father, showed that I was oriental rather than Hispanic or Indian. My build is oriental too – small, almost frail, without the tendency toward pudginess which shows on even the thinnest Pueblo women. And I think of myself as oriental rather than Asian – Asia covers an enormous amount of territory, and I am very much not Arab or Indian or any of the other Asians who aren't oriental. I'm proud of my Korean heritage, even if I can't speak Korean and, when I visited Korea once, found it a completely foreign country.
I stepped into some shoes with heels that weren't as high as they looked – if I have to move quickly high heels are an impediment – put my keys in the pocket of my skirt, placed my ASP and gun in my tote bag, and went out to face the day. I locked the door behind me, checked to be sure it was locked, and went down the stairs. It was a nice day to face, with just enough fluffy clouds to offset the blue of the sky and the breeze blowing gently down from the mountains. It wasn't too early or too late – the sun was warm but not hot, and the light hadn't yet turned harsh on the western face of the Sandia Mountains.
I got into my "new Bug," as my mother calls it, and drove to the office. I have space on San Mateo just north of Menaul, near the big white Baillo's building. It's very easy to give directions – everyone knows where Baillo's is.
Sara was at her desk when I walked in. I hired her a few months ago on the strength of her personality. She had no secretarial experience at the time, but she was pleasant, had a good mind and evidently a firm though not aggressive will, and appeared willing to work hard at, initially, a lower salary than someone with experience would merit. She quickly picked up the job, and I soon increased her salary to the standard level – and then a bit more, because I considered that she'd earned it. This was summer, so she had her daughter Graciela with her. Her ex-husband is an Albuquerque police officer, and they share custody in practice though in law she has sole custody. Mr. Delgado can't take Graciela to work, and they don't like to farm her out, so with my permission Sara brings the girl to work two or three days a week, and leaves early those days.
Sara handed me the phone messages that had piled up since the day before – my obsession with locks means that she can't get into my office when I'm not there – and patted my hand as I flipped thorough them. "How was your day off?" she asked.
"Aside from an interruption to my tanning, it went well. You know the interruption – it was the man I called you about." She nodded. "I was nice and tense day before yesterday, and now I'm nice and relaxed."
"Good for you, Kim. You're much more fun when you're relaxed."
I laughed. Sara seems to be precisely the kind of jokester I need to keep me sane ... as sane, anyway, as I ever get.
I unlocked my office, tossed the message slips on my desk, sat down, and turned on my computer. I've only been running an actual agency, with an actual employee, for a short time, but I like it. It's risky, but it's exciting too. I owe the bank plenty of money, but so far I've made every payment. I've only had difficulty once, and the very next month I got a big fee from someone who'd decided that no expense was too great if it would get him access to a particular painting he wanted to buy. That put me ahead of where I had been before. My books are in the black and my reputation as an investigator is growing. The legend on the front door of the office says simply,
It's a simple inscription, but there are people in Albuquerque now who regard it with considerable favor. It's not bad for a tiny woman whose father is an immigrant and whose mother is a former Air Force SP and APD officer. And though it is, objectively, just "not bad," I'm proud of it.