Elle sat in the same seat that Amber had an hour prior. Pressing down on her skirt with both hands, her eyes darted left and right, refusing to look at John as he sipped a fresh cup of coffee he poured himself. He had yet to say anything to her. Five minutes of pure silence passed, accompanied only by the light buzzing of his computer. The idea of a “talk” got her sweating. Elle realized how out of line she was. It was stupid to bust in and accept the case like that… Everything told her it was the right thing.
Finally, John broke the seal. “Well, the contract is all signed. She probably got the best deal I’ve ever offered for a job.”
“I’m sure Amber is very appreciative that we are helping!” Elle chimed in, trying to toss a positive spin on it. John’s disappointment radiated outward; Elle thought of that one time her adoptive father confronted her about a failed math test. This was so much worse.
“I know she is,” John continued, “It’s a big case. Lots of moving parts. Dangerous parts. Parts that our agency has no business in.” He crossed his arms. “You were listening?”
“I know I’m not supposed to…” Elle said, “There was something about her. I had to know!”
“That’s a huge break in confidentiality.”
“You’ve also put me in a bad situation. Agreeing to take the case after I just turned her down makes the agency look bad. Makes us look like we don’t have our shit together. Do you understand that?” Elle shut her eyes and nodded. She was trying not to cry. “Technically, I could fire you for breaking confidentiality. Not counting the dangers this agency takes on, how we are clearly going to lose money on this, and a host of other things.”
Elle was ready to burst. Fired…? That word bounced around her head with such force that she thought her brain would leak from her ears. “I’m sorry… I… If I can… Do you want me to collect my things?”
“I want to know why you did it?”
John nodded. “You’ve never broken a rule in six months. Never asked about a case. Never stuck your nose where it didn’t belong unless I brought you into something, like with the Strull affair. So why?”
Elle didn’t need to think about it. “When I listened to her, I felt like I was her. Maybe I’m not in this situation specifically, but I’ve been in similar. When I moved out from my parents in the Uppercity, it was tough down here and very scary. I remember people making passes at me, or saying rude things, or threatening me. I never thought it could happen to me when I was in the Uppercity. If I hadn’t been adopted, I could be like Amber. That is even more terrifying. So… when you turned her down… it felt like I was being turned down too. You can fire me. I prolly deserve it. Or, you can let me work the case if you don’t want to! I won’t ask for anything else! Not more pay or overtime or anything.”
John waived that request off. “I’m not going to fire you…” He felt bad even bringing it up despite considering it for a fraction of a second. Sometimes, he forgot Elle was adopted and lived in the Uppercity. Despite a loving human family and having chances some Nekos would kill for, Elle moved to the Undercity. Why? Wasn’t his place to ask.
“No offense, do you even know the first thing about what it takes to be a PI?”
“I’ve watched you,” Elle said, “Not everything, but I hear the questions you ask and how you go about an investigation.”
“You have been listening in more than you let on…”
Elle crossed her arms and let out a loud “hmph”, “Well, you talk loud sometimes…”
“Ugh… fine…” John grumbled, “The contracts signed. I’m working it. Not going to dump it on my secretary.”
“I’d like to join you!”
“Out of the question.”
Elle fired back, “I can be a big help!”
“You help enough in the office,” John said, “Promise. There'll be other calls coming in.”
“I want to be there in a different way.” Elle was adamant about it. John admired that, but it was still a terrible idea. When she saw that he wasn’t relenting, she doubled down, “I joined this office because I wanted to help people. I want to be a PI like you. This is the case I can grind my teeth on!”
“The phrase is ‘cut one’s teeth’,” John corrected, “Also, you said being a secretary was your dream job when I hired you.”
“It is! I get to work at a PI’s office.”
“You said nothing about wanting to be a PI. You lied.”
Elle smirked. “I withheld the truth to get what I want. You do the same! See, I’m already a perfect fit.” John froze at the accusation. Instead, he started laughing but not in an amused way. No, this was right from the gut.
“I guess I lied to get my first job too,” he said with a bit of nostalgia in his voice, “All right, you can join me at the apartment, but if things start going bad, it’s right back to the office.”
Elle leapt off her chair in excitement. “Thank you so much!” She was out the office door before John could say anything else. In a way, he was excited too.
That evening, John touched his CX-7 down in a lot designated at residential parking. 8th District wasn’t a long shot from District 4th, but lord, the traffic. Coolage Group needed to get the damn construction under control. For Elle, it was almost magical. She had ridden in cars before, in the Uppercity, but it had been a few months. For the Undercity, it had always been mass transit, and to arrive at a location in a fraction of the time, well, she had forgotten that feeling. John had even gone through the drive-up and gotten tacos for an early dinner.
District 8 during the day was near unrecognizable from its nighttime counterpart. The neon signs were all off, and despite the hazy brightness, they rarely saw the sun. The sidewalks lacked the vendors and prostitutes, feeling more like a ghost town than anything. The rain had carried in a strong stench of Syntha-Fuel; it would permeate the district for the next few hours until the mechanical and rust scents returned.
Elle’s fascination with his car was almost cute; her nativity at 26 was a product of upbringing. She didn’t even see the mass of wretchedness around her. Even her youthfulness radiated in her style. She always came to the office dressed well; stylish skirts with matching tops or flowing dresses that bonded well with her feminine appeal.
“If you’re going to be joining me, I’d recommend dressing in something easier to move in,” John said, “There can be a lot, you know, getting dirty, footwork, crawling around. Whole nine yards.”
Elle frowned. “I like getting dressed up! Besides, you said to dress professionally.”
“In the office, sure… You should at least bring some walking shoes next time,” He pointed down to the black flats on her feet. They may have matched her polka dot skirt, but her feet would be a bleeding, blistered mess before the day was done.
Elle only grinned. “What do you think I wear when I come into work?” She pulled out a pair of well-worn tennis shoes from her oversized bag. “Ta-da!”
“I’ll just shut my mouth then.”
John and Elle made their way into the apartment complex, a dilapidated building that John assumed was far outside of code. The walls were rife with cracks; the floors wobbled unevenly. Drywall paint started to peel down the corridors, and a musty odor encapsulated everything, pushing away the oil scent from outside. The elevators were long out of service, marked by only dirty and frayed caution tape. They took the stairs, a metal jungle of uneven and rusting steps. A trickle, no stream, of water dribbled down the side wall, dampening the steps.
“Watch yourself here,” John said to Elle as they made their way up to the 7th floor.
It wasn’t any better, and John’s stomach twisted as a fleeting sense of falling came over him. The supposedly concrete floor crunched under his feet. The walls, with an increase of cracks and gashes, looked ready to buckle at any moment. That was… mildly concerning. Towards the center of the hall, Amber Vallis waited for them.
Elle gave her a call before they left, assuring they would be looking at the apartment today. It gave Amber a few hours to compose herself, and now, they could begin the case. She had changed into jeans and a button down top. There was something almost different about her in this mode. John couldn't put his finger on it.
When she saw them, Amber was quick to say, “Thank you so much for helping me.” She produced the key from her bag and offered it to John.
John aptly ignored it. “Where’s your friend?”
“Jewel’s working, and they wouldn’t let her leave.” Amber instead offered the key to Elle, who took it.
“Don’t travel alone,” John muttered, “It’s not safe. Not if he’s already getting violent.” He swiped the key from Elle and unlocked the door. Before opening it, he turned back to Amber. “Did you see him?”
“We’ll take you home tonight.”
Upon shoving the front door open, knocking away junk that piled up, the full carnage was on display. It unnerved even him, and this wasn’t John’s apartment. Shattered glass from the toppled TV covered the living room floor. The sofa has been cut open with a knife, and its contents spewed about. Papers and torn out pages from books were crumbled in the corner. A massive crack ran the length of the window that looked out over the street.
The kitchen was in worse shape. Every drawer had been pulled out; its contents dumped into a pile of silverware and appliances. Cut chords clung to the microwave, which was smashed into the drywall. The fridge leaned on an angle, propped up by the opposite wall. Ceramic plate pieces turned into jagged knives as they pointed upwards.
“This is terrible…” Elle said, picturing her own apartment in such a state. John offered nothing in return. Whoever did this really wanted to send a message: a message he was sure pointed to what had been splattered on the bedroom wall.
“I’d like to see the bedroom next,” John said as he peered into the bathroom to see a similar situation.
John hadn’t expected anything different in her bedroom. A mass of clothes was scattered over every inch of the floor. Makeup had been so beaten into the carpet that it would never come out. Broken jewelry created a soft sparkle amongst the mess. It was concerning, as the entire apartment had been, but John sought the darkest piece of it all. It was clear Amber had done her best to expunge the message from the wall, but the red paint would not be so easily swayed. In clear letters, smudged slightly from the attempted removal, it read “Neko Whore Dies Tonight”.
Amber refused to enter the bedroom.
“Oh my god…” Elle covered her mouth; her voice quivered. She had been fully aware the message would be there. Seeing it… shook her to her core.
“They took some care with this,” John said, inspecting the lettering and its size. It took up nearly the whole wall. “Glad you didn’t get it off, Amber. We should get a picture of it.” He nodded to Elle, who snapped a shot with an old polaroid camera. Many of the digital cameras of yesteryear suffered from the computer virus of the war. Sure, a few still existed, but there was always a risk they were carrying it.
John moved to the closet, not surprised to see almost every article of clothes removed and tossed. However, he didn’t expect to see a lone hanging garment: a short plaid skirt, checkered red and blue, a white button down top with the top three buttons removed, and thigh-high socks draped through the hanger. It was the kind of outfit directly made for “show”. The skirt was far too short to cover anything unless the wearer stood as still as a statue, and the buttons had clearly been cut loose. It had been left there, almost perfectly preserved. Not a speck or stain on it.
He called out to Amber in the hall. “At Skeeters, did they provide your costume, or did you bring your own?”
Her reply dripped with confusion. “They gave me one. It was a little small, honestly. Why?”
“Can I make a guess? Red and blue plaid skirt? Top three buttons missing on the blouse? Black thigh highs?”
“Uh… that’s right… I think.” Amber was now in the doorway, seeing that John stood in the small walk-in closet. She knew what it meant, and with a labored sigh, retreated back to the hall.
Elle was at John’s side now. “So that means the stalker put this here?”
“Has to,” John replied, “Means he has connections at Skeeters, or he broke in. We’d have to ask.” John scanned over the room again, wracking his brain for anything else.
There was one final piece he thought of, but given her state, he wasn’t sure Amber would appreciate the question… from him at least. “Elle, I need you to do me a favor.”
Her eyes lit right up. “Yeah!? What’s up!?”
“Amber mentioned her underwear had been riffled through. Ask her if she knows what pairs were stolen. If they were clean or dirty. Style. Color. Anything you can really gather there.”
Elle was a bit shocked at the request. Her face turned flush. “Why would we need to know that?”
“Might be able to tell us something about the guy,” John explained, “Give us a bit of insight. It’s grasping, but anything, you know.”
Elle tilted her head back and with a smug face, snickered. “Sure you’re not just interested.” John simply glared at her, and in a panic, Elle ran out into the living room with a “Sorry, bad joke!”
John rolled his eyes.
Amber had no idea of the specifics, but it had been clear what had been rifled through. Her underwear had been left in the corner of the bedroom, piled up in an almost shrine like fashion. Elle offered to help her go through it, and John began scouring the living room as they did. The papers and smashed TV made it difficult to see the floor. It looked as though the TV was unmoved.
John pulled it up, leaning the shattered screen against the wall. Glass fragments pooled in the center… but not as he would expect. They laid in an almost ant hill-like mound. If the TV were to be pulled from the wall and the screen shattered, the glass would burst outwards. Putting a leather glove on, John cleared away the small mound.
A symbol had been etched into the carpet with a knife or small dagger. It consisted of a half circle, encompassing what looked to be two triangles pointed up. Three lines, starting long and growing shorter, sat below the triangles. John leaned in closer, running his hands over it. No… It hadn’t just been cut. It was far too pronounced for that. It was burned too, but not with a cigarette or even a lighter. This was a more powerful flame.
Amber and Elle came out from the bedroom, practically scaring him. “We finished up!”
Amber looked downtrodden. “I think I know what he took… Looks like two thongs, just a random ratty pair for when I’m, you know. Those ones were all clean. There was one more…” Amber bit her lip, unable to say it.
“Amber says it’s a black lacy pair,” Elle said for her, “She said those were the ones she wore the night at Skeeters.”
John bit down on the back of his hand; he couldn’t take his eye off the symbol. “That’s something then.” The schoolgirl outfit hanging in the closet, the underwear Amber wore that night, all pointed to a crazed obsession with the girl that would not be cured by an acknowledgement of feelings. That night at Skeeters… that became the moment. Even if he was infatuated beforehand, it wasn’t enough to make a move like this.
“I don’t mean to be crass here, but I assume the show at Skeeters involved a lot of movement, some leg lifting, anything that’s going to make that pair of underwear known?”
Amber grew more uncomfortable. “Yes… But it wasn’t a show like that. I mean it was… but it wasn’t like that.”
“You don’t need to explain anything,” John assured, “What I don’t get is why. The guy had the outfit. Why not both? I’d think he’d want the whole thing.”
John thought long and hard, but it was Elle who spoke up. “Um… I think he wanted to send the message. He saw you and, uh, well, was attracted to you too. Maybe an odd question, but did Skeeters also give you the pair of underwear with the costume?”
“No… they told me to wear something sexy. I picked something random I thought would go well.”
Elle’s confidence was bursting. “Maybe that’s it then? The costume wasn’t really yours, and he wanted to use it to send the message. It was like, you know, a prize for him. He didn’t want to give it up, but he had to. So, when he found the other piece that went with it, he took it, and because it was yours, it meant a lot more. It was a lot, you know, closer to you too…”
“That’s disgusting…” Amber lamented.
“It is, but it makes a lot of damn sense with these types,” John said, “Clearly, the guy’s been to Skeeters. This isn’t a ‘saw a picture or heard through the grapevine’ thing. He was there. Maybe they know something…” As he scratched his chin, John pointed down at the TV. “Did you move this at all?”
Amber nodded. “We picked it up and saw a ton of glass. Thought it was safer to put it back for now.”
John brought both Amber and Elle closer, showing them the symbol cut and burned into the ground. “You see this?”
“Then he’s been back…” John muttered, “Does it mean anything to you?” Amber shook her head, and Elle took a picture of it. John personally wanted to hold onto that snapshot. He’d never seen it before, which meant either this guy loved making artwork or there was something more going on here. What that was, John did not know. He could feel it. Deep.
Skeeters would have some answers. It had to.
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