Whoever said "first impressions lie" was an idiot. First impressions are the only reason I've gotten as far in the business as I have.
Mizha didn't look like an agent. She looked like Daddy's princess, fresh out of high school. Her hair was too long and too blonde, and she wore the kind of suit tailored to look less expensive than it is. If she'd been wearing heels, I might have handed in my badge right then and there.
But she wasn't, so I settled for glowering at her. She had a shabby cardboard box in her arms, which she shifted to one hip so she could knock on my door. As if I couldn't see her through the glass walls of my office—and who designs an office with glass walls? I nodded at her through the glass. She met my eyes, hesitated, and opened the door. "Are you—Kali?"
"Sign's on the door, sweet cheeks," I said, propping my feet on the desk. "And you must be Mizha."
She bit her lip. "That's me," she said quietly. "It's, um, it's nice to meet you. I guess we're going to be partners?"
I hated how she turned that into a question. But I was getting paid for this, so I pointed at the chair. "Go on, sit down. Me casa es su casa and what-the-fuck-ever. Tell me what you've been told, so I can tell you what's bullshit."
She paused, as though she were about to say she didn't think the FBI would spin her bullshit, but she sat and kept her mouth shut. I wasn't sure if it was because she was scared of me—though that was obvious—or if she wasn't sure the bureau wouldn't lie to her. I doubted that, though. Mizha cleared her throat. "Um. Warren told me you've been working on the same case for almost a year now. Lots of leads, lots of walls, lots of dead ends." She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "It's about human trafficking?"
Didn't she know anything? I rubbed my forehead. "It is at that. I know. Big words. Scary. And there hasn't been a damn lead in weeks. You'd better go get moved in, 'cause I ain't got anything else to tell you."
She bit her lip again. "…Don't you?" she said quietly. "I know you've never had a partner, but Warren said—"
I raised my eyebrows. "Warren said what, sweet cheeks? That I'm really a big softy underneath? That I'm doing this out of the goodness of my heart?"
I shook my head and slumped back in my chair. I wasn't yelling at her, mind you. Too much effort, especially on our first day together. But sometimes you don't have to. "I'm not a fucking Good Samaritan. Girls get raped and murdered every day. I want to be helping the ones that aren't already dead, but I get stuck with this shit, because nobody else will do it, and nobody promotes a girl like me to working with the living."
Mizha looked shocked. I wondered if anyone had ever sworn at her before. She got to her feet and clutched the box against her chest. "…It was good to meet you. I'll—I'll be down the hall if you want to talk more."
That was it? That was all? I'd been expecting a little push back. Warren was an asshole, but surely he wouldn't have been dumb enough to put me with someone who didn't have a spine. But she slipped out the door, eyes down.
I slouched onto my desk. "Well, that was a waste of time," I muttered.
Mizha spent more time than she wanted to arranging her new office. It was small and not very pretty, and the window looked out over an alley, not onto a park. But that was all she could expect. This was a tough town, but it was better than sticking around somewhere she wasn't wanted.
Anyway, nobody here knew her father or her brother. Nobody knew about her mom. She'd thought maybe she could do some real work here instead of getting stuck behind a desk all day.
But with a partner like Kali… not to mention that case…
Mizha put her hand on the window and stood there for a long time.
The next day, Warren came by my office with a folder. "Got another one, Kali," said Warren, like I didn't already know. He dropped it on my desk. "Squints are already poking around the scene. Better hurry if you don't wanna miss the fun."
I hate him so much sometimes. But, then, I hate everyone most of the time. I picked up the folder. "Got it." I grabbed my jacket and my gun and went for the door. Warren raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"Aren't you forgetting something?" He nodded down the hall, toward the office most recently vacated.
Aw, shit. "Going to get her right now, ain't I?" I muttered, turning that way.
Mizha jumped when she heard the knock. Kali was standing outside her door, a thick envelope in one hand. Mizha's heart fell when she saw it, even though she worked with murdered people every day at home. There, she just hadn't been allowed to get up close and personal. Now she would. She swallowed, grabbed her badge and her gun, and slipped out of the office.
Kali passed the folder to Mizha. "Come on. I drive." She said it like she expected Mizha to argue—maybe because Kali seemed like the kind of person who would argue about everything, just to prove she could.
Mizha flipped the folder open and peeked inside. A single photograph was paperclipped to it, as well as a preliminary report. A girl, dead in an alley with her wrists and throat cut. She was still dressed, at least, and her eyes were closed. "Are they all like this?"
"It's happened a couple times, yeah," said Kali, shoving her hands in her pockets as they walked down the stairwell. "Most of the time, they've just OD'ed on something or other, but every once in a while, they turn up like this. Gig like this's always got at least one contract killer for the girls who try to squeal. Or just some sick fuck who gets turned on by blood."
"How do they know it's related to your case?" Mizha asked.
She expected to get snapped at, but Kali held out her hand. After a moment, Mizha realized she wanted the folder and handed it over. Kali stopped walking—so abruptly Mizha almost bumped into her—and pointed at one of the girl's wrists. "You can't see it in this photo—crappy resolution—but under that cut, there'll be a tattoo. Bad one. Homemade. Got an ID number, always different. These girls are cattle, sweet cheeks."
Mizha winced and took the folder back. Her throat hurt from all the words she had to swallow. Some agents were just like this. Kali had been in the business a lot longer, and she'd been working on this case a long time. Anyone could get burned out, callous.
Mizha didn't say anything as we drove to the spot, just stared at the picture like she'd never seen a shot of a dead body before. Could be true, I guessed. Warren'd said this was her first "real" job. Lucky her.
The alley reeked of blood and day-old leftovers from the restaurant dumpster. Maybe a little Mary Jane in there, too, but who was I to judge? A couple of squints were poking around, taking photographs and samples. I ignored them and walked over to the girl. She might have been sleeping, propped up against the wall like she was. Well, except for the blood all over her shirt.
I bent down, looking into her face. Another anonymous blonde, probably from Russia. I always wondered if any horror stories filtered over there. Maybe people thought it was all a lie. I glanced at Mizha; she was talking to the squints, asking about an ID. I looked at the girl's left wrist. A tattoo, like always; there was too much mess to try and read it, though. I'd leave that to the squints.
When I got to my feet, Mizha was putting on a pair of rubber gloves. She'd pinned her hair back, too. Great. A squint wannabe. I walked over to the squint poking through the dumpster. "So no noise, nothing?"
"Everything indicates she was killed somewhere else and dumped here, as always, Kali," said the squint. "But I figured it's best to be thorough. Might be something in here."
Sometimes I think they just like digging through garbage.
I glanced at Mizha again to tell her to move on—I knew from experience that we wouldn't find anything here. We needed to know who she was and what that tattoo said before we could do anything. But Mizha was inspecting the body. She had borrowed a probe from the squint, who was looking at her with a mixture of suspicion and grudging trust. Probably the suit.
Mizha gently nudged aside the girl's collar, looking at the wound on her throat. Her eyes were narrowed: in thought, not disgust. Maybe she had been around a body before. "Hey, Kali," she said, without looking at me. "Come here and look at this."
I almost didn't, just to be a shit, but then something winked in the early morning sunlight. Jewelry? The other girls couldn't have afforded a paste diamond, judging by the shape of their clothes and teeth. I knelt by Mizha. A little sapphire hung around her neck on a thin gold chain. I couldn't tell if it was fake or not.
"None of the other girls had anything like this, did they?" said Mizha. It was a question, but not. I raised my eyebrows. Mizha bit her lip and stepped away from the body; the confident, analytical look disappeared, and she handed the probe back to the squint. "I—I read the files last night. None of them have ever had any personal effects."
I shook my head. I wasn't impressed—everybody gets lucky sometimes. And I didn't care how rich Daddy was; if you wanted to get a job in Warren's district, you had to know your shit. She couldn't have gotten this far without some talent. "Nope. Guess we got some poking around to do once she gets back from the lab, eh? There's a pawn shop downtown we could check out."
Mizha glanced at the body with a touch of distaste in her eyes. "Or we could go to an actual jewelry dealer. If that's a real sapphire—made in the ground, I mean—we could find out where it's from. Maybe it belonged to somebody in charge."
"Fair enough." She glanced at me, like she'd been expecting an objection. I shrugged. "I ain't all claws and teeth, sweet cheeks. And you're right."
Mizha watched me for a second longer, like she was waiting for the twist, and then she started talking to the squint again. Something 'bout the rate of decomposition in this kind of weather. Suppose it was good to have somebody around who could speak their language, at least.
Mizha had been up late going through all the files from the case last night, but she went through them again when they got back to the office. She hadn't realized how different it was to go through these kind of cases when they belonged to you. All those faces… all those girls… There were only a handful, but it was more than enough.
And every time she closed her eyes, she saw the slit in that girl's throat. No wonder Kali was such a hard case.
She kept glancing at the clock, wondering when the autopsy would be done. If they'd get an ID. How did people stand this kind of stuff?
A few hours later, Kali came by again. Mizha got up immediately this time, her badge already in hand, and went out to meet her. "No ID yet," said Kali, already heading for the stairs. "But we got that necklace back. Just gotta go collect it."
Mizha kept quiet again, but she was holding the necklace in its little baggie like it was the fucking Holy Grail. I almost told her not to get her hopes up, but if she was dumb enough to do that, wasn't none of my business. She'd learn fast enough.
Oh, I knew that. This would just be another line that went nowhere. Another fucking tease. Better for her to see that for herself than have me tell her. Maybe it'd stick that way.
Mizha gave me directions to the jeweler she wanted to see. God knows I've never had a reason to go there, but of course someone like her would have checked it out. It was a nice little joint: well-maintained, clean to the point of ridiculousness. The jewelery in the window was all hand-labeled, with its country of origin and price in crabbed handwriting. I parked around back. Mizha let me lead, even though this was her idea.
Jeeze. She was getting on my nerves.
The jeweler was a scrawny man with pince-nez glasses and immaculate clothing. He watched us with flat eyes. I knew I'd only just met him, but I really wanted to punch him. I feel that way about a lot of people, but this guy was worse. He looked like he belonged in the library. Or maybe in the postal service. He was definitely the kind of guy "going postal" was invented for.
When we approached him, he put on an approximation of a smile—I say "put on" because it was literally like he had to put on a mask to get anything approaching a cheerful expression. And I say "anything approaching" because this guy's smile still had a few miles to go before it was even in the neighborhood. His nametag identified him as Pakku. "Hello, ladies. May I help you?"
I took out my badge; Mizha copied me, a beat behind. She held up the baggie. The man's pupils shrunk to pinpricks. I wondered if everything here was strictly legal. Matter for another day, when I wasn't a kept woman to one case. "Can you identify this?" I said, reaching for the bag. Mizha passed it over, and I set it on the counter.
Pakku looked down at it. His lip wrinkled in the barest of sneers. "It's a sapphire."
Oh, God. I didn't just want to punch this guy. I wanted to pistol whip him. I've only got to do that once (legally), and it was the most delicious feeling in the world. Strictly for special occasions. And Pakku qualified.
Mizha's eyes flicked to me, as though she were worried about my reaction. "We can see that. We need to know where it came from. And who might buy something like this."
Pakku frowned a little and bent down, putting his nose so close to the baggie his breath left clouds on the plastic. I wondered what would happen if I told him the necklace had just been on a dead body but decided to save that. I needed his help, after all.
"I would have to inspect it more closely, you understand," he said. "Do some tests. But this was mined. I can determine its country of origin."
Mizha glanced at me as though asking my permission for something. I raised my eyebrows. She bit her lip—I wanted to smack her for it but knew it was only the influence of Pakku—and stepped forward. "Do you think it could have been brought here from somewhere else? We're—" She hesitated, as though she wasn't sure whether she should divulge details. I shrugged. "We're looking for girls who were either kidnapped from their homes or led with false promises. This is the first personal effect we've found."
I was a little impressed by her speech, despite myself. She actually sounded like a cop.
Pakku didn't seem to care; he was looking at the sapphire as though nothing else existed. "This is not a process of a moment. I will have to inspect it tonight to determine where it came from, and then I will have to send out messages to jewelers in that country to make sure that they are still selling this sort of thing. If this was a family heirloom, I'm afraid I cannot be of much help to you." He straightened up and adjusted his glasses. "I will be happy to do anything I can to assist your investigation, ma'am. If you give me your number, I can call you when I'm done. It will take at least a week."
I glared at him. Pistols and whipping. I dreamed of the sound my gun would make as it broke his cheekbone—it's a satisfying sound. Like snapping a branch across your knee. And the feeling… it's just as visceral and luscious as a punch, but without the pain in your hand. "A week? By then, the trail will have gone cold."
Any helpfulness in Pakku's eyes disappeared; his face was as cold and empty as a painted doll's. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but that's just the way it is. If you want me to do this thing properly, it will take at least a week. I assure you, I'll go as quickly as I can."
I moved toward him—couldn't help it; been doing this the hard way for too long—but before I could say anything or get my gun out, Mizha stepped forward. It was a smooth, almost invisible motion, but her shoulder was in my way now, just enough that I couldn't get to Pakku without having to shove her away first. "A week?" said Mizha. She glanced at me; her eyes were wide and desperate, as though she were afraid I would continue.
I took a step back, trying to signal with my eyes that I couldn't be responsible for what happened if she fucked this up. And when I relinquish responsibility… well, people tend to relinquish their teeth. And full functionality in their limbs.
"A week, ma'am, just as I said," said Pakku, who either didn't realize how much danger he'd just been in or didn't care.
Mizha crossed her arms. Her eyes were calm, but her brow furrowed, as though she were being told her favorite CD was sold out. "Well. That is a pity. I was told you were the best in the business. Not just the jewelry—knowing your craft. I have jeweler friends back in my hometown, and when I told them where I was moving, they all mentioned you."
She wasn't flirting with him, not quite—that would have just scared him away. But it was just close enough to flirting to flatter him. To make him think a scrawny, scrupulous little weirdo like him could have a girl like Mizha look at him and want.
Okay. I was impressed. It's not like I wanted to throw a party for the girl or anything, but she was working the situation better than I could. If I'd been alone, he'd be bleeding from the nose by now.
Pakku blinked. I don't think he'd ever been complimented by a beautiful woman before. "Th-they did?" He paused. "I mean. I am the best. Unequivocally. No one in the state comes close. I graduated top of my class."
Mizha smiled sweetly and laid her hand against her face, as though she thought Pakku was just the most precious thing she'd ever seen. "And a week is really the fastest you can do this?"
"W-well." Pakku paused and took off his glasses. He wiped them with a cloth he produced from his pocket, clearly flustered. "It will only take me a day at most to run the tests and determine its country of origin. Contacting the other jewelers—"
Mizha leaned toward him, across the counter. He looked down at her arms. I couldn't decide if he was terrified by her proximity or by the possibility of streaks on his spotless display case. "Is that really necessary, though? You don't make mistakes. I would know. I've heard all about you."
"I am the best," Pakku repeated, although he didn't sound as sure of himself this time. I thought that was because of confusion due to Mizha, not because he doubted the statement. Jerks like this never did. "I…" He put his fingers together. "The morning after tomorrow. That is the absolute minimum. And there is at least a ten-percent probability I could lead you down a false trail without double-checking my facts. If that is acceptable to you, then I could contact you as soon as I was ready."
A day and a half wasn't great. But it was a hell of a lot better than a week.
Mizha retreated from the counter, as though she realized how much it made him uncomfortable. Had she been doing it just to make him that way? If so, I was even more impressed. Uncomfortable people slip up. They go your way just so they can get back in their bubble. (Pakku was definitely a bubble person.) "That's so good of you," she said, clasping her hands in front of herself like a little girl. "You're doing a great service to us."
"Of course, of course." Pakku picked up the baggie and sealed it completely shut.
I meant to give him my card, but Mizha got there first. "Call this number when it's ready, please."
Pakku just nodded. He didn't even wait for us to get completely out the door before breathing a loud sigh of relief.
Kali was quiet on the way back to the office, but it was a different kind of quiet. She drummed her fingers restlessly on the steering wheel, like she had a word on the tip of her tongue. Mizha's hands felt empty without a folder or evidence, so she flipped through the preset stations on the radio. To her surprise, they were not all loud rock and roll stations: most of it was classical, although there was one reggaeton station.
When they got back to the office, Mizha wanted nothing more than to disappear into her office. She needed some time to decompress. Some time to prepare to deal with her fractious partner. Kali didn't stop her, though she walked with Mizha up the stairs instead of taking the stairwell that was right next to her office.
Mizha did not let herself think about the case for the rest of the day, which was as difficult as it sounds. But there was nothing she could do. She didn't even know if this would lead them anywhere, so she couldn't fuss about it.
And the day after was the same, although now her mind kept reminding her that Pakku would call sometime tomorrow. At a few points during the day, she found herself so bored she almost thought of walking down to the office on the other end of the hall and trying to strike up a conversation with Kali. But she didn't feel like getting her fingers bitten off. Kali wasn't as bad as she acted—at least, judging by her few flashes of humanity—but she also made it clear she didn't want to be friends. Why borrow trouble?
At 5:30 the next morning, Mizha's cell went off. Her mind immediately went to Tama, who was doubtless in some ridiculous location where it was a normal time of day and who would think it was the height of humor to wake his baby sister up too early. She grabbed her phone, her mouth already forming her brother's name, and saw a number she didn't recognize.
For a second, she almost let it ring. Then she realized it was, technically, "the morning after tomorrow." She answered, mouth dry. "Hello, this is Mizha."
"This is Pakku, from the jeweler's. I have the information you—requested." Mizha's mouth twisted to the side. His tone was, as usual, irritating. She almost wished she'd let Kali punch him.
Mizha glanced at the clock. Despite the early hour—and her irritation with Pakku—she was jittery all over. She needed to move. She got out of bed, cell phone between her shoulder and ear, and started digging through her closet for today's outfit. "That's great. Thank you. I just have to get ready and get my partner."
"Of course, ma'am. Please keep in mind that my store opens at eight AM sharp. I will need to attend to my own business—"
Mizha hung up on him. If he asked, she'd tell him she dropped her phone.
She showered and dressed without drying her hair, throwing it into a bun even though it would stay wet until the evening if she left it that way. She thought about calling Kali first—but, well, it would be awkward either way, and hopefully by the time she got to Kali's apartment, she would be awake.
Kali's apartment was in a rougher part of town. Mizha felt very out of place as she parked—at least it was a bureau vehicle, not her own—and climbed the stairwell to Kali's floor. Her door was old and needed to be repainted. Mizha knocked and waited.
"It ain't locked!" Kali yelled from within.
Mizha hesitated, wondering if she should announce who she was, but decided to just come inside. It would be easier to explain why she was there from inside than shouting it through a door. She slipped inside and glanced around. Running water told her Kali was in the bathroom; she would wait until Kali came out. Mizha was not the sort of girl who had conversations while someone else was peeing or naked.
Kali's apartment was small but cleaner than Mizha had expected. The little living area didn't have a TV: it had exercise equipment, a stereo, and a single leather chair that looked obscenely comfortable. And, in the corner, there was a half-finished charcoal sketch on an easel.
In college, despite her career path of choice, Mizha had hung around with the art and music geeks, because she'd always been fascinated by that sort of thing. Her mother had been a talented artist; Mizha had one of her small paintings in her office.
And, anyway, Kali was the last person Mizha would ever imagine drawing anything but stick figures.
She glanced at the bathroom again and walked toward the sketch. It was a girl, and at first Mizha couldn't quite make it out: the face was still just a suggestion, a circle with a set of guidelines. But the body was fairly well blocked in, with the beginnings of clothes. Around her neck hung a thin chain with a tiny pendant. The shape was unmistakeable.
Mizha set her hand against the paper, on the edge so she wouldn't smudge the charcoal.
Kali came out of the bathroom then, wearing a robe and rubbing her hair with a towel. "Yeah, what is—" Mizha looked over her shoulder to meet Kali's eyes. They were sharp and unfriendly, like the eyes of a cat backed into a corner.
Mizha drew her hand away from the picture; they stared at each other for a long moment. Then Kali started to rub her hair again. "Yeah, what?" she repeated. Had Mizha thought she'd been hostile before? Well. That was stupid.
Mizha quickly stepped away from the picture and shoved her hand into her pocket. "I, um, I—" The part of her brain used to dealing with her father and brother was reaching for a different topic, already trying to bury the thing that was stressing her out, but—something wouldn't let her. She kept coming back to that dead girl, alone in the alley, and the way Kali hadn't reacted at all. The way she had barely seemed to look.
But she must have, because Mizha had the only picture, so Kali had nothing to draw from but her memory. Which meant… what?
Kali raised her eyebrows. "You gonna spit it out or what?"
If she backed away now, Kali would never let her live it down. Mizha knew that. So she cleared her throat and put her back straight. "I didn't know you could draw."
Kali paused with the towel hanging in front of her face. "…Not something I advertise," she said, moving her hands again but keeping the towel between them. "So what? I like it, okay? It's relaxing."
Mizha looked over her shoulder at the blank face. Almost like a doll's. "…I thought you didn't care."
"You think a lot of stuff that ain't true, sweet cheeks," said Kali. "Ain't my job to hold your hand."
Mizha's hands clenched at her sides. She wasn't sure who she was angry at, but she was angry—and for once, she couldn't bury it. "No, it's not. But it's your job not to lie to me." Kali paused again and pulled the towel down from her hair. Her eyes were a warning, but Mizha kept going. "You act like you don't care, but you do. And you make fun of me for caring." She almost bit her lip to hold the words back, but she stopped herself. "So what's the truth, then? You can keep it from everybody else, but you shouldn't keep it from me. We're supposed to be partners."
I was really starting to hate the way she said "partners." And the way she had impressed me yesterday. And me leaving the easel out when I knew she knew where I lived and that Pakku would contact her. How dumb was I?
I put my hand on my hip. "Yeah? And what's that even mean, sweet cheeks?"
"Don't call me that!" she snapped. For a moment, I saw real anger in her eyes—real anger, old anger. She drew in a breath, let it out, glared at me. It was the first time her appearance didn't annoy me, because it was the first time it seemed like something real instead of an act. "Look. Nobody but you and me cares that that girl—that girl—" she pointed back at my sketch, livid, "—existed. Nobody but you and me cares that somebody stole her away from her life. Nobody but you and me cares that she had that life taken away. And I can't…"
She crumpled suddenly, looking away from me. "I can't take it if you keep acting like that's not true. Especially when you do."
I leaned against the wall, staring at the floor. Nobody had ever gotten in this deep before. This was a problem I didn't know how to approach. If I yelled at her, she'd leave, but we'd still have to work together. And if I didn't? I didn't have some soft underbelly I could show her, some secret sweetness. I'm not that type of girl.
But… well, I ain't heartless either, okay? Jeeze. "It is true," I said quietly. "But maybe I just got sick of me being the only one who knew it was."
Mizha scowled at me, but it was half-hearted now. She didn't seem to think sustaining her anger was worth it—weird. Just because I didn't mind her didn't mean I thought I would ever understand her. "Well, you aren't, so cut it out." She rubbed her arms. "I mean… whatever. If you're a bitch, you're a bitch. That's okay. I can be a bitch, too, and if that's how you want to act around other people, I can put up with it. But… stop acting like that's all you are, because it isn't."
My first instinct was a nasty response; I could already taste the bile on my tongue. But I made myself think of the way she'd handled Pakku, of the careful, thoughtful way she had looked at the girl's body. I needed somebody like her around, whether I wanted to admit it or not. "…That's true, too."
Mizha nodded. "So… Can we be friends?"
I shrugged. "We can be partners."
She smiled—tentatively, and not very happily. "I guess I can settle for that."