Fair Game

Chapter One

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Los Angeles, California
Thursday, June 18

The skin was puckered and discolored but not badly bruised.

Mae Sung Lee hesitated, then put the cantaloupe in her basket. She would eat that one first. She sniffed the green, button-like depression at the end of several other melons and selected one whose sweet, almost cloying fragrance assured her it was ripe.

At the cash register, she watched the new girl weigh the tomatoes, squash, and celery. When the girl rang up sixty-seven cents for the melons, Mae Lee stopped her.

"Sixty-six," she told her in Mandarin Chinese, pointing to the sign. "Three for dollar. Two melons, sixty-six."

The girl deducted a penny and rang up the total. "$2.43."

"Two bags, please. The melons are heavy, yes?"

Smiling politely, the girl opened two white, opaque plastic shopping bags, placed a melon in each, and carefully distributed the vegetables, conscious of the old woman's scrutiny.

Mae Lee nodded approval, handed the girl two dollars and two quarters and waited patiently for her change. He had waited while Mae Lee had browsed through the shops in Kowloon Market on Hill. She'd seemed interested in a tablecloth, had apparently been negotiating the price with the saleswoman, but had left empty-handed. Even from a distance he could see disappointment pulling down the corners of her mouth. (Or was it old age?) He'd followed her to the produce market on Ord Street, had observed her petite, yellow cotton shift-clad figure through the poster-filled plate glass window as she made her purchases. She'd spent forever choosing melons as if they were works of art (as if her careful selection mattered, as if anything she would do in the next thirty min­utes mattered), and his eye had started to twitch until he reminded himself that there was no rush.

Yesterday she'd bought pea pods and ginger root; the day before, tenderloin. He'd gone inside the market both times, had bought three pippin apples the first day, a pound of cherries the second. The apples were too tart. The one he tasted had irritated his teeth, tongue, palate. He'd tried to finish it (“Waste not, want not!”), but after four bites he'd pushed it into the sink hole and waited until the garbage disposal eliminated all traces of the apple. He should have bought the golden delicious. Now he had two more pippins, and what would he do with them?

She was at the cash register now. He wondered why she went to the market every day. Maybe she couldn't handle heavy packages. Of course, she could buy a shopping cart. His mother had owned a collapsible gridded-metal cart years ago, when they lived in New Jersey. She always let him push it to the market--and back, if it wasn't too heavy. Of course, she had to ease it up and down the curbs herself. One time she let him pull the cart onto the curb, and it fell on him, pinning him to the cement. The celery, cold and heavy and damp, landed on his face, and he sealed his eyes against the invasion of its serrated pale green leaves and waited for his mother to rescue him. There now, I told you, didn't I? she said wearily, but she didn't spank him, even though she had to pick up all the canned vegetables that had rolled into the gutter, and two of the cans had been dented. You can thank the good lord there were no eggs, his mother said. And he had.

After that, he'd been content to roll the cart along the pavement. Then one of the wheels had started to squeak, and soon it had started turning the wrong way, like a recalcitrant child. Finally, when two of the wheels were broken, his mother had dis­carded the cart. She had never bought another one.

He had liked going shopping with his mother.

The woman was leaving. He inhaled sharply, felt inside his jacket pocket, then studied his reflection in the glass. He looked calm. He was calm. Keeping his eyes on one of the posters (SHORT RIB--SPECIAL TODAY! SEE INSIDE!), he watched her exit the store, a shopping bag in each hand, and start towards Hill Street. She turned left. He waited a minute and began walking.

He knew where she lived. He'd followed her home on both previous days, had watched her turn left from Hill onto Alpine and make her slow, deliberate way up the hilly street past several faded stucco apartment buildings to Bunker Hill Avenue. The real Bunker Hill was the site of an important Colonial victory during the War of Independence. He'd learned that in fifth grade. When he'd read the street name after watching Mae Lee disappear into a ground floor rear apartment, he'd known it was a sign. (He hadn't chosen her because she lived on Bunker Hill. He hadn't known where she lived, so it was a sign. He knew it was.)

He had established that she lived alone. She was probably a widow, like his mother. He had no idea how old Mae Lee was--probably in her sixties, judging from the gray in her braided hair, although his mother was fifty-nine and looked much older, much wearier. He felt a familiar tightening in his chest and paused to catch his breath. The woman was more than a block ahead of him, her short, sturdy legs undaunted by the steep incline. In his mind's ear he could hear the rhythmic slapping of her sandals against the pavement. He didn't know how she made it up the hill every day. She hadn't stopped, not even once.

He waited on Alpine while she turned the corner at Bunker Hill, gave her several minutes to reach her apartment and enter it. When he rang the bell, she came to the door immediately.

"Mrs. Lee? Mrs. Mae Sung Lee?"

"Yes, yes. What you want?" She eyed him through the peephole.

"I have a package for you, a gift." He held up a large square parcel wrapped in red glossy paper.

"What kind gift?" She sounded skeptical more than suspi­cious.

"It's an advertising promotion." He saw that she didn't understand. "A free sample? You're the third person on this block to get one, by the way, and all the others were happy with theirs." He smiled. "But first I have to see some identification."

"What?"

"A driver's license, or something like that. I can only give you this after you show me proof that you're Mae Sung Lee." She frowned. "No car. No drive."

"Oh. Well, what about a credit card? Social security card?"

"Ah!" She nodded rapidly. "You wait." She was gone and back within a minute. She held up social security card to the privacy window for his scrutiny. "This here?"

"Great! That's it, then. The gift is yours, Mrs. Lee."

"You leave by door, yes?"

He held the package in his right hand, a clipboard in the other. "You have to sign for it. And I have to ask some questions. Like what's your favorite store, and why. How you like the gift." He knew he looked respectable. Clean shaven, neatly dressed.

She eyed the red package. She opened the door but left it secured by a chain.

"I don't blame you for being careful. I'd hate for you to loose out on the gift, but if I don't get the information from you, I could lose my job." He smiled again. "Look, I'll give you the number of the store. You call, give my name--it's Jim Miller, by the way--and check me out. Believe me, I won't be insulted."

She hesitated, then unchained the door. "Okay. You come in."

She moved out of the doorway and let him into a small, musty living room. She closed the door. He handed her the package.

"Thank you." Her eyes crinkled with pleasure. She sat on a worn apricot brocade sofa with heavy wooden arms. "Sit, please."

"I'll write some notes first while you open your gift. Then a few questions, and I'll be on my way." He took a pen from a pocket of his camel sports jacket and busied himself with his clipboard.

She placed the package on an ornately carved dark wood coffee table. It was a large box, but not heavy, and she wondered what it contained. She worked carefully with her short, blunt-edged fingers to peel away the transparent tape without tearing the paper. Her granddaughter's birthday was three weeks away; she would use the paper to wrap the ribbon doll she'd made her. Mae Lee was concentrating on the last strip of tape when he slipped behind her and clamped the handkerchief across her nose and mouth.

Her hands flew up, and she locked them around his forearm, struggling to force his hands away from her face. Within a minute she was unconscious, and he eased her body onto the sofa. He noticed a violent tear in the glossy red paper, but he felt no pity as he bent over her, syringe in hand.

 

Fair Game, a Mysterious Press/Warner Books title, was nominated for an Agatha Award. It is out of print. Look for Fair Game at abebooks or half.com. Or check the Deadly Directory at the Cluelass website for a list of bookstores that carry out-of-print and used titles.

 




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