He pointed at a food tray behind the cafeteria counter.
“Oh, you again. Hominy grits?” she asked.
“Can’t give you a lot. Everybody get the same portion.”
“I didn’t ask for a lot. I said there’s a lot.”
“What you mean?”
“You asked me hominy grits, and I’m telling you how many grits are in that pan.”
“Your humor so bad it’s good. Anyway you can’t eat shit. You can’t fool me on that score. I can serve you a coffee, though. I want to watch that trick of yours again. You seen him do that coffee trick, Akeeshea?”
Deshondra served Algernon a cup of coffee.
“Yep, you folks just lovin’ the sugar,” said Algernon as he opened the dispenser into the coffee and held up his other hand to high-five her. Without taking his eyes off her, he stopped the flow of sugar just in time before the coffee overflowed. “Tee-hee.”
The ladies stared poker-faced.
“Don’t know how the hell you do that,” said Deshondra. “But you again wasted us a half dispenser of sugar.”
“Poor man’s cocaine.”
“We’re looking for a convicted pedophile who seems to have escaped to Chicago, where he badly beat up a man. Have you heard any unusual news around here lately?”
“How would we know anything if he in Chicago?”
“We suspect he snuck back to New Gary, though he has yet to occupy his assigned apartment in the Zone.”
“Whoever has? You think he hiding out with someone else? What he look like?”
“Caucasian, around fifty. Full head of closely cropped gray hair. Good-looking and fit. Jeff Malmquist by name. Anything ring a bell?”
Algernon showed her a photo of Malmquist on his watch.
“Oh, yes. Now where have I seen him before?”
Akeeshea looked at the photo. “Ain’t he the one with Delilah and that kid yesterday?”
“Yeah, that reminds me, officer. Wait a minute.” Deshondra went in back to fetch something.
“Them three was just starting into their meal. That Delilah girl she go to the bathroom to change into some kinda weird dress. But she never come back out,” said Akeeshea.
“Gone just like that. Zippo,” said Deshondra, handing Algernon a bag. “These here Delilah clothes. We searched the premises everywhere.”
“You say she was with Malmquist and a kid? What kid?”
“I forget his name. You recall his name, Akeeshea?”
She shook her head. “Nah. Seen him before with her though. Funny little bugger.”
“How old was he?”
“Couldn’t be more than ten or eleven.”
“I see. Any idea what she was doing with a young minor?”
“She herself a minor. Even if she pedo. Never thought anything too weird about it. Not like they was in some kinda relationship. They just friends. But when those two discover Delilah missing, they left together.”
“Mm hmm. I recall them saying something like she all messed up. They did seem like they smoked something and got too high for they own good. But we all confuse because no way she coulda escaped out that door without no one seeing her,” said Akeeshea.
“You been to her apartment, Officer?”
“Of course not. I didn’t know about this until you told me. What’s her full name?”
“Why would she have taken off her clothes in the ladies room?”
“She trying on that strange dress. That’s why they came here for lunch. She wanted to ask me about it. See if it was genuine or not.”
“What do you mean, ‘genuine’?”
“Don’t know what they was getting at. But in truth I ain’t never seen no dress like that before. No manufacture tag on it. Homemade like. She disappeared with it. I found her clothes on the bathroom floor. When they found out she missing, they scared and clear out fast.”
“Why would she be changing into the dress here in the restaurant rather than before she came to the restaurant?”
“Beats me. She do weird things like that. She notorious. She wanted to change in front of us but that boy Gunther stopped her. Yeah, that’s his name, Gunther. Now I remember. He made her go in the—Yes, what can I get you ma’am?” she asked the customer who had stepped in front of them.
“Wode tian,” the woman said.
“Pardon me, ma’am?”
“Who are you? Why you don’t speak Italy language?”
“Deshondra, ain’t this gal’s dress just like that thing Delilah put on when she disappeared?” said Akeeshea.
“Yeah, be must the latest fashion.”
“Where am I?” said Zhang.
“You ain’t in Italy, dear. This here is New Gary.”
“She got amnesia or something?”
“May I be of some help, lady?” said Algernon.
“This not Xinluoma? Why so poor and shabby? Oh my god, it’s true. This really magic tunic.”
“She said this tunic will make my breasts bigger.”
“Who told you that? Where?”
“I forgot her name. Di-. Di-. No, no remember her name. She Jiefu’s friend.”
“Jayfoo?” said Deshondra. “You know anyone by that name, Officer?”
“I think she need help,” said Akeeshea. “She has amnesia. Either that or she psycho.”
“Neither of you have seen her before?” Algernon asked them.
“She must be from a different part of the city.”
“Sounds to me like she escaped from Methodist.”
“I’ll contact the hospital after we get her checked out. Lady, what’s your name?”
“My name? Zhang. I am very important person. VIP. You know VIP?”
“What’s your address? Where do you live?”
“I live in Xinluoma. This not Xinluoma?”
“Where is Sheenlawma?”
“Xinluoma in China. I’m Chinese. Where I am now?”
“You’re in the US of A.”
“United States of America.”
“America? Shangdi! I don’t believe. If true, you don’t get me back to China fast, you in trouble.”
“We can work this out at the New Gary station. They can help. Let me take you there now.”
Algernon escorted her out of the cafeteria and they flew off in a police aircar.
“Why this place so poor? So ugly?” Zhang asked.
“Looks all right to me.”
“This flying car so shabby. Old model. Who are you?”
“Call me Algernon.”
“Algernon. Where you taking me? How can I trust you?”
“Do I seem like the type of gentleman you can’t trust?”
“You charming, you even more dangerous.”
After their arrival at the station, Sergeant Fink seemed at a loss. “No ID? No purse? No belongings? Nothing?”
“I told you I from China. This magic tunic. Di told me it will make my breasts bigger. But she warned me not to wear it. Too dangerous. I’m so stupid.”
“Who is Dee?”
“What you call this place?”
“Maybe she from here. She said she from ‘New’ something. She know Jiefu.”
“Let me try to get this straight. You’re from a place in China called Sheenlawma. Any data on that city, Algernon?”
“Nothing came up.”
“An American girl by the name of Dee who is a friend of a man named Jayfoo tricked you into leaving China with a magic tunic that she claimed would enlarge your breasts. Is that correct?”
“Yeah. I don’t remember Di’s name. Longer than Di.”
“Jayfoo is American too?”
“What were they doing in China? Americans never travel to China.”
“I don’t know. I surprise too. Only Italians in Xinluoma. All slaves. I make Jayfoo my slave. And I make Di my slave too but she tricked me. She in big trouble when I get back.”
“You keep slaves?”
“She’s talking sheer nonsense,” said Algernon. “She must have experienced some kind of psychological damage or trauma.”
“I have heard in fact they keep slaves there. Anyway, presuming she’s not from New Gary and is indeed from China, we need to get her out of here and let Chicago take over. The question is how did she ever wind up in New Gary?”
“How do we get her out of here? No one has ever officially been allowed out of New Gary.”
“That may only apply to US citizens. No foreign citizen has ever wound up in New Gary. And the Chinese are a special case. Chicago may want her back fast before she can cause any trouble. The military may have to make an exception. Algernon, get Leroy to process her and set her up in privacy somewhere for the time being. Make sure she’s comfortable,” said Fink. “We need to first confirm she’s not victim of a botched operation to have her nanochip secretly removed.”
As Algernon was about to leave, Inspector Melynchuk entered. “Excuse me, Fink, any more word on—Who’s this?”
“A mental case who somehow got lost. Nanochip negative. We need a few more checks to confirm she’s not local. We’re on it.”
“Any more word on the Malmquist case? The chemical analysis?”
“Results not back from the laboratory yet, sir.”
“Okay, let me know as soon as they’re in. It’s rather urgent. We’re trying to locate a woman in China who’s been controlling him or hacking his identity somehow, but I need more evidence.”
“This woman here says she’s from China. If she’s someone important, maybe she can help.”
“Yeah, I from China,” said Zhang.
“No, this has to go through official channels.”
“Oh, Inspector, I need a quick word with you about something,” said Fink.
Leroy entered. “Who dat?”
“Leroy, get her processed and set up somewhere. We’ll be in touch with you later. Make sure she’s properly treated and keep her out of the bull pen. She might not be from New Gary.”
“Ain’t the first time this happened. It’s becoming a trend.”
“Where you taking me?” said Zhang as Leroy led her out of the room.
“Inspector, Algernon informs me we may have a missing girl on our hands by the name of Delilah Power. Last seen in the Zone cafeteria.”
“You checked her residence?”
“Not yet. Need a search warrant.”
“If she doesn’t answer the door, we need to break in. No fulltime superintendents reside in those buildings. It’s resident-run and they set the rules.”
“Oh, of course, I forgot. I’ll take care of it shortly.”
Meanwhile, Zhang may have been spared a spell in the bull pen but not the sniggering of those inside it.
“Where you find that Oriental bitch, Leroy?”
“Now, you just pay them no attention,” Leroy told her. “You ever use one of these?” He handed her an AK-47.
“What’s this?” she said, shocked.
“If you fixing to crawl back to Chicago you’ll need it.”
“You ain’t even strip-search the slant-eyed ho yet and you giving her that?”
“Y’all shut up. If she from China the way she say she is, we don’t want her coming back here to cause us no trouble. You be nice to her.”
“I can’t use this,” Zhang said, handing it back to Leroy. “You protect me. I pay you good.”
“You have money?”
“You help me get back to China, I pay you good.”
“Let’s go. I’m taking you to the Zone.”
They got in Leroy’s aircar. “How you get here?”
“I don’t know. This magic tunic.”
“Magic tunic? That’s the craziest shit I ever heard. Speaking of China, this here pedo named Malmquist told me I could get a job there massaging girls in a fake Rome. You know anything about that?”
“You want massage me? Okay, you help me go back to China, I let you massage me.”
“I mean I want to go there to do massage. Oh, never mind. In fact we’re going to see him now. Maybe he can explain. I’m gonna put you up at Delilah place until I get further notice of what to do with you. He with Delilah.”
“Dilaila? She young girl, pretty? She Jiefu’s friend. This her tunic! She got me in trouble. That’s her name. Dilaila. You tell your boss that’s her name. I tried to explain to them.”
“Who is Jayfoo?”
“He my slave, older guy. He said he from Chicago.”
“Here we are. Now what you do is, see them sandbags? You go around to the building door and press the buzzer for apartment 102. Tell the person who come to the door you want to see Delilah. Maybe she come herself but usually it’s that boy Gunther.”
“I don’t understand. You show me.”
“Oh, all right. I guess you really is from China since your English ain’t too good.”
They were buzzed into the building. Gunther greeted them at Delilah’s door. “Hey, Leroy, have you seen Delilah or Malmquist?”
“No, I thought they was with you.”
“She disappeared, and then he disappeared. I’m totally freaked out. I’ve been waiting here for someone to come back. Who is this?”
“She Chinese. She need a place to stay until we find out what to do with her.”
“What’s she doing in New Gary?”
“Beats me. Get her settled in and comfortable. But don’t you let her out of your sight or I’m in trouble. Them bosses don’t know I’m using Delilah’s pad as a halfway house.”
“So how did you get here?” Gunther asked Zhang when Leroy left.
“Dilaila made me put on this magic tunic and it send me here.”
“Yeah, that’s the same dress Delilah put on back in the cafeteria which caused her to disappear! You know where she is?”
“She now in Xinluoma.”
“Where is that?”
“China. Her friend Jiefu he there too.”
“You mean Jeff? Jeff Malmquist?”
“So you’re not pedo?”
“Everyone here is pedo. Except me. I sneak in to see Delilah. We’re best friends.”
“You mean everyone criticize?”
“Pidou, that means criticize and humiliate severely.”
“You mean pedos are criticized and humiliated in China? It’s much worse here. They’re all confined to New Gary for life.”
“Why people pidou here? What they do to get in trouble?”
“They’re pedo. Pedophile. Child molester.”
“You just said pedos are criticized and humiliated in China.”
“Yeah, pidou means criticize, humiliate.”
“Oh, I got it. That’s what the word means in Chinese.”
“Yeah, pidou a Chinese word. You know Chinese?”
“I’m talking about pedophile. It’s an English word.”
“What it mean?”
“I just told you. A child molester.”
“You know, someone who molests a child. Has sex with a child.”
“Sex with child? Who does that?”
“Man, you have a lot to learn. Everyone in New Gary has been convicted of child sex.”
“Everyone? You Americans so strange. We don’t do that in China. Maybe old pervert. But very few. What’s the matter with you? You too young to be pervert.”
“I’m not. I’m from Chicago. Lot’s of people here were falsely charged. Or wrongly charged.”
“I don’t understand. This place so strange. I don’t like it. I want to go back.”
“How did you get here?”
“I told you. Dilaila give me this tunic. When I put it on I suddenly sent here.”
“Why don’t you try taking it off and putting it on again? Maybe that will work.”
“Good idea.” Zhang pulled off her tunic.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you were naked underneath. You’re just like Delilah. No shame. Hey, can you take me to China? I heard it’s a lot better than the US.”
There was a loud knock on the door.
“Who’s that?” said Zhang. Before she had the chance to put the tunic back on, the door opened.
“Shit, I forgot to lock the door,” said Gunther.
“Is this Delilah Power’s residence?” said Algernon.
“Yeah, but she disappeared,” said Gunther.
“Well, if it’s not Ms Zhang. And who may you be?”
“What are you doing in New Gary, Gunther Pollock? I don’t detect a nanochip in you.”
“I snuck in to see my friend Delilah Power,” he said.
“I need both of you to come with me now.”
Zhang was covering her front with the tunic.
“You may put that back on,” said Algernon. “Don’t worry, I’m a droid. I don’t feel embarrassment,” he winked.
Back at the police station, Zhang and Gunther were turned over to Leroy, while Fink and Algernon conferred privately with Melynchuk.
“If that isn’t the cleverest damn thing I’ve ever heard,” said Fink. “A pedophile sneaks into New Gary with a twelve-year old boy and is caught red-handed with him naked, and there’s nothing we can do.”
“That’s correct. Pedophiles cannot be convicted of pedophilia in a jurisdiction where the entire population has been convicted of pedophilia,” said Melynchuk.
“No one would ever have imagined a pedophile would dare to sneak a victim into New Gary for the purpose of committing pedophilia. It’s brilliant. Oh, and how were you able to gain access to the building?” Fink asked Algernon.
“Leroy was just leaving the building when I arrived. He let me in.”
“So between the time Leroy dropped her off and you arrived she got naked with the kid that fast? A few seconds?”
“There is a fairly long hallway to walk down. But yes. It is odd they would have gotten sexual so quickly.”
“The boy was clothed?”
“The boy was clothed.”
“And she came all the way from China to do it. The Chinese are known for being a clever bunch,” said Fink.
“What were they doing in Delilah Power’s place anyway? What was Leroy doing there? He was supposed to set the woman up in a private apartment.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask him.”
“So nothing will happen to her when she’s back in Chicago?”
“They’ll know about it, but no, there’s nothing anyone can do. Normally, foreigners who commit crimes are immediately deported, but she’s neither committed a crime nor can be deported,” said Melynchuk.
“Why not?” said Algernon.
“I suppose you wouldn’t know about that. We’re run by the Chinese. They pay our salary, which pays for your maintenance and upkeep. In fact, you were built in China.”
* * *
Forthcoming (September 2017):
The Kitchens of Canton