Black Karma

By: Thatcher Robinson

Chapter 1

“I need friends,” Bai declared.

The knife flicked into the air to arc gracefully before falling into her outstretched palm. She tossed the blade again—a slow, repetitive ritual, like a silent chant.

Exhaust fumes, along with the scent of five-spice, wafted through the open window. On Grant Avenue below, horns blared as traffic came to a standstill. Voices clamored for attention over the bustling din.

“You have friends,” Lee replied. Tall, lean, and muscular, he wore tan slacks and a blue cashmere sweater. His long torso reclined on a red leather couch as he read a magazine. Looking up, he added, “You have me.”

“Friends—as in plural, meaning more than one,” she said. “I lack the ability to make friends. There’s definitely something wrong with me.”

He put down his scientific journal and turned to look at her. “You dress like an undertaker. You’re surly, impatient, and sarcastic. You scare people.”

She leaned back in her chair to reflect. “Are you sure you’re my friend? Don’t you want to mention any of my good qualities?”

“Friends tell you the ugly truth whether you want to hear it or not.”

“If that were true, my bathroom scale would be my best friend.”

An alarm buzzed in the adjoining lobby to let them know someone had entered their offices. Lee stood to confirm the identity of their caller while Bai slipped her knife into the sheath sewn into the sleeve of her black leather jacket. When the door opened again, Inspector Kelly of the San Francisco City Police Department stood in the entry.

Grizzled, fat, and over fifty, Kelly nearly filled the doorway. Eyes hollowed by dark rings stared blurrily from a pale, round face. A veined nose bearing a striking resemblance to a baby squash dominated his features. In one hand, Kelly held a four-pack of coffee; in the other, a grease-stained paper bag. He spoke in a graveled voice. “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Nothing important,” she said. “I was just being insulted.”

He walked across the room to place the tray of coffees and the bag on her desk. Picking up one of the large paper cups, he said, “Have a doughnut and get over it.”

What might have once been a tan raincoat covered his bulky frame while rumpled tweed pants with high-water cuffs exposed white socks tucked into a pair of scuffed brogues big enough to require parking permits. Without further fanfare, he walked around her desk to plop down on the couch with a thump. A shudder ran through the floorboards as leather cushions screeched in protest.

Lee closed the door to the lobby to lean with his back against the frame and silently observe.

“Make yourself at home,” Bai belatedly suggested as she uncapped a coffee and rummaged in the bag to find a chocolate-glazed sinker. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”

“This is just a friendly visit.”

Kelly pulled a pint of Jameson’s from inside his coat. Trembling fingers twisted off the cap while a fat, splotchy tongue slid over his lips. His eyes fastened greedily on the bottle as he poured a healthy shot into his coffee.

Bai watched him with a wary expression. “A friendly visit suggests we’re friends. I was just telling Lee I have way too many friends.”

San Francisco’s finest didn’t make a habit of policing Chinatown. Black-and-whites cruised the streets should a perpetrator get a sudden, inexplicable urge to surrender. But, for the most part, they left the Chinese community alone. The arrangement seemed to work well for everyone, which left Bai to wonder what the inspector wanted.

He ignored her remark and held out the bottle. “Care for a taste?”

“I’m good,” she replied, waving him off with a doughnut.

The inspector shook the bottle at Lee, who declined the offer with a curt shake of his head.

Kelly put the pint carefully back inside his coat before taking a sip. “Ahh . . .” A smile spread across his face. “Nothing like a little Irish to start your day.”

Her brows lifted. “I can only assume you’re referring to the whiskey.”

His eyes narrowed as his face squeezed into a jaundiced grin. “Either one would put a smile on your face.”

She frowned. “It’s really sad when you can’t tell the difference between a smile and a grimace.”

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