"Roxy Richter?" The speaker was a small Indian woman in a miniskirt and boots. She had a pleasant, neutral smile and eyes of steel.
"Yeah, that's me." Roxy turned around in her seat to smirk up at her. No need to let some PI act all tough around her – she was Roxy Richter, fine artist and even finer swordswoman.
She sat down opposite Roxy without offering a handshake. "I'm Kalinda. I wanted to talk to you as soon as possible. Thanks for agreeing to this meeting."
"Because I can give you information about Ramona Flowers. Sure. So, she's got your law firm to represent her. What did she do this time?"
Kalinda took out a tiny notebook. "You used to date Ms Flowers? In New York?"
"Yeah, Ramona and I were roomies, and it just went from there. Until she decided that she wasn't bisexual after all and went back to the Land of Dick."
Kalinda raised an eyebrow. "You do know what 'bisexual' means?"
"Yeah, and I also know what Lesbian Until Graduation means. Also, she didn't have to be such a bitch about it."
"But then you met up with her later, in Toronto."
Roxy sighed and slurped up the remnants of her bubble tea. "You wanna buy me a drink? Talking about Ramona makes my tongue swell up. Maybe I'm allergic."
"You wouldn't be the only one," Kalinda muttered and went over to the counter to order.
Roxy kicked back in her seat and reminded herself to stay calm. She'd done nothing wrong. This Kalinda wasn't even a cop, but she sure had the Guilty Eye trick going, and it made Roxy want to confess everything. Trust Ramona Flowers to make herself the centre of attention even when she wasn't here, and trust Roxy to end up in the same city as her, yet again. Chicago sucked. And how the hell had that douchebag Pilgrim managed to get a law firm like Lockhart and Gardner to represent her? Roxy made a face and spat into her empty glass. Things always worked out for floppy-haired white boys like him.
Kalinda returned with a soy chai latte for Roxy and coffee for herself. "Nice spitting. You said you had information about the assault Ms Flowers is accused of committing?"
"Yeah, well, the thing is, I don't think it's assault. As such."
"She ran a guy down while on rollerblades, throwing him into a pile of garbage. Now he's suing her for…well, originally he wanted 'infinity dollars and endless lives' but his lawyers have talked him down to a more likely hundred thousand dollars. Thing is, there were a dozen eye witnesses, and I'd be really interested to hear why this isn't assault. I'm sure our client would be, too."
Roxy leaned forward, pushing her chai latte aside, staring into Kalinda's beautiful, cold eyes. "Have you ever thought you were the hero but actually you were the villain?"
Kalinda nodded slowly, and the corner of her lip curled. "Oh yes. More than once."
"Yeah, me too. Everyone thinks they're the hero – well, almost everyone." Roxy thought about Gideon and his stupid League. Man, that had been a bad idea.
Kalinda leaned forward slightly. "There's always someone who wants to be the big boss on the last level, though."
"Yeah, that's popular. Anyway, this one time in Toronto, I was the boss on Level 5."
"And Ms Flowers was the hero?"
Roxy laughed bitterly. "OMG, no. She was the Princess. But one of those annoying ones who jumps in and fights you anyway."
Kalinda had obviously had a run-in like that before: – her steely glare had changed to a cool but not hostile look. "I know the sort. Doesn't want to wait in some figurative castle. Still, it changes the balance a bit."
"Yeah, and get this: – she's so incredibly special that it never even rebounded on her. She and her boyfriend, ugh, won the game." Roxy stirred four sugars into her chai, sloshing it as she stirred angrily.
Kalinda sipped her coffee. "So he killed you and you lost all your levels? How annoying."
"Yep. Sliced in half with a magic sword. And then I was back at Level 1 and my art show flopped." Roxy drank some of her chai. Not bad, for Chicago.
"That's bad timing, risking a loss while you've got something important going on. It's not like high school, where you can pick up levels anywhere."
Roxy grimaced. "I got this offer to exhibit in Toronto, and Gideon Graves – the big boss at the end of that game – he helped me pay to transport my stuff to the exhibition. The one condition was that I had to take on Pilgrim while I was there. Bad deal, it turned out."
"So what does this have to do with the man Ms Flowers knocked down? We couldn't see any connection between her and the plaintiff. Is she in another game? Already?" Kalinda was still making tiny illegible scribbles in her notebook.
"Some people just can't resist. Personally, I'm building up levels again before I start even thinking about some dumb quest."
"I try to avoid quests and fights myself, but my line of work makes it tricky."
Roxy slurped up the last of her chai. "Yeah, I guess it would. Anyway, from what I heard, it's not her game. It's Pilgrim's friend Wallace Wells'. All his ex-boyfriends decided to move in together in some big polyamorous man-love apartment and didn't invite Wallace. Obviously, Wallace had to swear revenge until they give him back his special margarita blender, so it's game on. He's tapped in Pilgrim and Ramona to help him. I'm guessing the guy she hit is one of Wallace's many new enemies. I bet he'll know Wallace Wells, if you ask him."
"Well, that would explain that issue, then. I'll track down Mr Wells and have him clear things up. Ms Flowers seems to think it's all some state secret, and the rest of her friends are surprisingly reticent."
Roxy scowled. "Oh, she's very loyal when she's loyal. Then bam! Dumped!"
"Kalinda Sharma!" The door to the café swung open and hit the opposite wall with a tremendous thud.
Kalinda rolled her eyes just a fraction. "What do you want, Blake? I'm working here."
The man in the doorway – a big white guy with a mean, pouty face – shoved a pair of sunglasses onto his face. "I'm not letting you get away with it any more. I challenge you, Mortal Kombat style."
"Woah," Roxy gasped. Hardly anyone went for the one-on-one anymore: – it was dangerous to get caught in an arena with your opponent and not be able to escape and regroup.
Kalinda leaned back in her chair, utterly casual. "I dunno. I'm more of a first-person-shooter kind of girl."
Roxy butted in. "But he challenged you! You can't just let him do that!"
"Yeah!" Blake added from the doorway. Other customers had grabbed their netbooks and messenger bags and beverages and shoved their tables to the edges of the café. "You started it, Kalinda."
Kalinda was on her feet before Roxy saw her move, and Roxy was a half-ninja with amazing powers of perception (-10 when it came to girlfriends).
"Okay, then. I suppose I'd better finish it." She extracted a baseball bat from her bag and strode into the cleared centre of the room.
Roxy followed her. "You want backup?"
Kalinda grinned ferociously, and Roxy knew who she'd put her money on. "Sure! I can see Blake's brought all his friends with him."
Blake, standing alone in the doorway, scowled so hard his eyes nearly vanished. "I said Mortal Kombat. You know how that works: one-on-one."
Kalinda laughed heartily. "Get with the times, Blake. It's multiplayer now."
Blake produced a huge black Maglite torch from his pocket. "Game on."
He leapt across the room, torch held close to his body, and then suddenly flicked it on, the intense light shining in Kalinda's face.
She was ready for it, though, and, eyes closed, dropped to the ground and swung her baseball bat in a wide arc, forcing him to jump back. Roxy didn't have her sword to hand, not having an interdimensional pocket or bag, but quickly flicked some of the sharp studs on one of her belts straight at Blake. They peppered his arm and his life meter appeared above his head, but it was only slightly diminished. As he turned to face Roxy, Kalinda rolled forward and kicked Blake in the knees with both feet, sending him flying into a wall.
"Ooooh!" The eager crowd held onto their coffees and winced for him.
Instead of slamming into the plaster and leaving a Blake-shaped hole, he bounced off the wall, up onto the ceiling, and down again, grabbing Kalinda's ponytail as she dodged him. He swung her in a wide arc as she tried to hang onto her bat, gathered some speed and let go, throwing her up into the skylight. She went straight up through it , scattering glass that turned into coins as it hit the floor and rolled around.
POWER THROW BONUS!
The bystanders scuffled for the coins, impeding Roxy's leap towards Blake, and he managed to catch her in his suit jacket, wrapping it firmly around her.
"Damn!" Roxy yelled. She'd have to wait out a whole turn now.
Blake brushed off his hands. What he didn't see – but Roxy could – was Kalinda plummeting back through the skylight feet first, her grin wild and exhilarated. She landed on his chest, then ran right up and over his head, kicking so fast that it was a blur.
48, 49, 50 KICK BONUS!
Coins spilled from his pockets and rolled everywhere, but Kalinda wasn't finished with him. She followed up her kicks with a quick pummelling of his kidneys, then chest and stomach when he turned to try to fend her off.
48, 49, 50, PUNCH BONUS!
Blake fell like a toppled tree and coins rained down, gold this time. Kalinda stood over him and prepared her finishing move as Roxy finally broke free of the entanglement and raced over to stand by her. Kalinda's leather skirt was rucked up and her face gleaming with sweat, but her boots were pristine. No wonder she'd drained his life so fast with those kicks – Kalinda had Power Boots!
Blake cursed, then reached out with one hand and pulled a glowing disk from his pocket.
"Too late, Kalinda! MENTOR TOKEN ACTIVATE!" The disk glowed bright green and Blake's life bar started going up again.
To Roxy's astonishment, Kalinda put her foot on his chest and snatched the mentor token from his hand. "Bond gave you that? Well, it's mine now! ACTIVATE!"
The remaining life energy drained from Blake's bar and went straight into Kalinda's. It took only moments until Kalinda's life bar was beyond full and she was shining gold beams from her eyes. Blake lay on the floor, his head floppy.
"FINISH HIM!" yelled the crowd.
Kalinda raised her foot, and then paused.
"Finish him!" yelled Roxy.
Kalinda looked down at Blake and curled her lip. "You know what? I'm not going to finish you. I don't need to take everything. I'm just going to take back those levels you stole from me." She plunged her hand into his chest and the levels siphoned straight up her arm in glowing rings. Kalinda straightened her jacket and stepped away from Blake. "Have fun getting those back without me."
She turned to Roxy. "Thanks for the help."
"You want to get a drink some time?" Roxy grinned broadly. This woman was no half-ninja but wow, she was smoking hot.
Scooping a handful of coins from the floor, Roxy shoved them in her pocket. Kalinda did not look like a cheap date, not at all. She looked like the hero of her own game.