Alma hopped off the subway and sucked in the city air. Gaseous, slightly grimy, cigarettes-and-alcohol, and completely real. It wasn’t some fake pastoral purified scent everybody seemed obsessed with in the country. New York smelled like what air was supposed to be.
She had run away, she had run away, she really did it!
Alma allowed herself one small smile. She didn’t like to get too cocky too quickly, because that was what Abigail did, and look who was still at the Lindenhuis house. Abigail wasn’t very smart, Alma realized pretty early on. Abigail had a huge imagination and an unreserved audience, the insuppressible desire for power over any little thing she could think of, the most elaborate, convoluted, unnecessary ways of doing anything ever, and, worst of all, an actually terrifying demeanor, but she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Alma wasn’t willing to screw herself into that spot—she preferred to hide right behind it, cowering in another’s light—so it remained empty, with Abigail pretending to drive the boat but the two of them relying on the gusts of stupid authorities and gullible forensic workers.
Alma figured she could surpass Abigail with sufficient time, resources, and privilege. Abigail never told Alma that she was privileged, but both of them could see it: Abigail was Caucasian, older, college-educated, and from wealthy parents who could fund her escapades if push were to shove. Abigail still went and funded them herself, and she did a pretty great job of it, but Alma couldn’t just knock on the Hartfords’ door and ask for dinner. She couldn’t even afford a ticket all the way to California—she had to do a bit of thieving to get as far as the subway back to the City. Abigail could just...pay. Pay upfront. Paying upfront was one of the Martìnez family dreams, but companies weren’t particularly fond of paying immigrants upfront.
Even non-racists were surprised when Alma could speak perfect English with an American accent. They forgot that Alma was just a baby when her parents had fled Mexico.
“There was nothing wrong with Mexico,” they would tell her, “just the village we came from.” Alma knew they just wanted to let their daughter have some pride in her birthplace. There was probably a ton wrong with Mexico, not that she had ever been. The Martìnez parents didn’t want to move around too much because then they would be discovered and deported—which Abigail, once she had learned about it, never failed to remind Alma of.
That was probably the only thing Abigail had ever truly “detected,” and Alma honestly still wasn't sure how she had figured it out. The rest Abigail just made up as she went along.
After a bit, Alma realized that she didn’t actually know where she was walking. She knew the layout of the city, obviously, every emerald tree and silver elevator and golden lamp, she knew the addresses of every big building and small bench and where the roads dipped and bent and pooled with puddles, and she knew how to get to all of those places, but where she wanted to go was the question. There were many paths she could take. She could go back to the Martìnez house, but that was obvious, or Abigail’s house, no, that was even more obvious, or she could camp out in a park.
Wait. Alma couldn’t live in a park her whole life. The only way she could live peacefully would be with Abigail’s demise, and the only way to demise Abigail would be by getting her locked up for good, and that could only be accomplished through the proper authorities. Alma turned to the nearest police station, standing tall and solid, easily four stories high, like a fortress in war.
“Hey! Hey, Alma!” A gruff voice called Alma from behind the cracked bricks of the station. Alma pointed at herself and a man’s head slowly inched out into the daylight, nodding.
Alma followed the head into an alley. She was barely afraid of alleys, what with all her business being conducted there, and instead viewed them as unkempt, unpaved sidewalks. This alley, though, barely constituted an alley. It was just shy of twenty paces across: a dark street, if anything else.
The man whipped a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on, concealing blue eyes that Alma had already had ample time to inspect. He crossed his arms, his puffy marshmallow-jacket crinkling, and leaned in close to Alma’s nose.
“I’ve been watching you,” he declared, followed by heavy breathing.
“Pervert,” Alma responded.
“No.” The man shook his hands. “Not like that. What I meant is that my organization has been watching you.”
Oh, no, an organization? Alma hated organizations. They always led back to the CIA or FBI or something silly with dangerous power.
“That’s going to be a no from me-“ Alma began, but before she could hurry off, the man grabbed her forearm.
“We’ve seen you, Alma,” he hissed. “And we’ve seen your murders.”
“And you’re going to ask me to murder your enemies in the same fashion.” The twisted, dark, scary part of Alma that she tried to keep suppressed was pleased. It had been waiting for the day that praises of Alma’s tactical actions got around. But the larger, rational part of her was massively concerned. “Listen, I’ve already got a binding contract-“
“We won’t tell anybody.” Just like Abigail, the man’s voice dropped by decibels as the tension of the situation increased. Somewhere in the distance, a siren ominously sounded. That sure was convenient.
“You’re blackmailing me?” Alma wished she hadn’t had quite so much experience in the field.
Alma shrugged, mostly to buy herself some time. The very last thing she wanted was to get roped up in yet another person’s schemes. But then again, she had learned from Abigail, and this man could be the key out of her abusive situation.
Alma stuck out her left hand, the right grasping her knife. Somewhere she had read that hand-shakes came from knights proving they weren’t going to whip out their swords. That wasn’t too far off. “I’ll join you, but I need to negotiate some conditions.”
The man snapped, ignoring either hand. “Wonderful! I’ll just take you to my boss and we’ll get the details arranged.”
Somehow, Alma was not kidnapped. She was legitimately surprised that not once was she tied up, or drugged, or poisoned. When the man took her to a local QuickShop grocery store—underfunded judging by the twelve customers for every cashier and the copious drips of sticky grape juice caked onto the tiles, each one foot across, and one emergency-exit to the left and another to the right, not including the main door—he let her follow him through the aisles and to the back staff-warehouse by walking on her own two legs, up the stairs clutching the bannister with her own right hand, and to some sort of an administrative office by the sight of her own eyes.
Alma’s scary part thought that running away would be a lot less…corporate.
“Marsha?” the man knocked at the door. “Marsha, I’ve got your assistant!”
What? Alma had never confirmed to that. Still, Abigail had taught her lots, and she smiled pleasantly as a middle-aged woman, a few inches taller then Alma, with whitening hair and long, magenta fingernails, answered the door.
“Hello?” She sounded like one of those automatic answering-machines personified.
“Hello,” Alma stated, staring up at the woman’s—Marsha’s, probably—eyes. Green. Interesting. Alma had to nip the thought that all green-eyed people were jealous.
Who had even told her that? Abigail, probably.
Abigail also taught her to remain firm and, if it was called for, sarcastic. That would probably be applicable as they were sorting out contract details.
Marsha invited Alma into her office. There was, as offices have, a fake-wood desk, hollow, judging by how flimsy it looked, two used, black spinney-chairs fraying on the edges of the seats, one window with the blinds shut for some-odd reason, and only one door. Pity. Marsha told Alma to sit.
“You’re the little murderer.”
Alma supposed that would be her introduction. “You could say that, yes.” But she was technically old enough to be an organ donor and nearly old enough to drink alcohol in certain parts of Europe, so not entirely little either.
“And you’re wondering why you’re here.” The woman sat down in a chair behind the desk and leaned across it, nearly knocking over a mug of pens.
“Is that a question?”
“Is something bothering you?”
Now Marsha wanted to play therapist?
Alma shook her head. “Absolutely nothing. You?”
Marsha sighed and mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “This is why I don’t deal with children.” Stray sunlight streamed through the cracks of the window-blinds. She rubbed her forehead a few times. “I want you to help my organization.”
Alma didn’t want to provoke Marsha any further out of fear for losing her one job opportunity and instead hoped her silence would prompt Marsha to explain what organization this was exactly.
“Wayward Criminals Anonymous,” Marsha summarized.
“You’re giving me…armchair psychology?” Would it cost much? The Martìnez family didn’t really have insurance.
“No. I’m trying to trap your boss.”
Both Alma and Marsha knew said boss was Abigail, but saying her name seemed almost taboo, as if saying it would conjure her spirit right then and there.
“Yes.” Marsha nodded. “She’s a wayward criminal.”
And Alma was not. That made sense.
“And because she’s a narcissist, she won’t listen to just one doctor.” Marsha straightened her back. “She needs the power of our organization rehabilitating her.”
“So you’re putting her in jail?”
“Basically.” Marsha stood up. “Will you help us?”
“I would be much more inclined to help you if you could explain what, exactly, I am supposed to do.”
“I understand that you’re nervous.” Marsha put one hand reassuringly on Alma’s shoulder, which only made Alma flinch.
"I'm really just confused."
“This is probably a hard proposition to take.”
Was she even listening?
“And you would hate to betray your boss.”
Alma decided that she might as well play along. “Yeah, it would be real difficult. Considering that I’m a murderer. Who murders people. For a living. I totally have attachment issues.”
Marsha did not pick up on the sarcasm. “Emotions are complicated for you.”
What was she on about? Alma clenched her jaw. Marsha and her fake-therapy could get lost in a marsh. There were a ton in Florida. As for Alma, she could go back to her house and find a new identity, and…avoid Abigail, she figured. That would probably be the entirety of her life.
Alma sometimes wished she could be like Abigail and run head-first into any situation with no qualms or regrets. Abigail had hired Alma for her low-EQ and Alma had lied about said low-EQ. Honestly, it was a stupid decision on Abigail’s behalf, giving her potential assistants a Myers-Briggs style test. For such a great liar, she certainly forgot that it was super easy to lie on a Scantron; besides, no sane person would fill out the truth.
That, unfortunately, rendered Alma with an average-EQ and a boss who thought she suffered no inner turmoil at death upon death. The first was brutal, Alma would admit. She threw up and cried. Then she threw up and cried a bit less with the second, then the third, until by the first she could almost hold it together and by the tenth she just had to periodically look away and give her eyes a break to function as if nothing had happened.
“Sure,” Alma said. She hadn’t really been listening to Marsha. “That works. I just want you to not make me actively murder.”
Marsha laughed and it sounded like somebody had knocked over a pile of plates onto the kitchen tiles. “Of course you won’t murder! You’ll just need to frame.”
Like a photograph. “That will be easy. You want me to lure Abigail into a trap?”
Marsha sucked her breath in. “That would be intriguing.”
“It sure would.” What intrigued Abigail? A case, certainly, but a solved one. A solved one with nobody else on it. That meant it was normally very small cases, which Abigail just so happened to hate. So a big, private case Abigail could be the first to publish, ideally intricate, complicated, making Abigail glow like the most brilliant lightbulb…that would work. That would be fun.
Alma jumped up and clapped her hands. “I have an idea. I’m going to find Abigail and convince her of a plausible story that the cases were all connected.” Marsha raised her left eyebrow. “Then I’m going to let her believe that they were all related to your organization.” Marsha raised the right. “Then I’m going to encourage her to publish this fabrication and she’ll look terrible in front of everybody, and you’ll be able to imprison her.” And I’ll be free, Alma finished. Finally free, and potentially the winner of a lawsuit, if they could really escalate it. But that was just wishful thinking.
“And you’re sure that it will work?” Marsha squinted, the sunlight hitting her eyes in the perfectly wrong way.
“Of course.” Alma kindly stepped over so that Marsha no longer had to look into the sun. “Abigail’s ridiculously easy to trap.”