This is an excerpt from "Noraebang," a parallel novel to the BackTracker series. What Shrug, Chad, and Katrina do during their time with THE TRAZ, will affect their lives and relationships forever.
In The Traz, Katrina is 13. In Noraebang, she's a wife and a mother.
"Chad!" Shrug greeted with mock enthusiasm when the man opened the door to him.
"Shrug," Chad replied, not bothering to conceal his distain. From Chad's police uniform and the car keys he was juggling, Shrug surmised he was on his way to work.
"Don't let me hold you up," Shrug said, motioning for Chad to pass. "I'm here to see your wife, not you."
"About what?" Chad said, taking a firm stance to bar Shrug's entrance.
"An investment opportunity."
"Oh, no you don't, Shrug!" Chad warned with an angry quiver to his voice. "No! Have you no morals at all, for Christ's sake? You're after her money now? You've used her for all else, and now it's her money?"
Shrug raised his eyebrows.
"That you, Shrug?" he heard Katrina's voice coming down the hall.
"Hey, 'trina!" Shrug called. "Wanna ride?" It was the phrase he'd used a decade ago to invite her into the Traz biker gang with him. Shrug knew it was a phrase that riled Chad every time he heard it- mostly because Katrina had been only thirteen at the time and Chad wasn't a very forgiving man.
"Shrug!" Chad warned. "Every time you say, 'Wanna ride?' it means you're after her for something. That's stopping. Now!"
"Buddy, can I help it if the girl likes me?"
Chad lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. "You've had enough counseling, enough advice to know goddamned well why she likes you! And it's high time you quit taking advantage of her misplaced feelings for you!"
"Shrug!" Katrina greeted with a smile as she arrived at the door. She looked from Shrug to her husband. "What's the matter here?"
Shrug left it to Chad to answer and eyed up the couple in front of him. Chad's dark eyes were swirling with a fury directed straight at his face. Shrug admired the man's courage. More than once, Chad and he had come to fist-a-cuffs and Chad, being a good eight inches shorter than Shrug, had always come up the loser. However, it had never deterred the man from taking a stand against him.
Especially when it came to defending his blue-eyed bride. Katrina was fifteen years Chad's junior, had amber locks that put the sun to shame, and a feistiness that rivaled that of a cornered wildcat. Shrug figured that since the woman was less than five feet tall and hovered around one hundred pounds, she'd developed that sharp edge to survive the traumas life had thrown at her.
"He's after your money now, Katrina," Chad said, keeping his eyes on Shrug's. "Your inheritance!"
"I'll deal with it, hon," Katrina said quietly. "Don't worry." She stood on her tiptoes and gave Chad a quick peck on the cheek. "I'll see you when you get home."
"Katrina...," Chad protested, finally dropping his eyes from Shrug to look at his wife.
"I've been dealing with my millions since I was thirteen, and I've done okay with it. It'll be fine. Shrug's just twitting you; don't let him get you so riled."
"You've been dealing with Shrug since you've been thirteen, too! It's that part I'm worried about. I don't think you've done so 'okay' with that!"
"Chad!" Katrina scolded, closing her eyes. "Come on! You're going to be late for work. I'm not a kid anymore. Go! I'll be fine."
Chad brushed angrily past. Katrina and Shrug watched him get in his car and squeal away from the curb.
"Girl," Shrug said, turning to Katrina. "You've gotta do more for that man in bed. Mellow him out a bit." He watched a blush creep across her cheeks.
"Fuck off, Shrug!" she growled, marching down the hall to the kitchen.
"You still like him?" Shrug teased as he followed her in. He knew Katrina worshipped Chad, perhaps because he was one of maybe three people in the entire world who liked her. Shrug found Katrina spunky, but he knew most who met her preferred the word 'abrasive'.
Shrug also knew that he was the main reason she came up short in the social skills department. Many besides Chad were ever ready to remind him of that.
By the time Shrug took a seat at the kitchen table, his thoughts had put a damper on his humor. He was half-way into thinking Chad had very valid reasons for not welcoming him into his house, when Katrina broke into his thoughts.
"So what's really up?" she asked. "Can I get you a beer?"
"Thanks, but no. I'm on duty."
"You're here on business?" Katrina asked leerily.
"Yeah," Shrug said. He looked down at his toes, engrossed in bittersweet memories of the girl.
"For fuck's sake, Shrug!" Katrina said, hammering her fist on the table. "Quit looking at your cheap lace-up loafers and talk!"
"Chad's right about things," Shrug started. "I shouldn't be here."
"What things is he 'right' about?" Katrina muttered. "I haven't been noticing many lately."
"He's right about me usin' you. He's right about.... Do you know why you like me?"
"I haven't got a fucking clue!" Katrina answered quickly.
"I'm serious," Shrug said, laying his grey eyes on her. "Why do you like me?"
"I know what you're getting at," Katrina said with irritation. She rose, walked to the sink, and stared out the window. "And I'm fucking tired of hearing about it. Tired of hearing about my fucking 'fascination' with you."
"Katrina! I swear like the best of them, but not four times in the same sentence, girl! Find a new word, for Christ's sake!"
"I'm fucking tired about hearing about my fucking swearing all the fucking time, too, Shrug!"
"Aren't you scared Shasta's gonna hear you?"
"The kid's at playschool. I don't swear when she's around."
"How fucking considerate of you," Shrug muttered. Katrina's foray into the gang with him probably wouldn't have done her much harm-except for one cold October night in an isolated metal shed. He'd been outplayed and out-witted in a culmination of the power struggle to lead the Traz biker gang. The night had ended with a shed full of blood, Katrina's friend mutilated and dead, and the girl bent and twisted for life.
"Well?" Katrina asked, turning to face him. "What are you here for?"
"I was tryin' for a conversation, to start things off."
"Go for it," Katrina said, rejoining him at the table.
"There's a reason I was askin' about your feelin's toward me. You were thirteen, an orphan. I recruited you into the biker gang. Got you involved in all kinds of drug deals and stuff. Set you up to see your best friend slaughtered. Yet you depended on me for survival. Fell in love or fascination or whatever with me and have liked me ever since. Even though you don't have much reason to."
"That's what they say," Katrina said, her disagreement clearly showing.
"I'm thinkin' it's true, girl. You knew you needed me to survive with that bunch of hoodlums and knew you had to keep me likin' you or you'd be dead. I'm thinkin' that's pretty much what happened."
"You're a psychiatrist now, too, Shrug?"
"If it had turned out that I was in fact a biker like you thought, and not an undercover cop, would you still be likin' me? If I'd truly been evil, would that have mattered to your heart once you were free? Would you have felt compelled to keep likin' me?"
"You said you're on duty, right? Here on business?"
"You're avoidin' the questions, Katrina. Why the hell can't you answer my questions?"
"I.... I.... I can answer your questions. Don't insinuate there are reasons that I wouldn't. I..." She dropped her eyes. "I don't know, Shrug," she whispered. "I don't know the answers to your questions."
"I want to tell you about Allie," Shrug said. "First, I'm lookin' for your advice, because you've been where she's been. And then... Yeah, I'm lookin' for some money."
"No, Katrina. No," Shrug said, holding out her cheque. "I wasn't lookin' for a donation. The title would be in your name. I'd get you a long-term lease. The equity would be yours. An investment, girl. No, not this."
"Shrug, it's not breaking me. The entire two million from my parents' life insurance policies is secure. I'm only playing with the interest. It's fine. Really."
"No. I can't," Shrug said, waving the cheque at her. "You're makin' me feel bad for askin'."
"Shrug, I know you weren't expecting a donation, but I have my reasons. Considering my history with biker gangs and the fact I testified against the lot of them, having my name on the title of a safe house, doesn't make it very safe. Even though my identity is hidden under witness protection, we both know the power of the gangs. It's safer this way. Please, keep my name well away from the property."
"We could use a numbered company. There's ways we could do it."
Katrina shook her head no. "It's best this way, Shrug. You and I know that this money should be returned to the world to do some good to make up for it coming from such evil."
"I take it you're meanin' this ain't interest from Canada Saving's Bonds? More like a return on the investments you made for The Traz gang?"
"Don't play innocent," Katrina chided. "It was your investment advice I followed."
"That's the way you remember it?"
"That's the way it was, Shrug. My bucks financed the mega cocaine deals that got you into the bikers' inner circle."
"So, now I get to share the illicit rewards?" Shrug said, waving the cheque.
"Only because I decided to let you."
Shrug looked once more at the cheque in his hand. "I'm thinkin' you're gonna have to do Chad up real pretty in bed tonight. And I'm gonna have to sleep with my eyes open."
"Chad's not going to find out. No one finds out about safe houses."
"Okay, girl," Shrug said, slipping the cheque into his breast pocket. He flicked his eyes to his motorbike at the curb. "Wanna ride?"
"I'm sure glad I wasn't around before you lost your touch," Jeppard said, when Shrug handed him the cheque. Jeppard watched Shrug's back as the giant of a man strode across the room and disappeared down the hall.
"How does Shrug get away with what he does?" he called through the office divider.
"He told me once," a female voice answered, "that he has no qualms about overriding man's laws if it serves the greater universal system of justice."
"Don't those around him, above him, or below him, have qualms?"
"He has his ways," the woman replied.
"Has he ever had his way with you?"
"There's been the odd time a dozen yellow roses and a box of chocolates has appeared on my desk."
Jeppard rose and walked around his desk to face the lady. "You can be bribed with a dozen roses?"
"Thanked," she said without looking up from her paperwork. "I can be thanked with roses." Jeppard kept accusing eyes on the woman.
"He always obeys the intent of the law," she argued. "I've never heard him ask anybody to do anything that contravened the spirit of justice."
"So what was it you did for him?"
The woman laid down her pen, stood, and walked past Jeppard to the exit. "The roses," she called back, "were thanking me for my silence."
"Nice place, Allie," Katrina said, circling her eyes over the smooth maple cabinets and granite countertop. "Sort of neat to see what my fucking money bought."
"What do you mean?" Allie guessed Katrina to be under five feet tall. However, she exuded beauty. Long amber curls rippled over her shoulders like a slow moving river in a sunset. Allie was drawn to her brilliant blue eyes, dazzling almost violet against her porcelain skin.
"The bureaucracy was too fucking slow for Shrug's liking." Katrina giggled. "He 'wanted a new safe house for Allison- fuckin' now!' So, I donated the funds. Nice." She ran a stockinged toe along the vein in a marble tile before turning her bright eyes to Allie.
"Thank you, I guess," Allie answered hesitantly.
"So," Katrina said, smacking her lips. "Are you ready?"
"Shrug said you're in dire need of a manicure, so I made you an appointment. Can get you a massage, too, if you like. We could do a whole fucking afternoon of woman things. What do you say?"
"You're sure it's all right? I was told not to leave the house. Got in trouble last time I snuck out. Do you know how loud Shrug can bellow?"
"It's been approved by Kindle, himself. No worries." Katrina tapped her hip. "Got my fucking sidearm with me. You'll be safe. I'm a sharp shooter. Been firing off fucking pistols since I was six-years-old."
"Who are you?"
"I realize that. But...I mean...who the fuck are you?"
"No, you mean why the fuck am I here."
"The Sarge thinks I can make you talk about the murders because I'm a woman and because, I sort of, kind of, went through something like you did. Said I'd try, mostly because I just wanted to see the fucking house. Will you talk to me like the Sarge said?"
"No!" Allie answered quickly.
"There, I tried. Now, let's go have fun! I've been stuck at home all fucking week with the kid. I'm into some freedom!"
Allie tucked her fingers under the heat lamps to set her gel nails and looked over her shoulder at Katrina lounging in the waiting area. "Katrina, Sergeant Kindle told me that you're a friend of Shrug's."
Katrina set down her magazine. "The Sarge has a warped sense of reality."
"I take it you're not a friend of Shrug's?"
The woman scowled. "We have a history together. He's known me since I was thirteen. But I don't think our relationship qualifies as friendship. The man fucking hates me."
"Shrug hates you? I didn't think he hated anyone."
"He hates me. Calls me evil. A 'she-devil'. I don't believe in God and that drives him fucking wild."
"He hates you because you're an atheist?"
"Oh, he thinks he has lots of reasons to hate me. Says I'm 'connivin'. A bit like the pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me!"
"Are you 'connivin'?" Allie asked with a smile.
"Yeah," Katrina admitted slowly. "But I don't think that's an evil thing. I know what I want out of life and I go after it. That's all. A car crash killed my parents when I was twelve and I was left with no living relatives, forcing me to make it on my own. As an only child, I was an expert on grownups. I got along quite fine in the adult world. Shrug thinks it's bizarre I was able to do that; I must have had the devil's help. But I have an IQ of over 200. I can get what I want without any supernatural intervention."
"Sergeant Kindle said you have a personal knowledge of what it's like to grow attached to someone who has control over you." A timer beeped and Allison turned back to the manicurist. She pulled her fingers from under the lamps and held them out for the decals.
"That's all fucking bullshit!" Katrina replied. "He means Shrug, but Shrug never had control over me. I was running wild after my parents' deaths and I ended up in a biker gang with Shrug. I didn't know he was working uncover. I just thought he was a big fucking biker dude trying to take over leadership of the gang. I did stuff to help him out. He's twisted it all around in his head, thinking he was using and manipulating me. Has everyone else believing it. Then, to top it all off, my fucking psychiatrist decides I must have needed Shrug to survive in the gang. No one seems to think a thirteen-year-old girl could have run with bikers for a year and come out unscathed unless she had some big macho man protecting her. It's all bullshit!"
"But do you like Shrug? Even though he hates you?"
"Yeah. He's interesting. Do you like him, Allie?"
"I don't think I'd like him if he called me a she-devil!" Allie reached for her purse.
"No, I'll get it!" Katrina said. "My treat!" She laid some twenties on the table and motioned Allie to follow her into the mall.
"To be honest, my feelings for Shrug are somewhat suspect," Katrina admitted. She stopped walking and stared at a fashion mannequin in a shop window. She tilted her head. "He was there for me when I had no one else. He did do a lot for me, dried a lot of tears. Rocked me to sleep when I had nightmares after the murder...."
She wrapped her hand around her chin. "I wish I was taller. I so want to wear short dresses, but they make me look like a kid. I need long, flowing lines-and very high heels!"
"The murder?" Allie asked.
"Yeah. Saw my friend fucking slaughtered. Wasn't pleasant."
"It wasn't Shrug's fault, but he blames himself." Katrina drew her eyes from the window. "When he came to my place to ask for money to buy the safe house he asked me why I still liked him, despite not having any good reasons to."
"What did you say?"
"Told him I didn't know. Then he asked if he'd been a real biker and not a cop, would I still have kept liking him."
"And you said...?" Katrina abruptly took up stride and Allie scurried to catch up.
"How the fuck would I know? It was a stupid fucking question! He probably asked it just to get my money! The massage is right here." Katrina opened a door and waved Allie in ahead of her. "I booked us both a session. Side by each so we can talk."
"I said I wasn't going to talk," Allie protested. The receptions nodded to Katrina and pointed to two beds. Allie set down her purse and closed the drapes.
"You're pretty good at keeping your word," Katrina laughed from behind the curtain. "I'm the one doing the fucking talking! I've always been chatty. Shrug says that's what he liked about me in the gang. He could carry on an hour-long conversations with me without having to say a fucking word! That man says little. Listens lots."
Allie stripped to her underwear and crawled, belly-down, under the cool cotton sheet. It had been a long time, a lifetime, since she'd been pampered. She remembered the heat of Korea. The damp sheets, the narrow hotel beds, Carbon beside her.
She inhaled, drinking in the clean smell of fresh linens and lotion. Carbon had often smelled of beer, always of cigarettes.
"Which kind of massage would you like?" a soft female voice asked.
"Deep," Allie answered. "Very deep." The woman set a heavy warm towel across the small of her back and gently rolled the sheet from her legs.
South Korea was painted blue and green in her mind. Oceans and dark mountains. Painfully spicy food, sweet coffee-thick with cream. The pervasive odour of seafood.... White rocks. Allie flashed her eyes open. "Katrina, this is good. Thank you."
"Are you happy with your nails?" Katrina asked.
"I'm glad I went with the pearl finish like you suggested. It looks very rich."
Dark shadows, splashes of red, deep green. Screams-
"Katrina! What are we going to do after this?"
"What do you want to do?"
White rocks.... "Do you know much about computers?" Allie hastily asked. "I'm stuck in that house all day with nothing to do. I thought maybe having a computer. You can play games on it and stuff, right?"
On the floor at Carbon's feet, her cheek stinging. Purple marks on her thighs, red rings on her wrists from the ties, his feet inches from her face. The Busan aquarium and making love to him in the ocean....
"Allie, I know more about computers than anyone in the world! And that's not a fucking lie! When I worked for Kindle, I solved computer crimes."
"Could we maybe buy me a laptop?" Allie asked.
With Carbon in the noraebang- the Singing Room. A wall of window overlooking the sea. A fleet of small fishing boats in the West Bada, silhouetted against a setting sun, making their way to shore. She'd arranged for the private Karaoke session-her hint that there were ways around port security. Her hint that she was on his side. 'Don't bribe with American dollars, Carbon. The strongest currency here is a western education for the children'.
The microphone in her hand, words rolling up the monitor. Soft music playing. Her voice- strong, mellow, sultry. 'I don't know how to love him....'
Carbon leaning back, a cigarette in one hand, appreciative eyes fixed on her....
'Should I scream and shout? Should I speak of love? Let my feelings out....'
"No need to buy a computer, Allie. I have one I don't use anymore. I'll give it to you. Show you how to use the fucking thing."
"Would I be able to go online with it?"
Carbon's deep dark eyes. 'Let me show you how to make love during your time of the month....' His tender touch, tantalizing, teasing. Lips and fingers....
"Sure, I'll set it up for you," Katrina replied. "What do you want to do online?"
"I don't know. My doctor mentioned there are chat rooms or something? For victims of violence? Does that make sense to you?"
That night Carbon talked. The tears, the pain. His wounded soul, open to her....
"I'm sure there are," Katrina said.
"Katrina, can other people tell what you're doing online? I mean, if I wanted to talk about personal stuff, would everybody in the whole world be able to read it?"
"You know what it is Shrug's after me to talk about?"
"Yeah. Some fucking murders."
"Do you think I should talk? Shrug says it's not up to me to pass judgment. Just share what I know. The killer gets to defend against the evidence and the judge or the jury will decide on the guilt."
"I had to testify about my friend's murder," Katrina said. "I was an eye witness. I didn't want to talk about it. I had decided it hadn't happened. It was just a bad dream or something. I was scared talking about it would make it real."
"What convinced you to talk?"
"Chad came down hard on me. He was one of the investigating officers, now he's my husband. He said, with or without words, the murder was real. 'There was real fucking blood all over the real fucking place, Katrina! I can show you the crime scene photos!' Actually, it felt good when I finally talked. Putting words to the violent images that were haunting me, made the memories easier to deal with. It was good for me, Allie. Felt real good."
"It's different for me, though. I wasn't a witness. I don't have any memories. I'll just get someone in a hell of a lot of trouble. Someone who loved me enough to confide in me."
"It's up to you. Totally. But I sure as fuck wouldn't let someone who murdered a bunch of people ruin the rest of my life. And if you don't talk, you'll be facing obstruction charges. Don't ever think Shrug won't carry out his threats. He will. He gave me a licking once. Pulled down my jeans in front of the whole gang and laid me over his knee.... I can't believe to this day, he actually did that. I was thirteen, for fuck's sake! Idiot!"
Hands that had caressed her. Hands that had hit her. Hands that had killed. Hands that had buried.... Allie felt the cool of the sheet wrap around her legs and then the brush of air across her shoulders. Thick, strong fingers began kneading her neck.
"Allie, if this guy really loves you, he wouldn't want you to get in trouble because of him. He'd want to take responsibility for what he did and leave you out of it. At least, that's how I'd define love."
The masseuse hit a tender spot below her shoulder blades, stayed there, and circled. Allie moaned. "I wish I could talk to Carbon. See if that's how he feels, and if he doesn't, why not."
"Chad would do anything for me! He loves me so much! Despite everything bad I've done, he sees the good in me. He encourages me. He believes in me. God, Allie, I love that fucking man to bits!"