In an alternative time, Christianity never existed. Rome never fell. Its empire flooded over Asia, to the Southeast’s furthest outpost, Nayara, a skyscraper city built across the Sudirman Mountain Range. In this reality, the legendary Chinese-Hawaiian detective, Chang Apana, exists as a private detective, Pyande Apana. He is not of the empire, but a Whisp, one of the region’s last primitive cultures. The Whisp’s struggle for survival has lasted centuries, and continues even upon the top floors of Nayara’s glossy towers.
The neon lights of the Porsé shopping mall faded in sparse clouds of pollution as the high-speed escalator sped Pyande beyond the 110th floor. Generations ago, the rapid development skywards for bigger and better views backfired when the sun’s glare overpowered wealthy Nayaran residents and the smoke from the lower city industrial parks aggregated into a constant haze, creating a mash of sizzling heat and toxic gas, trapping its new residents in a canopy of smoke and fire. Once the richest sector of Nayara, the top floors were abandoned when the ladies’ potted plants went molting, and their kitsch robotic dogs began falling from the towers, blown off by the harsh high-altitude wind. Entire shopping malls were made into do-it-yourself tenements. Now, Nayarans called the top floors “The Hole,” a district scorched with abusive sunlight, a place of abandoned malls inhabited by Whisp refugees who claimed a spiritual connection to the nearby Aotosa mountain, which stood on the horizon like a lizard’s jagged dorsal fins.
The clotted mix of sulfur dioxide and methane was familiar to Pyande Apana, the Whisp detective, for he knew the Hole inside and out. He was raised in one of the Hole’s abandoned malls where his uncle’s family lived in S-63, an old optical lens shop. The air-conditioning in the mall became a sanctuary for the Hole’s residents once the apartment landlords began to flee, and Pyande could handle himself there. He had followed the trail of a kidnapped young Nayaran girl named Pacila, who was last seen at the Porsé mall. Naturally, the Nayaran detectives would never venture past the 110th floor. The Hole was Pyande’s specialty.
He stepped through a dank public corridor, marked with unfinished graffiti and spots of dried urine, and into the old Waipa mall, its stores now converted into informal one-bedroom homes, its long hallways now markets with stray cats and a basketball court. Pyande opened his jacket so residents could see his steel bullwhip as he merged with a crowd of Whisps dressed in red and yellow jackets to protect them from the mall’s sometimes harsh air-conditioning, which came in random bursts as it was siphoned from the lower floor’s malls and residencies.
Pyande sent three quick knocks onto the arch of an old perfume shop covered in a white daisy curtain, and beneath that, a steel electrified gate.
“Guarda mear,” said a voice. As soon as the curtain opened Pyande thrust his bullwhip between the iron bars, lassoed the man inside, and then tugged him like a struggling fish until he was inches away from the electrified gate. Two Whisp women carrying shopping bags full of arikya buns stood nearby to watch.
“Holo, Ley Aipar,” Pyande said, tugging the bullwhip. “Some questions for you, if you’re comfortable.”
The man, Ley Aipar, stood behind the gate, struggling to keep himself balanced. He was a small, fat and gruff man, with a body covered in black leather. A set of binoculars hung from his neck, and a hat full of button pins was placed above his circular glasses. “Act o’ iquiry” said one button-pin. Meaning, only shit resides.
“Appa!” cried the voice of a young girl inside. A tired-faced Whisp girl came tugging her father’s leg. Unlike her father, she was dressed in Whisp traditional wear, with a knitted grey and white squared cloth wrapped around her chest and a yellow scarf tied around her ears. Pyande gazed into the girl’s fearful eyes and immediately retracted the whip. “My apologies, Ley Aipar. A mere gesture, of course.”
“Show muscle before face,” Aipar said, quoting Whisp wisdom.
“Coya, coya.” Pyande fastened the whip in his buckle.
Aipar deactivated the electric gate, but did not open it. “I hear about ‘nother Loufe workshop. Maybe two weeks ago. Knew I would see you soon. Relocation, aya? Otherwise the Nayaran police will come.”
“Not here representing Loufe this time,” Pyande said. “Know anything about a girl, about your daughter’s age, abducted in the Porsé mall?”
Ley Aipar stroked his daughter’s yellow shawl, while she continued to stare at Pyande. “Know nothing. But A&F goons came to my gate, telling me to sell again. I blast them with my new perfume, ‘red pepper delight.’”
“A&F?” Pyande said. The last time Pyande was in the Hole, the gang was still small time, smuggling the hallucinogenic drug kear from the provinces, and selling only to other Whisps. But with the Eastern wars, supplies of kear had dwindled. “The A&F, branch into sex slavery?” Pyande said. “Not a chance.”
“Branch?” Ley Aipar said with a gruff laugh. “It is their modus operandi. You don’t see it in the safety of the lower floors. They only abduct Whisp girls, not Nayaran girls. But look at that.” He pointed to a half-ripped poster beside the door showing a young girl’s face. Looking at it, Pyande’s eye caught a long row of them, some nailed into the side of the faded white wall. Each with a different girl, and large bold letters below.
“So what does that prove?” Pyande said.
Aipar tucked on his dark goggles, and used the binocular system to read the posters. “What does it prove? Look — they are kidnapped, Apana,” Ley Aipar said. “By Musa, I forgot you never learned to read.”
“I grew up here.”
“And remembering that now. Listen, you can help us. You are from us. It has been happening for months now. Every week, another girl is taken. I fear for my own daughter, Mivai.”
“They’re getting desperate,” Pyande said. “They overreached into the Porsé. Took a Nayaran girl. I’m only here to save her.”
“A Nayaran girl?” Ley Aipar said, his bottom lip quivering as he continued to pet his daughter’s hair. “You rescue her, they will just take another — one of our own.”
Mivai looked into Pyande with her dark brown eyes. It reminded him of his own cousins and sisters who helped raise him in the Hole.
“I know that,” Pyande said.
The case of the missing Nayaran girl had come to Pyande at the club Ilustrados, a high class bar on the 80th floor of Giroux. During the afternoon lull, when Whisps and other working-class could afford the afternoon cantina specials, Pyande took the boost escalator towards the club. As he rode the boost, his eyes were invaded with vibrations of light from the overhead LCD screen selling cars and watches, advertisements that muddled his mind into such a psychosexual brutality that emerging from that high-speed escalator felt like squeezing through a bubbling womb, towards a long zenith of wannabe pop-stars and rambunctious cynics dressed in key-patterned fuchsia dresses and blue candy-man suits. He approached the club’s solid black counter, overhearing a live band playing one of those protest chants against the Loufe Corporation, jamming with Loufe steel in their guitars and Loufe microchips in their keyboards. Pyande had come to Ilustrados for another typical case, to meet a Loufe representative to discuss another sting of their illegal workshops in the Hole.
At the club entrance Pyande nodded to the Ilustrados’ hostess, who recognized him and delivered his grasshopper cocktail, a light green mixture that would reflect the neon ellipsoidals about the club. A young server took his arm and he called her by her name as she took him to a row of posh black cushions overlooking the main auditorium.
The Loufes had sent one of their family’s more seductive cousins, Isabella, who was already at the table, bitch-slapping the male gaze in her lavish dark purple silk dress, single silver necklace, and ripe, reddish cheeks. Pyande wore his usual brown jacket and jeans, the same that he wore when he rounded up the lepers in the Hole, when that straight-eyed photographer took his picture, and suddenly everyone knew him as the detective who had saved Nayara. From then on, it was always that brown jacket.
Noticing her annoyance when he sat down, he sipped at his grasshopper quickly, hoping the alcohol would speed up the meeting.
“Isabella. How’d they get you to turn?” Pyande asked her.
She grunted at that, and not knowing what else to say, she grunted more. She coughed at a parcel of phlegm stuck so far in the back of her throat that it couldn’t quite be coughed out. Finally she gave up and played with a cherry from her transparent drink.
Pyande recognized the repulsive gesture. Unable to do as they pleased, the children of the rich in Nayara would always find a way to show their disapproval. His best strategy was to list off her reputation, get it in the open. Either it would shame her, or he would join her in celebrating her achievements. “I heard you were something of a hard-case,” Pyande said. “Strung-out one day on kear, and then the next, giving away daddy’s secret workshop locations to the police.”
Her grunt turned into a laugh. She gave a light-hearted shrug and then carelessly lay back, using the leather cushion as a pillow. She’ll never make it in the Loufe corporation, Pyande thought. If she hadn’t been borne into wealth, it would have been impossible for her to ever attain it. But that wasn’t always a bad thing.
“That was before the divorce,” she said in a scratchy voice. “The kid makes it a different kind of show now. New roles. Sick of politics.” She air-drummed a part of the beat from the band across the room, closing her eyes for a moment to take in the sounds of gunfire buzzing in rhythm from the keyboard. “Alright, Pyande, let me come clean. I’m not here representing the Loufes. I had my father’s secretary contact you, but it’s not for that. It’s for something serious, and personal. You are a real detective, right?”
Pyande glanced around the club, hoping to share his amusement with someone else. She must have seen the articles from years ago. The leper colony Pyande had rounded up from the Hole, the kear smugglers Pyande had busted in the Hole, the illegal gambling arrests just outside the Hole. Each incident had nearly penetrated the safety of Nayaran life, but hadn’t, thanks to Pyande. At least, that’s how the media liked to play him up. Pyande, their little Whisp detective, their savior from all things Whisp. It made them seem fairer to the lesser races, and it made the Hole seem less contagious. But most of all, it made Pyande famous. It was good PR all around.
“You were once a real detective, at least?” she asked, pulling back strands of hair that had fallen in front of her left eye, her breath hiccupping out of her. “I mean it wasn’t all made up.”
“I’m not going to betray —”
“— I won’t ask you —”
“— not going to put my ass on the line —”
“— you don’t need —”
“— so you can get high —”
“— I just need —”
“— and go blow some —”
“— Help!” she said, and spat a cherry seed — a straight shot — onto his pant leg. Before he could reflect on this she was heading out the door, her rosemary scent trailing her body as she passed. He shot up after her, nearly knocking over the table, and cut her off near the escalators.
“What is this?” he said.
Isabella’s face reddened, and Pyande saw her teeth — those costly pearly whites — grinding in rage.
A moment of silence passed, with only the sound of the high-speed escalator, the planes above the city’s skyline, and the soft beat reverberating through the Ilustrados enormous black doors. The silence was prolonged by a group of four young women, each in shiny red and yellow dresses, who passed between Pyande and Isabella’s ticking wrath.
She told him everything. Ten years ago, she had given birth to a daughter who was half Whisp. Her family, after offering to pay for the injection that would give her a stillborn, then insisted on paying for the child to disappear from their lives. The child, Pacila, lived in the virtual zone, where virtual maids and virtual teachers trained her on the basics — managerial instruction, table manners, and memorizing classic poetry. Pacila was only unplugged once a week for retreats and health mods. But during her last retreat at the Porsé mall she disappeared. The next day, Isabella had received an anonymous message that her daughter was being held in the Hole. No ransom, no address.
“Forget it,” Isabella said. “If you can’t, I’ll just go —”
“No,” Pyande said, but not because he felt concerned with Isabella’s plight. If the girl was taken to the Hole, then all of the Hole was in danger. The Nayaran police were always looking for an excuse to “clean it up,” and a missing Nayaran girl, as far as the public was concerned, was a license to kill. One lost Nayaran girl could result in a pile of Whisp bodies.
“I’m a detective,” Pyande said. “For now.”
Pyande crawled through the unkempt ventilation shafts circling the old department store that the A&F gang, years ago, had converted into a hideout. Pyande’s body had never grown too long or pudgy for the shafts, and he felt a familiar air in its dusty crevices when he waited for the sound of footsteps to recede. In his youth, the shafts had been his own personal access points to anywhere in the mall. Only after he left the Hole to join the Nayaran army, when one day he was waiting in a crowd of soldiers to watch the execution of a criminal, did he come to realize that those dusty metallic shafts had molded him into a simple sly thief, rather than a menacing drug pusher or thug.
Pyande climbed a ladder towards the back of the old department store. He kicked open the bolted-down grate to the storage room and flung himself into darkness. Real detectives bring a flashlight, he thought, as he felt a row of crates in front of him. He crept past them to a place dimly lit from the line of yellow light at the bottom of a door. When his eyes adjusted he saw three small beds, each supporting a young girl. Two of them were darker-skinned Whisps, and another, a light-haired Nayaran, who was awake, holding light blue sheets against her chest and staring at him. Her dark leggings shot out from her cut-off jean shorts, ending with glittery red toenails. She was at that age before she noticed her gender, but long after most men had. As he passed the first two beds to reach her she backed away, pointing a weapon at him — an electromagnetic rod or EMR, a small rod that ejected electric shocks. No doubt she had heard him kick open the vent, and perhaps, had been expecting him to come.
“Pacila? Your mother, Isabella sent me,” Pyande said, his hand on his bullwhip.
“She did?” Pacila’s eyes welled with tears and she put down the weapon. As Pyande went to take her, he smelled that familiar scent of sulfur dioxide and methane waft into the room, growing thicker by the second. The gang knew he was there. They were flooding the shafts with the polluted haze of air just outside. “Damn!” Pyande said, unraveling his steel whip. He saw one of the Whisp girls was up, with her hand supporting her head. She seemed bored by his presence there.
“Hold on tight,” he told Pacila as he pushed her with his left arm, taking his bullwhip in his right.
The first goon to open the storage room door got a full lashing of Pyande’s whip. With Pacila in his arms, Pyande shot into the third story of the department store, now a den of gamblers, pimps and pushers. Each lowlife was dressed in a large coat of heavy fur. Pyande had forgotten that the air-conditioning was especially cold in the department stores, where most of the siphoned air came from, putting the temperature near freezing. In the mall’s gang-territory department stores, the last object a desperate gambler bet on was his thick fur jacket.
Some of the gamblers ran, leaving Pyande and nearly a dozen men armed with clubs, knives and chains. Pyande threw his whip at anyone who came within its range, cutting goons across the chest, spilling blood.
“Use your EMR!” Pyande said to Pacila as another goon came close. The girl froze and backed away from him. “Your rod!” Pyande yelled, tossing his whip in a small circle. His muscles were beginning to twitch from the cold, and his arm was already giving out from tossing the whip. As soon as he struck at a particular attacker, one came behind him, and before he could react, his whip was out of his hand. Pacila was down a stairway, already near the door. None of the thugs had tried to stop her.
“You overreached!” Pyande said, cracking his boots against the wood-patterned floor. “I’m nothing, not really a detective, right? But after me, next will come a Nayaran Special Forces team, ready to kill on sight, to torch this whole mall. You let her walk now, and we all survive!”
A chain went around his neck. He hadn’t been stabbed yet, so perhaps he was reaching them. Maybe they had already been thinking the same thing.
“Palo, palo,” one of the shaved head goons said in the Whisp tongue. The one behind Pyande loosened his grip and they let Pyande walk slowly down the stairs to the doorway, beside Pacila.
“She came to us, Apana,” one of the men said, wrapping his chain in his deep beige jacket. “Her father was one of ours before he was killed. She’s only trouble — asking questions about her name, her family, all that. We don’t want her here.”
A burst of electricity went through the air, casting a great spark of light and leaving the man with the beige coat flung back into a roulette table. Pacila had her arm extended, holding the dark metal rod, her teeth gritting in anger the same way her mother’s had. Like her mother’s rage, the girl’s anger turned slowly to sorrow, as she fell to the ground sobbing, rubbing her arms in the freezing cold.
“Get the hell up,” Pyande said, kicking the rod away from her and towards the gang. “We’re leaving now.”
And he took her out, her tears already forming into slivers of ice.
Back in the less harsh temperatures of the mall’s corridors, Pyande hurried Pacila through the food court, where the teenage Whisp girls working for A&F whistled from below menus that stated their price. Twelve sestires for a light-skinned Whisp, and twenty-five for an even lighter-skinned Whisp. Pacila looked at the floor as he marched her past the textile markets, the barbecue stalls, and the bulletin boards where Whisp adults gathered to be taken to the Loufe workshops. Near the mall’s marble doors, a Whisp procession drew past, blocking them from the exit. Pyande realized that today was the Whisp New Moon, just before the feast of Spofir, when ecstatic dances were performed throughout the mall by priests in animal costumes. Pyande had loved seeing them as a child, had imagined himself growing up with the honor to perform in them.
Pyande tugged at the girl beside him to follow, but Pacila stayed in place, watching the procession, marveled by the loud chants. One of the dancers, dressed as a sloth, tossed a yellow ribbon around her neck before moving on with the rest. Another group of marchers danced beneath a wooden statue for Spofir decorated with bright flowers. The flowers were yellow with dark stripes, like a tiger’s. Out of all the species of plants brought to the Hole, only they survived.
“I’ll live here one day,” Pacila said as Pyande tugged her towards the exit.
Outside, she squinted at the bright sun and had to cover her mouth with her shirt to keep from breathing in the toxic fog. When they arrived at the escalators they raced down until the air was clear enough to spot the large hologram advertisements near the Porsé mall. “I mean it,” Pacila said, uncovering her mouth. “I’ll go back. Isabella can’t stop me. I’m not really even a part of the family. I can go anywhere.”
“Shh,” Pyande said, patting her back to straighten her, “and smile.” He waved at the first photographer at the foot of the escalator. There were four, each with large mounted cameras and a microphone stand set up for his victory speech. Pyande Apana, the headline would read, Rescues a Daughter of the Loufe Family from The Hole. And the headline on page two: Loufes Spend Years Hiding a Half-Whisp Granddaughter!
Pyande buttoned up his brown leather jacket and held Pacila’s arm with one hand, using the other to wave at the forming crowd of eager spectators.
Kawika Guillermo is currently finishing his doctorate at the University of Washington, where he also teaches literature. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Medulla Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Annalemma, The Monarch Review and Mobius: Journal of Social Change. He is the Assistant Prose Editor at decomP, and a Programming Director for The Seattle Asian American Film Festival.