The alarm went off and only Alessandra’s arm found its way out of the covers. It slapped blindly at the alarm until the intrusive noise stopped. Thursdays weren’t her favorite. She had to get up early for an 8:00 a.m. class, and she had forensic lab class in the evening. She lived close enough to the school that it usually wasn’t worth it to use the subway. By the time it got around to arriving, she could have walked to class more quickly. But, it was still over 10 blocks away, so she had to leave early enough to walk the half mile distance in time. Yes, Thursdays were definitely the least fun.
She shambled her way into the bathroom, slipped off her night shirt, and stepped into the shower. As she blearily worked the shampoo through her long black hair she thought about Nicholas and his adorable little hairball at Blockhouse One. A smile squeezed its way out against the hot water coming down on her face. It had been days since their meeting, and she hadn’t heard or seen anything to let her know what she was supposed to do. She was beginning to worry that she had missed a sign or an instruction. She had walked around the neighborhood, looking for people who might be doing bad things to others. Of course, when she was looking for it, she never saw anything happening.
She got out of the shower and toweled off, then wrapped a second towel around her head and headed for what passed as her kitchen. She glowered at the empty tin where the coffee grounds were supposed to be. That was yet another ball she had dropped this week.
Down the street from her apartment, the dependable food truck waited. Alessandra held up a couple of dollar bills and said, “Good morning, Javier. Large black coffee, please.”
She walked quickly toward her early class, sipping her coffee and burning her tongue. She was distracted by thoughts of Gabrielle, Nicholas, Chew-Barka, and what her first assignment might be. What am I supposed to be looking for? What does a sign even look like?
Miles away in her daydreaming, she mindlessly continued her walk towards school. A hand suddenly grabbed her and pulled her briskly backward. She spun around quickly to see a middle-aged man firmly holding her by the arm. A city bus flew by, and the wind gust of its wake blew the coffee out of Alessandra’s hands. It crashed to the ground, startling a nearby pigeon. She stood stiffly, dumbstruck by the intensity of the moment.
The man’s voice snapped her back to the present, “Miss? Miss! Are you okay?”
Alessandra nodded blankly.
“You gotta pay attention or you’re gonna get yourself killed,” he said.
“Th-Thanks,” Alessandra said, ashamed of her carelessness. She let out a sigh to release her tension. “To say I’m distracted would be an understatement. Thank you.”
“No thanks needed. I’m sure you would’ve done the same for me.” The man smiled at her, picked up her now empty coffee cup and put it in the trash can at the corner.
“You dropped your coffee. Would you like me to buy you another?”
“No, thank you so much,” Alessandra said. “A near death experience does wonders for one’s energy level. I don’t think I’ll need any caffeine for a week now. I think you just saved my life!”
“Naw, I just pulled you back a step. We all gotta watch out for each other, right? Have a wonderful day. Try not to walk in front of another bus.” He chuckled a little, then walked onward, happy that he had been able to help a stranger. Later on that week, for no good reason that he would ever understand, a beautiful Indian woman would buy him a beer at Hellcat Annie’s Tap Room. She would kiss his cheek, then disappear from the place soon after. He would never even catch her name.
Alessandra arrived at class just before eight o’clock. Quantitative Inquiry of Problems in Criminal Justice II wasn’t exactly the most stimulating subject for her brain, and the early start time for the class didn’t help. After her near death experience, she had no trouble being fully awake and paying attention. The second semester was coming to an end, and she had more than enough of statistical analysis class for one lifetime. She was well prepared for the final exams looming on the horizon.
As the class dragged on, her adrenaline from almost getting flattened by a bus finally started to taper a little. She allowed her mind to wander back to Blockhouse One and her encounter with Nicholas and Chew-Barka. What exactly was she supposed to be looking for? How was she supposed to know what her first assignment would be? Was this just some sort of elaborate cosmic practical joke?
Failing to come to any answers, her mind started to wander elsewhere to Brady and his father. Brady was kind to her for the most part, and didn’t seem to mind that her family didn’t have money. His father was nice to her face, sort of, but she would hear stories from Brady verifying his father’s disdain for her. One time, the Wexfords were at some sort of festival in Rhode Island. A woman started hitting on Brady, who told the woman that he already had a girlfriend. When his father saw the same woman drive away in a top model Jaguar, he sternly admonished Brady for not dumping Alessandra and going after the obviously well-off woman. Brady stood up for Alessandra in that moment, but after hearing about that, she always felt uncomfortable around Brady’s father. She didn’t understand how he could be so cold, so unfeeling. It’s one thing to want security for your child, but he already had that. This was nothing more than snobbery, and she resented the hell out of Mr. Wexford for it.
After class she sat outside on the steps in front of the main building and watched the people walking by. The spring breeze was blowing bits of trash back and forth in little miniature tornadoes on the sidewalk. A discarded Boston Market wrapper flew up and landed on her books. She went to brush it off but spotted a name and a number scribbled on it.
There was a Boston Market just a block down the street from where she was sitting. Why would anyone write a name, much less a full name, on a fast food wrapper? Could this be her first assignment? Who was Sharon Quinn? What did the number mean? Was that an address of some sort? The city could rather objectively be referred to as ‘freaking huge,’ so how was the number 885 helpful? How could this Sharon Quinn be found in a city the size of New York? What awful or kind thing did she do, or what was she about to do?
Alessandra picked up her books and headed down 10th Avenue past the Dancing Greek Kitchen toward the Boston Market. It was mostly stores and other businesses, but some doors were entrances to apartment buildings. Sure enough, next to the Boston Market was an apartment building with 885 above the door. This was almost certainly it, her first assignment.
“Okay, Nicholas, now what?” she muttered to herself. As if on cue, the revolving doors of the apartment building started to turn. A young man stepped through with a small dog in his arms. He let the dog down and started to walk him toward a nearby tree. With as much subtlety as she could muster, Alessandra went to the entrance and checked the listings. It didn’t take her long to spot the name. Sharon Quinn. Apartment 6, first floor. She took a step back and paused, amazed at the sign she had received. She wondered if this was how she would always get her assignments, or if she was about to do something to this woman based on a piece of flying garbage.
“Do you need help?” a man’s voice said over Alessandra’s shoulder, making her jump. The man stood there, smiling at her and holding his little dog like a football. “I’ve lived in this building for a few years, so I might know who you’re looking for.”
“Uh,” she stuttered, “I’m looking for…” Alessandra looked around to see if anyone was watching her. Cars drove by honking at a car trying to park. People went their way, completely ignoring everything that didn’t pertain immediately to them. She couldn’t have been any more anonymous if she was hiding deep in the Amazon rain forest.
“Sorry,” Alessandra said. “Do you know Sharon Quinn?”
The man’s smiling face fell into something between resignation, anger, and frustration. “Oh, I know her all right. What are you, a relative or something?”
“No, I’m not a relative. I’m… I’m supposed to deliver something to her and she’s not supposed to know about it. It’s something from her office. I’m just a messenger.”
Alessandra tried to look sincere, then tried to look relaxed, and failed at both. The man looked at her with a quizzical eyebrow raised.
“I wasn’t aware she actually had a job,” he said. “I thought she just sat around trying to think up ways to make the rest of us as miserable as she is.”
“Ah, well,” Alessandra said. Okay, so this is probably consequence for bad behavior.
She tried to come up with an explanation, but decided to redirect the conversation instead. “As miserable as she is? What do you mean?”
The man shook his head. “Oh, she’s quite the neighbor. Do you know she actually sued our co-op over the paint job in the hallway? She didn’t like the color and demanded it be changed at the board’s expense. It had already been voted on and approved. When she didn’t get her way, she called a lawyer and actually tried to get a court to hear her case.”
The man laughed. “And, she’s a member of the co-op, so the old battle ax was actually suing herself too! Any time the board tries to do anything to make the building nicer, she threatens to call a lawyer if she doesn’t get her own way. It costs money for the board to fight her. As a result, we can’t put that money toward what the building actually needs. She’s not on the board, of course, because she hates the members of it and swears they’re all in some sort of a conspiracy against her.”
He switched the dog to his other arm. “We’ve all suggested she might be happier somewhere else but she refuses to move. I think she has rent control or something. She’s nothing but a bitter old harridan.”
The man was breathing more heavily now, and realized he was venting his anger to a complete stranger. He stepped back and said, “I apologize. None of that is your problem. Quinn is just… well, she’s just a real special human being.”
“She sounds like a barrel of laughs,” Alessandra said with a reassuring smile. “I promise I won’t tell her what you said. I suppose I’ll be going now, to see about delivering this to her. Do you think you might be able to let me in, so I can just slide it under her door?” She held up a random blank folder from her backpack.
He paused, then replied with a sneer, “Sure. I hope it’s an eviction notice.”
He turned toward the door to let Alessandra into the building. A shadow appeared inside, and the man’s tiny dog started growling. The man backed up, looked at Alessandra, and raised his head in the shadow’s direction. Sharon Quinn was coming.
Alessandra panicked. What if he told Sharon that Alessandra had a delivery for her? She quickly grabbed his arm, and put her index finger up to her lips. He seemed confused, but nodded his consent anyway.
Sharon Quinn walked out through the door. She looked at the pair who seemed to be looking blankly at her, as if they were staring at an irritated emu in the zoo. Alessandra had been around drug dealers, gang members, prostitutes, and criminals in her life. None of them gave her the feeling of sheer menace that seemed to emanate from Sharon Quinn.
“What are you two fools staring at?” she growled. The dog growled back and Quinn narrowed her eyes at it. It whimpered and tried to bury its face in the man’s arm.
“Wow, dogs really can sense evil,” the man said, then put his dog back down on the ground. They walked away quickly down the block.
Alessandra walked the other way and turned into the Boston Market. Sharon put her nose high in the air and walked southward down 10th Avenue. She passed Alessandra, who was pretending to stand in line. Once Sharon had passed, Alessandra peeked out the door after her. Allowing nearly a block to separate them, she started to follow Sharon down the sidewalk.
Alessandra had no proof of anything the man had said. She didn’t need the limited criminal justice coursework she had so far to tell her that punishing someone based on mere hearsay wasn’t right. She had to actually see Sharon doing something that warranted punishment. Alessandra felt an odd tingle of excitement flowing through her. This had to be her first assignment, her first test. This was exactly the kind of miserable, awful person that she always wanted to witness getting what they deserved, and Alessandra was going to get to choose how this harpy was repaid for her malice.
Alessandra slowed her pace a little. Suddenly she had a doubt. She hadn’t been given any instruction on what to do, or why this woman deserved to be punished. Sure, the random stranger telling her about Sharon’s nastiness gave her some background, but it seemed like the woman was currently just going about her business like everyone else.
She continued to follow Sharon at a distance, making sure to duck inside shops whenever her quarry started looking around. Eventually Sharon returned to her own building and went inside. Alessandra walked past the building, glancing in the window, but there was no sight of Sharon Quinn. Alessandra kept walking and headed back toward John Jay. Her next class would be starting soon, and she had just blown her entire morning following this miserable woman around for nothing.
For lunch, Alessandra wandered back over toward Sharon’s building and sat inside the Dancing Greek Kitchen Diner. She picked at her salad absently, wondering what she was supposed to do next.
She took out her phone and checked for messages. She hadn’t heard from Brady all day. That wasn’t much of a surprise, as his classes were non-stop all day every day of the week. She muttered under her breath. “It must be nice for Daddy to be able to afford such a full load of classes for you.”
“Your incompetence is only exceeded by your ugliness!” the shrill voice rang out behind Alessandra. It was the gravelly, deeper voice of an older shrew of a woman. It was the voice of Sharon Quinn, who was standing at the checkout counter with her hands firmly on her hips.
“How hard is it to get a simple order right? It’s one person. It’s one item on your menu. How can you mess up a simple order? This is what you do. This is all you do. Why can’t you do it properly? Can’t you speak proper English?”
“Don’t you ‘Madam’ me. I don’t run a brothel!” Sharon’s caked-on eye shadow cracked as her brow furrowed even deeper. “I know what I ordered. I ordered a chicken gyro. Understand? A chicken gyro!”
“Yes,” sighed the man behind the counter, “and we sent you a chicken gyro dinner. That’s what you ordered, that’s what we gave you.”
He leaned toward her on his forearms and stared Sharon Quinn down. “So what’s the problem this time? Is your tzatziki sauce too creamy?” Alessandra figured this wasn’t their first debate.
“I said to the idiot on the phone-”
“Me,” the man interrupted.
“Okay, fine, you. I said that I wanted a chicken gyro for dinner for delivery.”
“And that’s exactly what we brought over.” The man stood back up, grabbed a menu from the side of the counter, pointed to a spot on it, and glared back at her. Sharon didn’t deign to look at it.
She lowered her eyes to half mast. “I didn’t want the whole dinner with fries and slaw and all of that disgusting garbage. I said I wanted a chicken gyro.”
“I heard you when you placed the order, lady. You said you wanted a chicken gyro dinner for delivery, and that’s what you got. The dinner. The dinner includes fries and slaw.”
“No. I said I wanted the chicken gyro for dinner for delivery. What are you, deaf?” Sharon pushed her nose into the air, content that her argument was utterly irrefutable. “Obviously you didn’t listen when you took the order. Either you didn’t listen or you don’t know what you’re doing. Either way, I’m not paying for this.”
The restaurant was silent as everyone watched the exchange. Outside, the city continued on its frenetic course, oblivious to the drama unfolding inside. The man shook his head in disbelief.
“It’s always something with you! Just throw the fries and slaw away if you don’t want them.”
“The chicken gyro dinner is one dollar and fifteen cents more than just the chicken gyro. Plus tax! I haven’t touched that food. I’m calling my credit card company and challenging the charge!” Quinn stormed out of the diner before the man could say anything more.
Everyone looked back at the man behind the counter, who stood there curling his upper lip over his teeth in a snarl. His face was flush with anger and helpless frustration. He suddenly ran to the door and yelled after her.
“Don’t come back! Ever!”
He skulked back behind the counter. He looked down. The chicken gyro dinner sat on the counter staring back at him, mocking him. He glared back at it. Alessandra thought he was going to throw it, but the man simply sighed.
“Show’s over, everybody. Sorry about that.“
He looked up and out of the diner. Across the street, a homeless man was sitting on the curb. The man behind the counter lifted the containers and walked out, crossing at the intersection to the other side. He handed the chicken gyro dinner to the homeless man, who accepted it gratefully and dug in.
As the man walked back into the diner, a dark-haired young woman in the corner started clapping. Everyone else immediately joined in, and the man smiled, despite himself. The young woman walked up to pay for her meal, and gave the man extra money to pay for the chicken gyro dinner. She also gave him an extraordinary tip along with her check.
“You’re very kind, but please, you don’t have to do that,” he said with more than just a little embarrassment.
“You deserve it, good sir. Please allow me to pass this blessing along to you.” She placed her henna-tattooed hand gently on his. “May you remember this day that there are many good people in this world. You are one of those good people. I pray you never permit those who are unkind to rip the kindness and love away from your beautiful spirit.”
The woman left the counter and started to head toward the door, leaving the man standing at the counter. Alessandra noticed his eyes redden slightly with grateful tears.
Out of the corner of her eye, Alessandra noticed the mysterious woman suddenly change her direction from the entrance. She sat down nonchalantly at Alessandra’s table. Alessandra stared at her in surprise.
She was a young Indian woman, wearing a burgundy colored sari with ornate gold patterns. Her jet black hair cascaded down her shoulders in waves, barely hiding ornate golden jewelry hanging from her ears. There was something about this woman that Alessandra couldn’t put her finger on. She was stunning, but it was something more than that. She practically glowed with kindness and good humor. It was the complete reverse of the menace she had felt from Sharon Quinn. The woman smiled warmly at Alessandra and extended her hand. Alessandra took it and managed to squeak out, “Hi. I’m Alessandra.”
“Yes, I know. I am Nandini. I am here to assist you with Sharon Quinn.” Nandini put her hand on the table with her palm up. In her hand was a shining silver key. She closed her hand over it, and put the key back into her sari.
“It’s really nice to meet you.” Alessandra puzzled at her a bit. “There’s something familiar about you, like maybe I’ve met you before. I don’t think so, though.”
“You may not have met me, but perhaps you have seen me during the fulfillment of my duties.” Nandini looked around the diner a moment, and leaned in toward Alessandra. In barely more than a whisper, she said, “I am from a wealthy family who does not wish for me to work. I have been blessed to be able to give this calling my full attention every day.”
Alessandra nodded. “I was kind of wondering about that.”
“About what?” Nandini asked.
“Well, I figured this probably isn’t a paying gig. Do we do it in our free time? Should I bother going to school? I mean, I can’t be in law enforcement and be a Balancer, can I?” Alessandra looked at her backpack full of books sitting on the table next to her. “How would I pay for my living?”
Nandini smiled, “I believe that most religions will tell you not to worry, that you shall be looked after by divine power. Do not ignorantly attribute the monarchy of your true self to your body, or the misery of your body to your true self. Remove your ignorance, and even with no material possessions you shall become the monarch of the universe. You will escape the prison of the body, and realize the true self which is the master and ruler of the universe.”
Alessandra nodded appreciatively, then shook her head. “I have no idea what that means, but it sounds cool.”
Nandini laughed joyfully. “I shall do my best to translate for you in the style of our fellow residents of this good city: Fuggetaboutit!”
Alessandra couldn’t help but laugh at this striking, elegant woman saying that iconic phrase in her Indian accent. Nandini’s uninhibited joy was disarming, infectious, and charming. She seemed to fill the entire diner with transcendent jubilation. Her very presence made Alessandra relaxed and happy.
Nandini looked out of the diner window. “Now, to our peculiar task with this Sharon Quinn. We have rewarded the good character and good choices of the man who works here. Now it is time to turn our focus to Sharon Quinn, who must also be rewarded appropriately for her character and her choices.”
“Great. What’s the plan?” Alessandra’s fingernails tapped the table anxiously.
“Well,” Nandini said, “it is important that the punishment be of similar severity to the crime. Ms. Quinn has not caused anyone actual physical harm. She has only been unreasonable and ugly, and has been oppressive to that man over nothing of any real importance. What do you think we should do?”
“Me? I’m the rookie here. I have no idea.” Alessandra searched her brain for ideas, but nothing was coming.
Nandini nodded. “We must serve her in kind for her own lack of kindness. I can see you have thorns in your feet.”
“Pardon me?” Alessandra asked.
“I apologize. I presumed that your Italian heritage would make you more familiar with that particular idiom. Perhaps a better way to say it is, you have ants in your pants,” Nandini said with a wink. “Ms. Quinn troubled this good man here in his place of work. She does not work, so we cannot do the same to her.”
“Ooh, I know!” Alessandra blurted out. “We can hassle her at her home. We can get her kicked out of the co-op!”
Nandini shook her head. “That punishment does not fit this particular crime. Believe me, the day for such action may come if she continues her current path with her neighbors. However, at this time we are only to attend to this afternoon’s transgression. Now, then, I believe she goes out for dinner each night. It is likely she does not cook. The building uses gas stoves, but she never receives a gas bill.”
“You went through her mail?” Alessandra was taken aback.
“No, no,” Nandini reassured, “I spoke with the building’s super. It is amazing to me what information people willingly surrender when they are simply asked nicely. So, this evening when she goes out, we shall be ready.”
“Ready to do what? We don’t want to hurt her, we can’t really annoy her since she seems to be annoyed all the time anyway, and we can’t do anything to cause damage to her property. I’m all for being creative, but I’ve really got nothing here.”
“It is okay,” Nandini said, “we don’t have to do a thing that is so grand and profound. She only gave the man a hard time, so we shall do the same. We must only do so without her knowing why it is happening to her. This is my specialty.”
That night, Nandini and Alessandra waited across the street from Sharon Quinn’s apartment. At one point, the young man with his tiny dog came out for a walk, and Alessandra wanted so badly to let him in on the plan. However, she knew it would not be right, since this was not related to his own issues with Sharon Quinn. She was confident he would have enjoyed watching what was about to happen.
As dusk filled the sky, as shop lights and street lights began to glow, Sharon Quinn exited the apartment building. She walked north toward Lincoln Center. A woman came running out of a corner market and bumped into Sharon, spilling the contents of Sharon’s purse all over the sidewalk.
“I am so sorry! I didn’t see you there!” Alessandra said with feigned horror. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, hiding her face in the event Quinn recognized her from earlier that morning.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Sharon asked, more as a cold statement than a question. “This coat is real chinchilla, and you could have spilled something on it.”
Alessandra started to help pick up the scattered items from Sharon’s purse, but Sharon waved a hand in Alessandra’s face.
“Back off you imbecile, I’ll do it. Just go away.”
Alessandra watched as she walked away to make sure Sharon got everything back in her purse. Sharon got up, gave a harrumph in Alessandra’s general direction, and continued uptown. Alessandra checked back over her shoulder and saw Sharon was walking away from the first targeted spot. Alessandra ran down to 11th Avenue and raced uptown, trying not to laugh out loud.
Sharon continued on her way, muttering under her breath with each step. She scowled at the traffic light telling her to stop. She looked left and right, but no cars were coming. She sneered, and walked boldly against the light. Suddenly a bicycle came roaring by, splashing through a puddle filled with rainwater and God only knows what else. The stream of foul liquid splattered onto Sharon’s coat. The bicycle sped away without giving so much as a look back, which made Sharon even angrier.
Nandini rode the bicycle to 9th street, turned the corner, and stopped. Sharon walked on toward her evening meal, slapping the putrid wet stink from her coat and smelling her hands with disgust. She pulled a bottle of anti-bacterial gel from her purse, and doused her hands in it.
Alessandra jogged around to meet Nandini. “Is that it? We didn’t really do much.” Alessandra said. She had been livid at Sharon for her treatment of the man behind the restaurant counter.
Nandini removed her bike helmet and replied, “Well, she had to retrieve the spilled contents of her purse, and then, she nearly got swiped by a renegade bicycle that sprayed her coat with dirty street water.”
Nandini got off the bicycle and stood next to Alessandra. “Yes, she did yell at the man and refuse to pay for the dinner she ordered. She made an ugly scene in the restaurant and made a good person’s day much worse. However, we struck a balance. Not only was she disrupted in her routine, but we rewarded the man she victimized as well. He was the one who was offended, and we turned his bad day into a better one. We countered Sharon Quinn’s evil actions. The cost of the meal she cheated the restaurant out of will be similar to her cost for having the coat professionally cleaned. We can simply leave it at that. This was little more than an introduction for you. We wanted to see that you could handle the situation correctly. I am pleased to say you will be a fine addition.”
“Thanks! How many of us are there?” Alessandra asked.
“I do not know, my friend,” Nandini answered. “I do know that we are all over the world. We come from all walks of life. We are everywhere. Sometimes a Balancer will eventually choose to seek a different calling. Perhaps they will even die. New Balancers are frequently being chosen.”
“Who chooses new ones? Who is the leader of it all?” Alessandra was starting to think about who was actually running this show. How on earth did they manage to arrange for a food wrapper to blow onto her book?
“There is no leader,” Nandini said. “We simply are.”
Alessandra frowned, not even remotely satisfied with the answer. “Who is Nicholas, then? Why was I brought to see him?”
“Your guide is called Nicholas. Mine is called Reyansh. We each have our own connection to the divine which provides our instructions. Some people believe they are the spirits of previous Balancers. Others believe they are simply figments of our imaginations. I have a different belief, but it is my own.”
“I see. Okay, well, I guess someday I’ll have to figure out who Nicholas is for me. And where in the heck did Chew-Barka come from?”
“Chew-Barka? You see two people in the Blockhouse?” Nandini asked with interest.
“He’s a dog,” Alessandra replied. “He’s a mangy, flea-bitten adorable hairball of a dog.”
After a moment’s thought, Alessandra asked, “Speaking of hairballs, Nandini, were you at the Olympic Diner the other day?”