“Mr. Bernard? I have your status report ready.”

“Can it wait until I get a look at our new… acquisition?”

The aide, McMonagal, nodded and looked back out the office door, beckoning the matron to enter. She half-dragged a young girl with her.

“Sir,” she said in a voice betraying her usually-stern manner, “this is Mariah.”

The girl cowered and trembled as the corpulent man looked her over from his desk.

“How old are you, sweetie?”

Mariah tried to speak but nothing would come out. The matron glared down at her.

“She’s twelve, Mr. Bernard.”

Bernard nodded his approval with eyebrows raised. “Pretty. The doctor’s checked her over?”

“Done, sir,” she answered. “She’s fresh.”

“Excellent. Clean her up and bring her around this evening.”

Matron silently escorted the girl out, and her faint cry trailed off as McMonagal shut the door again. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to clear the pity and shame and anger from his mind.

“I see that,” snapped Bernard. “You disapprove?

“Not my place to say, sir.” McMonagal tried to resist the mental picture of smashing Bernard’s head in with a rock.

“Well said,” returned the CORE executive. “If it’s any comfort, she’ll be well cared for. After a while, most find it’s not that high a price.”

The aide bit his tongue, hard, and Bernard cocked head and eyebrow at him.

“Perhaps you’d like to get on with the situation report.”

“Thank you, sir,” exhaled McMonagal. “According to our police contact, the investigation into the Ralph Morgan murder is progressing. The consultant found enough evidence to map a pretty clear trail.”

“Who did we get?”

“Felipe Burke, sir. Commonly called the Zebra.”

“Ah, yes,” sniffed Bernard. “Mulatto fellow. Most distasteful.”

“Understood, sir,” the aide replied while averting his eyes. “Just the same, he’s efficient. Apparently one of the sharper pencils in the box.”

“Intelligence alone counts for shit, McMonagal,” Bernard sneered. “A man of quality requires a lot more.”

“Yes, sir. Have you any instructions for our contact?”

“I want frequent reports. The murderer must be in our hands before those of our admirable Mr. Zebra. Clear?”

“Absolutely, Mr. Bernard. Will that be all?”

Bernard’s expression brightened. “Yes. I believe we shall close the office. I have a pressing engagement this evening.”

He strolled out of the office, leaving his aide burning.


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