And Then She Was Gone

A Clarke Lantham Mystery

by J. Daniel Sawyer

Chapter 1

9:30 AM, Saturday

After the mess at the New Year’s party, I promised myself I’d never get involved in another murder case. I swore an oath before God, and then to be safe I took that same oath before every god I’d ever heard of, just in case I wasn’t current on his proper name. I wanted him to strike me dead if I ever got the idiotic notion to stick my nose into another room where it might get cut off by a knife-wielding maniac.

I’m too old to mistake that kind of inanity for fun.

With that in mind, you’d think I’d content myself with working divorce cases and employee applications—or retire from my post-disgraced-public-servant life to a respectable position teaching college students the finer points of ethics or selling oranges at a roadside fruit stand.

Not that you can tell that someone’s gonna turn up dead when disaster walks through your door dressed up like money. Still, you don’t listen to the hairs on the back of your neck, and you’re asking for trouble.

I guess that whatever gifts I bought in brains and intuition I paid for out of my common sense, and the few times I’ve tried to grow some common sense since then have all seemed to end with me tied to a chair with a car battery attached to my testicles, or worse, watching a chick flick in a vain attempt to get in touch with my feminine side.

Yeah, that therapist was a moron too, but she sure got rich off my attempts to rub the sickness out of my melon.

Well, I didn’t have that much good sense. Or maybe I’m just such a creature of habit that breaking the habit means breaking the creature. I really can’t help it. Things that are out of place bug me in the same way tuberculosis bothers the lungs. The universe is the primary offender, which means I’m likely never to run out of work.

So when she walked in through the door, looking like a tragic twist on a Paris Hilton sex tape, I knew I was in for it again.

I wish I could say it was raining, or that the last rays of sunlight filtered in through the smoggy haze outside the windows lighting her up like a golden ghost. Truth is, she came in at nine in the morning on a day I’d rather have been scratching my toes on the underside of my duvet.

Of all the mean characters I’ve known in my life, insomnia is the cruelest bitch of them all.

I was in the middle of my fourth cup of coffee when she knocked. Normally my intern—who was getting ready to quit over being treated like a receptionist—would have told the client to take a number and given me thirty seconds to make sure my fly wasn’t down. That day, said intern had a dental appointment and wasn’t due in until eleven.

My fly was up, though. Lucky me.

“Come in.” I took a final quick swig of my coffee and set the mug down on the desk.

She walked in. The flat morning light didn’t do her any favors, but then she didn’t really need many. She wasn’t the tall stately blonde that can capture the heart of any stereotypical masturbation fantasy, but she held her shape well even so. Five foot nine if she was an inch, Greek coloring and hair, or maybe Italian and sun-toasted. Gaudy catholic crucifix fighting with her wild bat-looking collar for who got the window seat. Despite the puffiness around her eyes and the slight wheeze in her breath, she carried herself with grace in her sweat pants and half-buttoned business shirt.

She looked like she’d made up her mind to come in halfway through getting dressed for work—that plus the trembling hands meant whatever she wanted was urgent. Urgent meant money.

I stood and motioned to the chair on the opposite side of the desk. “Have a seat, please.”

She did. A nice one too, which I learned when she bent over from the waist to set her purse on the floor before lowering it into the chair. I enjoyed the view, but I didn’t count it toward anything. She didn’t look like she was putting moves on, more like she couldn’t remember which way was up.

I started out as a cop being a sucker for a pretty face, and then when I washed out because of a pretty face attached to the chief’s wife I went the other way, automatically scoring beauty as a bad point.

In the years since, I gradually learned to admit that beauty is like halitosis – it strikes people without any regard for their character.

She sat there for two solid minutes, fumbling mutely with a Kleenex that she white-knuckled in her left hand. She couldn’t let go of it enough to blow her nose with it, but she couldn’t breathe without it either.

The cumulative effect of her internal struggle to look like she had it together was that her left nostril whistled softly as a plug of mucous alternately swelled and contracted in a slightly nauseating way.

I tried to politely ignore it, but there’s only so much whistling and bulging a body can ignore until he has to do something.

I figured that offering a fresh tissue would be more genteel than putting in my ear plugs, so I opened the bottom right drawer and pulled out the box, sliding it across the desk to her. When it entered her field of view her eyebrows bumped up, like she’d forgotten there was someone else in the room.

Still clutching the used tissue with her trembling left fist, she took a fresh one with her right and blew her nose, dried her eyes, and tried to find some semblance of composure.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lantham. I didn’t even call for an appointment…”

“Clarke. It’s okay.”

Normally interrupting a client isn’t a good idea, but she had the look of someone who would use up her dime rattling on with apology after apology, and I’m not a therapist.  

Until she plunked cash on the barrel-head, I wasn’t even her snoop. At the moment, about all I could lay claim to where she was concerned was ’tissue dispenser.’ Even this early in the morning, I normally insist on a social rank at least equivalent to ‘waiter.’

“Please, what brings you here?” Sensitivity is an ill-fitting suit, but I can slip into it in a pinch.

“I,” she took a deep breath to get her fretting under control, then rushed forward like she was in a speed-reading contest, “My husband told me not to worry. He said I should give it a few days. I mean, the police wouldn’t do anything anyway but I couldn’t just keep waiting and waiting and waiting when I know it’s not right. I mean…” she looked at me helplessly, like she’d already bled her internal thesaurus dry.

“Why won’t the police help?” Sometimes, a little prompting is worth a pint of bourbon.

“Oh. Well, she’s nineteen. She’s got a reputation for…well, you know. But she’s a good girl, likes living at home. She’s really clever, but she doesn’t read much and isn’t really good with math…”

“Your daughter?”

She nodded.

“How long has she been missing?”

“She didn’t come home last night. She always comes home. Never stayed out her whole life…well…you know, not without calling and telling us.”

“At nineteen? Why not?”

“She…well, she’s got some kind of…well it’s not quite autism, really. Not unemotional, but she has to have..well, not routine. Regularity, maybe, or she gets scared. She’s gotta be able to depend on things. I never had to tell her to be home in high school, she just always came home at the right time. She’s been that way since she was born.”

“But not unemotional?” I took a pen from a well on the desk and made some quick notes as she talked.

“Oh, no. Anything but. She’s, well, unusually passionate. Really intuitive. If you’re in the room with her, she’ll catch your eyes, and you won’t see anything else until she’s done with you. She’s been that way since she was a baby. She looks at you, and she knows who you are deep down, you know?”

“I see. She have a therapist?”

“Yes.” She fumbled around in her purse, found a wallet, and handed me a card with an address in San Ramon. I set it down without reading it, for now, and picked up my pencil again. “Where was your daughter last seen?”

“She was at a friend’s house.”

“Name?”

“Excuse me?”

“The friend’s name.”

“Oh. Jason. Jason Rawles.”

“And your daughter’s name?”

“Nya Thales.”

Chapter 2

11:00 AM, Saturday

My first stop on my hopscotch jaunt to hell was a lovely cookie-cutter home in Danville, one of those places that also-ran second generation Bobos bought because they couldn’t afford to live behind the fences and armed guards in Blackhawk proper. Hard wind blew over the Oakland hills and swept up to blast me with little bits of cow dung from the neighboring field—bet you didn’t know that having a house that backs up to pasture is the ultimate in posh.

Jason Rawles answered the door after I leaned on the bell a couple times.

“Yeah?” It was clear from the way he stood shirtless in the midday light, scratching his butt and looking at me through half-lids, that he thought he was far too sexy for the house that fortune had confined him to.

“I’m looking for Jason Rawles.”

“Really?” He appeared to pull the business end of his scratching fist out of his butt crack and shove it into his mouth. It was only after his hand started smoking that I realized he’d been palming a joint.

He looked me up and down through the smoke like he was surprised they hadn’t just gone ahead and buried me when I hit thirty. “Who the hell are you?”

“Clarke Lantham. I’m helping Mrs. Thales find her daughter.”

“Nya? Yeah, sure, whatever.” He waved me in, then seemed to forget I was there. I followed him into the kitchen where he ducked into the fridge and grabbed himself a can of the alcoholic seltzer water that kids his age think qualifies as “beer.” He didn’t offer me one, a favor which made me like him more than I really wanted to.

He batted the fridge door closed, planted his back against it, and sucked the sludge out of the can. Once he’d finished chugging it he slammed it against his head and tossed the aluminum hockey puck at a box on the counter. It missed and went skittering across the green granite and then down onto the charcoal slate floor tiles.

The kid flicked a Zippo open and took another pull on the joint, then wheezed “So what’s the big mystery?” at me.

“’Scuse me?”

“If Dora hired you,” the scorn of a moron has that special ring to it that always makes my heart sing, “Shit. Dora wouldn’t have gotten you to go around looking if she didn’t think there was a serial killer on the loose.”

“She thinks stuff like that a lot?”

“Shit yeah,” the kid leaned forward and tapped the ash off the end of his joint into a neglected coffee mug, “there was this one day we all went up to Chico to go rafting, Nya dropped her phone in. When we got home—and we were on time to the minute—Dora was shitting bricks like she was born on a building site. Crazy bitch. Could hear her screaming at Nya halfway down the block.”

“I see.” I hadn’t banked on home troubles factoring into this, but it did lay a motive for running away. Assuming Nya was competent to run away. Mrs. Thales seemed to think she wasn’t, but what overprotective mother does? “When was this?”

“Eh. Last summer sometime.”

“Who all was there?”

He shook his head and looked up at the ceiling. “What, man, you wanna see pictures or something?”

“Sure.”

He shrugged, jerked his head at the staircase in the foyer, then shuffled off after it, rolling his eyes like he couldn’t imagine a dumber series of questions. That was fine. So long as he thought I was dense, he’d keep dancing—it made him feel superior, and Rawles was the sort who needed to feel superior.

It turned out that, despite the arrogance and the too-many-gym-hours physique, Rawles was the kind of kid who thought that the sun rose and set.

Literally.

In his room I caught a glimpse of his report card on his bedside table, and the failing grade in Astronomy headlined the show. The supporting cast didn’t look much better.

He plopped his ass in front of this year’s latest-and-greatest fruity computer hardware—the smoke followed him around like something out of a cartoon—and jiggled his hand in the direction of an ottoman. I pulled it up and planted my carcass on it as he started shuffling through pictures.

“Don’t know what you want to see,” he shuffled past the obligatory shots of the delta landscape out the window, cataloging gas stations, teenagers goofing off in the back seat of the Suburban, and flashing the oncoming traffic. “We just drove up and went rafting.”

“Who are the others?” When I asked, he stopped scrolling through the pics and pulled up a group shot.

“Oh. Well, this guy here’s Gravity.”

“Parents worked at NASA?”

“Wha? Nah. Think his real name is…Chuck? Graduated Cal High a few years back, goes to Diablo Valley. Kind of a prick, but we let him pack along anyway.”

“Prick?”

His brow wrinkled quickly with contempt, then he took another hit on his joint and leaned back in his swivel seat. “Yeah, a cock.” He twisted his neck around to me and blew the smoke in my face. “You know what a cock is, right?”

“That would be the thing your girlfriend puts the batteries in after you go home, eh, kid?”

The skin around his nose crawled up to his eyebrows like a cow just farted in his face. The joint snaked its way up to his mouth again, and he tried to hit it. His lungs had different ideas, and he hacked himself into a laughing fit.

“Aww, fuck, man. You got me.”

I tipped my head, let him think he was winning. “So, prick?”

“Oh, you know.” Rawles lowered his voice to a fratboy-chump timbre, “’I'm Gravity, the irresistible force.’ Just a prick. I mean, look at him.”

He jerked his head back to the face on the screen.

Mr. Gravity wore the dreads of a rich white kid who spent too much time trying to get laid at anti-globalization rallies. He was also completely baked, each hand full of one tit from a girl on each arm, enjoying the blessings of being the age between expectations and responsibility.  

Nya I recognized from the school portrait Mrs. Thales showed me—medium tall, broad shoulders, reddish darkish hair, exotic face that looked like it had been Photoshop-smoothed, a few acne scars here and there. In the high school senior photo she’d worn a traditional formal dress, but in this photo she was considerably more…relaxed. She came up to maybe Gravity’s shoulder, which put him comfortably north of six feet with hands big enough to palm something the size of a casaba.

Not exactly the well-behaved pack of church kids that Mrs. Thales might prefer to imagine when she thought about her daughter’s friends. Then again, idolizing a needy child was one of the expected vices of motherhood.

“Yeah, looks like a prick. Who’s that?” I pointed to the stout-looking girl in Mr. Gravity’s left hand.

“Gina.”

“Nice girl?”

“Yeah, sure I guess.”

“And that’s Nya there?” I pointed to the more familiar girl with the great shape and squinty grin in Gravity’s right hand.

“Yeah.”

“What can you tell me about her?”

“Huh?”

“Well, if I’m going to find her I need to know everything I can about her.”

“Oh. Well, umm…she doesn’t really have any hobbies. Gets nervous around new people, at least more than one at a time. Let me tell you, though, since she was eleven…”

Rawles rattled off a story that left me vaguely queasy at that point, but it erased any doubts about how qualified he was to pull an A in anatomy or biology if he could be bothered to stop toking long enough to read the homework. He’d evidently known her since Elementary school, and when she bloomed he was in the right position to catch her as she fell on her back.

She was one of four girls at the school that got around like that, something Rawles seemed to laugh about only because he was embarrassed at how slavishly he followed them around. Or did he lead them around?

Full of hot air and bullshit though he was, I had a hard time discounting all of it when his room was plastered with posters and cluttered with keepsakes. Paris? Costa Rica? Yeah, they’d been there. On Rawles’s dime, usually.

“But Nya. Man, she looks at you and there’s just this…thing about her. And she always knows what people are thinking, even strangers, like she can smell it. I mean, they’re all kinda like that, but she’s better at it than the rest of ‘em. It’s fuckin’ creepy. She settled down a little when Gravity came around.” The young Mr. Rawles said the name like somebody had added dingle-berries instead of strawberries to his breakfast cereal.

Somebody wasn’t happy with the pecking order.

“If he’s such a prick, why keep him around?”

Rawles snorted. “You try telling Nya to stay away from someone and ask that again. Bitch has an iron fist. You gonna be all day? I gotta go get the dog from the barber.”

Like I said—Danville.

I got copies of the pictures from the dunce and scanned the bookshelf while I waited, out of habit more than anything. I got the addresses of the other girls and asked for Mr. Gravity’s info. I had to sit through a three minute bitch session and a formal protest, but after Rawles used a tennis racket in a graphic demonstration of how much Gravity sucked, he finally tossed me the guy’s card.

No address—not unusual for a freelancer.

I managed to get out the door three steps ahead of a fawning description of how Gravity could make a black hole that wouldn’t collapse for a half-hour. If Rawles payed half as much attention in physics as he did in the group tent on camping trips, he’d be pulling A’s instead of a-holes.

I’d intentionally parked halfway down the block. Old habit—if I had to tail him, I didn’t want him recognizing my car. But halfway back, replaying the encounter in my head, something twigged.

I don’t like things that don’t fit, and there was an awful lot about Jason Rawles that didn’t fit. I figured the money must come from dealing the pot he kept smoking, but the books on his shelf itched like bad athlete’s foot.

In the first place, he had them—physical books, not just the e-reader. In the second place, he was pulling nearly straight Fs. In the third place, the books were on topics I knew dick about—ethology, genetics, the kind of stuff you read about in the Greenpeace brochures with big scary fonts.

If Rawles was actually reading those books, then his report card didn’t tell the whole story about him, not by a damn sight.

The July heat turned the inside of my car into a cozy little pressure cooker, but I ducked in and cracked the windows just the same. Phone out, I scrolled through the addresses he’d given me—the other three girls whose names all felt strangely generic, and the man they all seemed to orbit. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but my alternative was to track down some of Nya’s teachers on a Saturday and try to get more of a picture of her.

Or I could talk to her father. Mrs. Thales had described him as remarkably unconcerned. He might know something his wife didn’t.

Rawles didn’t give me the chance to make up my mind. Over my steering wheel, I saw him walk out to the curb in front of his house fifty yards away. He took the last hit off his roach and scanned warily up the block, as if checking to make sure he wasn’t being watched.

I was buried a few cars back in the impromptu curbside lot—something about July heat waves makes for spontaneous barbecue parties amongst the Bobos—and if I kept still he’d never see me through the glare on my windshield. I just about managed it too, as long as you don’t count the sweat that jumped out of my pores like the computerized fountain at the Bellagio.

Satisfied that nobody was paying him the slightest bit of attention, he flicked the stub out into the street and retreated up the driveway, emerging ninety seconds later in his MR2 and zipping out to the main drag.

What can I say? Kid didn’t want to be followed, and I didn’t have any better ideas at that point.

 

After hooking and winding through the myriad micro-cities around Diablo, I finally understood Danville in the same way an endoscope understands a proctology patient.

The streets and neighborhoods crammed into little gullies had been designed by the time-honored expedient of getting a four-year-old to barf spaghetti-ohs onto a Landsat map, then tracing the resulting acid burns in sharpie. Eventually somebody with a fancy degree in something-or-other pointed a construction foreman at the marks and said “Send the bulldozers here.”

Yeah, “civil engineering” and “city planning” are two examples of the special breed of English that goes down well in the suburbs: they have a lot of syllables, sound really important, and have no apparent semantic relationship to the phenomenon they purport to describe.

As for Rawles, he spent the next three hours making the rounds at local tennis clubs and golf courses, still dressed like a refugee from the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog and walking like every step was a dare.

He was efficient—knew his business, always out and in with the drops in less than five minutes, good at checking his tail, at least now that he was on the job. Typical newbie, only turning his brains on when the shift starts—rookie cops do the same thing, it’s why they tend to do more killing and dying than the rest of us.

The small breaks when he was inside gave me time to go over the pictures and make notes.

What started off as the standard teenage road-trip photos with silly faces, blank shots of the scenery, and Cheetos stuffed up the nostrils of sleeping compatriots quickly escalated to the point where, I had to hand it to them, they managed to triple up on felonies without even trying.

There were the open containers in the car—they were mixing Budweiser and Southern Comfort, which should have been a felony all by itself, but there are some points on which the law and I don’t agree—and the pot in the car. With the booze and the underage kids, that made two plus a misdemeanor, if I wasn’t miscounting.

But it was what they did to the camera that put the capper on it—let’s just say that it was a good thing they had a waterproof model after some of the places they wound up sticking it.

It took a few minutes to wrap my head around the fact that Rawles had been understating the amount of debauchery in his little enclave, but only another couple of seconds to realize that, with two of the girls still under eighteen at the time, he’d handed me enough evidence to do him over for kiddie porn.

Lucky—though honestly I was surprised he hadn’t put them up on Facebook and just given me the link. Kids like to live in public and in pubic, and Rawles had the perfect storm of both.

My stomach went a little green around the edges as I flipped through, but I kept going, because there was something else in the pics that I didn’t know how to cope with.

The girls all had the wrong faces, somehow.

Normally, even when you’re talking sisters, racial or family resemblance is never stronger than the differences between individuals on faces, say, or hands. It was a subtle thing, but these four girls all seemed the same as each other, somehow.

They didn’t look like twins, exactly, but they had the same kind of generic-ness that, say, Down’s children have. Like somebody put an extra layer of plastic over them that marked them out as part of the same product line at the electronics store.

Damn creepy.

Following the brat wasn’t getting me anything but pieces of his client list, and I already had plenty of dirt on him if I needed it. Securing the pictures somewhere else besides my phone might be a good idea too—I didn’t fancy having to explain to my lawyer why he was suddenly defending me from a Megan’s Law problem.

Time for another plan.

Chapter 3

3:00 PM, Saturday

“Well, aren’t we in bright and early today.” Rachael, my intern, leaned against my office suite’s open door with her arms folded over her chest and a smirk on her face. When I hit the top of the stairs, she was ready for me.

“Didn’t you get the note?” I ducked past her. She followed me in and headed for her desk. Left the door open—she has a thing about being able to see trouble coming. Probably why she was waiting out there for me.

“When I got here there was a grand work of fiction sitting on my desk. It told of a case, and investigations, and something involving money.” She sipped something out of her sports bottle and settled back to the mess of papers she had arrayed like solitaire decks across the work surface. “I figured you’d given up and started writing novels for a dependable income.”

“Nice.” I shrugged out of my windbreaker and hung it on the hook since I didn’t expect any more clients through the front door today. “Anything going on here that I need to know about?”

“Mmm. My report is due in two weeks. I need you to sign the time sheets…”

My eyes swept the room and spotted new range souvenirs on her desk “Ho ho hold on,” I held up my hand, then pointed at the freshly used silhouette targets, “What the hell is this?”

“Practice.”

“Yeah, well, don’t hang them on the wall again, it freaks out the customers.”

“Spoil sport. These are forty yards on a snub,” she picked the top one up by the corner—nice grouping in the head.

“Very nice. You can shoot. Now stop bringing them in.” I barged through the connecting door to the main office.

“Or you’ll what?”

“Forget to do your time sheets” I shouted back through the door.

“You haven’t remembered them yet.”

“Yeah, well,” I dropped my phone on my desk and scooped up a sheet of printer paper with the words “Time sheets or die!” and a web address scrawled across it in Rachael’s block print. I stuck my head back into the main office and held up the sign, “I got the memo. Monday?”

She eyed me like she wasn’t sure whether I could manage to stay alive that long. “I don’t know. I guess I can trust you.”

“You know where to find me.”

“If you don’t sign it I’ll out you to the landlord for sleeping in the office.”

“I better get on it, then.” As good as my word—and hopefully a little better than my English—I retreated into my office, found the sheet buried under Wednesday’s mail pile, and gave it a once-over. Twenty hours a week for the whole summer—extra credit for that all night stakeout a couple weeks back trying to find out who was sneaking inventory out of the back of the 7-11 on MacArthur. “Looks good,” I shouted, and signed it.

I returned through the door and tossed it on her desk to find five-feet-four of leather-jacketed, goth-wannabe, blue-haired college kid once again leaning against something with folded arms like she was waiting for me to remember our anniversary. “Thanks.” The dry delivery, just to clue me in if I hadn’t noticed.

“Anything else?”

“Hmm…” She picked up the note I’d left for her earlier and perused it like an English professor, “your fiction could use a little work. There was an entire subplot about me getting hired on after the term ends that you completely neglected.”

“You should post that review up on Goodreads. Should make for a riveting conversation starter.”

“Let’s see, what else…” she turned back to the desk and shuffled through a pile of mail. “Just some bills. Department of Consumer Affairs sent a thirty-day nag note about the renewal on your license.”

She thrust a stack of opened envelopes at me. I took them and thumbed through. “Any calls?”

“What do I look like, your answering machine? Everything forwards to your cell phone anyway.”

I shrugged, conceding the point. “Got some time to help me collate some notes from today?”

“Sure.” She flomped down in her chair again.

“Log in, I’ll drop everything to the server.”

For the next two hours, I listened to the recording of my conversation with the kid—then read it over when Rachael typed up the transcript—until I was satisfied there was nothing in there I missed. After an afternoon chasing Rawles all over creation, my inherent sense of nihilism wasn’t going begging.

Rachael wasn’t impressed either. “Is this guy for real?”

“Depends on what you count as reality.”

“I guess. Jesus. You gonna spike him for the photos or the drugs?”

“Rule one: you got a potential witness that you might need to lean on later, hold it in reserve.”

“Aren’t you required to report?”

“It’s a gray area.”

“That’s like saying Emperor Hirohito was only kinda Japanese.”

“Class on World War Two this semester, eh?”

“Shut up and mind your own business.”

I chuckled. “Can you pull Rawles registration and driving record for me?”

“Sure.”

She wanted to learn this business from one end to the other, so she could use the extra database time. Every snoop needs to know the ins and outs of that god-awful interface—it’s a livelihood thing.

Me, I needed space to think.

Near as I could figure, the kid was a dead end. Pot and bluster and not a lot else—all shorts, no scrotum.

The other girls might be a different story—nine times out of ten, a girl runs away from home, she runs to a friend’s house. Sometimes, the friend hides her, or the friend’s parents don’t notice they have a boarder for a while.

Playing the odds, my money was on one of the other girls having Nya. First step: Facebook.

Nya hadn’t updated hers since a few hours before Mrs. Thales said she disappeared.

The other girls were easy to find—their public feeds weren’t filtered at all, and they used their real names.

Gina, Bridget, and Stephanie had all been updating every few hours. Rawles’s electronic graffiti was all over their posts, with Stephanie getting most of his replies, but nothing on their feeds implied that Nya might be with any of them. A glance through Stephanie and Bridget’s private lists with a script hack didn’t give me anything either.

Gina, though, was a different story. A post to her private list last night read:

“At movies. No Nya. Not answering phone. Anyone seen her?”

And a second one this morning:

“Can’t find Nya. Is she ok? Pls call ASAP.”

So Mrs. Thales wasn’t the only one worried. This girl really was missing.

There was something else, though. Something that didn’t fit. The same thing struck me earlier in the car—something in their faces.

They could have been sisters. It wasn’t that they all looked the same, exactly. But they all had a kind of family resemblance.

Long sloping forehead, small, slightly scrunched noses like there was always a bad smell in the air. Eyes that would make an anime cartoonist cream himself. And their mouths were…well, they were too big. The corners stretched toward their jaws just a little farther than normal, like they were part cat. Even when they were smiling, there was something vaguely frowny about them.

“Clarke,” Rachael shouted through the open door, “got Rawles’s DMV records.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Not really. Two speeding tickets.”

“Roll it into the file.”

“You got it.”

“Could you pull his school records and the records for the other three girls?”

“Sure, I guess.” Just barely tolerating my eccentricities.

I could have told her to forget it—I didn’t really need them. But it was good training, and it would buy me another hour or so.

I took ten minutes to dump the data from my phone and secure the less legal pics from Rawles on an encrypted drive which I then hid under floorboards. I set a data-scrubbing program loose in my phone’s flash memory—rewriting every empty sector with random noise eight different times, with different random numbers. Even the NSA can’t crack it, and I really don’t want to be caught holding dirty pictures of minors if I can avoid it.

Something about the way Rawles talked told me that the bond between these four girls was key to understanding Nya’s world. Particularly when he blathered about coming up through school with them, he’d talked about them like they were a unit—he’d swap from talking about one to talking about another without bothering to clarify his pronouns.

If I could understand that bond, maybe I could figure out where she ran off to—or get one of the other girls to lead me to her.

They all lived in the same town—maybe they’d all been adopted? Cousins? Or sisters from some careless teenaged mother?

I had no way to find out quickly. My birth records database isn’t broad or deep enough to find sealed adoption records—what I could find didn’t seem to suggest a connection between them.

One of them—Stephanie Jennings—had been born in England to a mother and father Jennings. Nya had been born at Travis Air Force Base to Dora and Phillip Thales. Neither family were Mormons, so genealogy would be a pain in the ass to dig up, but on the surface there was no obvious legal or blood relationship.

I dropped a note to Earl Whitaker—best data miner I’ve ever worked with—asking whether the girls were adopted, or related at all. Would like to have bought more, but I couldn’t justify the expense of a deep background check.

By rights I should have had Rachael call him, but I wasn’t ready to let that particular trade secret slip just yet. Maybe if she earned her keep. Maybe.

Even if she earned it, I didn’t know if I’d keep her on. It was nice having the extra hand, but I really didn’t want to be lugging a twenty year old kid around all over creation. Hell, she was basically the same age as Nya.

I tabled the question of Rachael’s post-internship employment. Again. I’d get back to it.

Someday.

Maybe.

So, if the four girls weren’t related, that left…what? Some kind of weird version of Down’s Syndrome?

Police work is a game. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different. It’s got more rules than a D&D set designed by Rain Man, but in the end, it’s a game with a password. I never did stop playing it after I went private, and the password is still the same: “I know a guy.”

Well, I know a guy, kinda—maybe more accurate to say I once saved someone’s ass—who does pediatrics over at Oakland Children’s. She owes me a few favors, and she’s one of those obsessive-compulsives that eats dinner at the same place every Saturday evening, without fail.

If I left now, I could just catch her.

I told Rachael not to wait for me.

 

Oakland and Berkeley share a border that looks like it was drawn up in a bad divorce between a rage-a-holic husband and a schizophrenic wife—no, I don’t know which is which, but does it really matter?

The border zig-zags through about four neighborhoods to the extent where, all along Alcatraz, you can step from one city to another and back again by walking in a line straight enough to please even the most belligerent beat cop. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a toilet where you can sit with one cheek in each town and cause another border skirmish with your deposit.

Cafe Colluci is a hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian place that’ll be the first thing up for grabs if the two cities ever actually get into an armed territory dispute. Fenced off from Telegraph behind grass screens, they serve little stewed piles of paradise on spongy sour pancakes.

I found Kristine Warner at one of the split-log tables on the makeshift front patio, munching on collard greens and messer-wot and reading the latest Robin Cook. Back to the sidewalk, like she knew I was coming.

I jingled my keys in a shave-and-a-haircut rhythm. She knocked out “two bits” on the wood.

“You must be desperate.” She didn’t turn around. Didn’t even look up from her book.

“You can’t imagine.”

She looked half to the side and smirked. “You’d be surprised.” She tapped her finger at the seat opposite her own.

I sat down.

“How’ve you been?” She still wasn’t looking at me. Longstanding standoffs breed the most complicated ritual greeting dances.

“Been okay.” I got two full nostrils-full of berebere, garlic, and hot enjirah. Would make a fine dinner, and Kristine wanted me to take some.

“You still living in your office?” She pushed the basket of springy sour bread toward me.

“Sometimes.” I didn’t eat any. My life is too complicated already.

“Anyone on your calendar?”

“Getting kind of personal, aren’t you?”

“I know you’ve got a gun wedged in your butt and freckles on your penis. How much more personal does it get?”

“Hmph. I was having a bad day that day.”

“Just keep telling yourself that and you might be able to sleep at night.”

“Don’t count on it.”

“So,” She deigned to peer at me over the edge of the paperback, “Let me guess, another stolen diamond accidentally swallowed by the thief’s toddler?”

“Nah, this one’s better.” I handed her my phone, with Nya’s pic front and center. “Have you ever seen something like this before?”

She marked her book, licked the lentil slime off the fingers on her right hand, and took the phone. “Oh, that’s a good one.”

“Come again?”

“If you wanted another date you could just ask. Spending all this time in Photoshop is kinda high-school, don’t you think?”

“Ha! My mouse’s relationship with photos ends at the browser window.”

“If I live to a hundred you’ll never know how grateful I am for that. So what’s this?” She shook the phone.

“Got a runaway case—that’s her—and there’s four teenage girls, all about the same age, that have the same kind of thing going on.”

“Do you have them with you?”

“Yeah. Swipe right.”

She scrolled through them. “That’s something, all right. Nice family.”

“Not related—not even close. Any idea what it could be?”

“You’re thinking congenital?”

“Can’t think of anything else.”

“I’ve never seen it in any of the kids I’ve worked on. Could be really rare…I don’t know.” She tore off a hunk of injera and nibbled on the corner. “Birth defects are almost always off-putting. Uncanny. Viscerally unpleasant.

“Hardest thing for siblings over about five is to see the person behind the disfigurement. But these…it’s more like it’s on purpose. Like a sculptor did it. They’re really beautiful. I’d say stunning, but they’re strange enough I can’t go that far.” She handed the phone back to me. “They must be really popular.”

“That’s the rumor. You sure it’s not a Down’s thing…”

“No. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Another couple bites. “You know who might, though…” She took a sip of of her tej, “I had a professor at UCSF, think he’s still there. Embryology—if it’s a congenital thing, he’ll know it cold.”

“Name?”

“Sternwood. Richard Sternwood. Last I heard he was still there.”

“Thanks.” I took my phone back from her. “Everything copacetic?”

“Yup.” She checked her wristwatch and waved at the clerk inside the restaurant. “Life’s good.”

“Good.” I resisted the urge to ask her when she was free next week. Instead, I locked the screen and pocketed the phone as I stood up. “Sternwood?”

“Yup.”

“Thanks, I owe you one.” I walked away before she could dispute the bill. She still hadn’t forgiven me for getting her out of that mess last year, still less for the promotion she got because of it. Every time I came to her for a favor, she was easier, like the bill collectors wouldn’t call anymore now that she could pay an installment.

Once I was rolling safely along at three inches an hour through Berkeley traffic, I looked up the Embryology department in the UCSF directory. Richard Sternwood, research professor, Embryology. His office hours were strictly weekdays only, so he probably wasn’t in at the moment.

I called him anyhow, on the theory that it was better to poke a wild academic with a sharp stick than follow directions and get the runaround.

He wasn’t in. His grad student was, though, and he was very helpful after a little sweet talk and the promise of chocolates.

It seemed the professor was attending a bioethics symposium at Stanford all weekend, but would be in during normal office hours on Monday.

Hurry up and wait? At a thousand bucks a day, I wasn’t going to take time off if I could help it. So long as I had to wait to do the next obvious piece of legwork, I might as well shore up my background on the missing girl.

“Mrs. Thales, this is Clarke Lantham.”

“Is everything okay?” Her voice on the other end of the line was steady and controlled, as if she were bracing herself for the worst.

“Everything’s fine. I’ve got a couple hours waiting for some information that might help. I was wondering if I could drop by and take a look at Nya’s room.”

“Umm…I guess so. Why?”

“If she ran away, taking a look at her space might give me some ideas.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

End of sample. ©2010 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved

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