Authors: Penny Rudolph
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General, #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / Women Sleuths, #Mystery fiction, #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Recovering alcoholics/ Fiction, #Women alcoholics/ Fiction, #Women alcoholics, #Recovering alcoholics
Also by Penny Rudolph
Listen to the Mockingbird
Thicker Than Blood
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2007 by Penny Rudolph
First Edition 2007
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2006934076
ISBN: 9781590583463 Hardcover
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Printed in the United States of America
To Warren Murphy, for his solid advice, staunch support,
and, especially, his responses to SOS messages
no matter where, or how busy, he is
The author owes much gratitude to:
Michael Siverling, investigator with the Sacramento, California Public Defender, friend, advisor on the ways of California law enforcement, and a super novelist in his own right
Sorche Fairbank. If there’s a more helpful, generous agent out there, I haven’t heard of one
Barbara Peters. Not for nothing is she known as one of the best mystery editors in the western world
Dave Bryant, Police Detective in Tampa, Florida, one of the funniest men alive, and a great instructor on how ordinary people can defeat bigger, stronger opponents
Marilyn Hutton, for her indispensable plot and character suggestions, even when we were tossed out of restaurants for overstaying the lunch hour
Ralph Rudolph, for his unwavering encouragement and astute suggestions, to say nothing of his tolerating the foibles of a writer-spouse
Dr. Elena Gonzalez for her many useful comments and recommendations
Rob Kresge, for his wonderfully analytical critiques and essential advice
Goldialu Stone, for her thoughtful, practical, and wise counsel
Michael White, for his excellent, incisive critiques
Lois Hirt, for her humor and assistance
Jane Sampson, for her aid, ideas, and advice
Sharon Winters, a booster and a pillar of support
Kim Jackson, International Parking Institute, for her willingness to answer even witless questions
Gayle (Roz) Russell, for her open-handed, enthusiastic critiques
Laine Conway, for her friendship and her discerning assistance with plot planning
It came in the darkness, in the middle of the night, a faint metal-on-metal tapping, knocking, drumming, riding an echo through the empty building.
Even faint as it was, it waked Rachel. She thought it was just one of the street people, gone a bit nuts—such things happen around downtown Los Angeles—someone rapping with a spoon or something on one of the doors to the parking garage below her apartment. She didn’t want to hike all the way down to the street level in her nightshirt to find the cause. Nor did she want to call the cops about some, probably harmless, poor soul and make an already unlucky life worse. So she turned over and went back to sleep.
The following morning arrived fresh, sunny and clear. In a few days it would be October. The heat was gone, the smog fading. Rachel had quite forgot the night’s disturbance.
Having overslept, she was still licking the crumbs of a breakfast of bagel and cream cheese from her lips when she strode down the ramps to her glass cubicle on the parking garage’s street level. Walking through the parking levels gave her the chance to check on things like burned-out lights, litter, wall damage, and what vehicles had been left overnight—which was okay as long as they belonged to regular clients and weren’t left there too long.
She was surprised to see a dirty white van parked behind one of the big cement pillars in the area generally reserved for fleet cars belonging to InterUrban Water Agency. But the agency’s cars were all black sedans. Had the van been there a while and she just hadn’t noticed? She wasn’t sure.
The garage didn’t cater to public parking, the signs outside the building said so. Rachel’s spaces were leased by nearby businesses, but every now and then some interloper got in. The occasional freeloader was the price of avoiding the expense of installing machines and gate arms and issuing cards.
She had been operating the garage for several years. Inheriting it from her grandfather had more or less saved her life by pointing it in a fresh direction.
Did the van belong to someone at one of the businesses that leased space? Hard to know. The places cars parked had more to do with when they arrived than where their drivers worked. Still, most people noted the Reserved signs in the areas held for fleet cars and didn’t intrude.
Running a few minutes behind, Rachel hurried to get the garage open for the early arrivals. She’d have to check on the van after the morning rush. With any luck, someone would pick it up by then and she could forget about it.
She unlocked the huge doors, and watched as they rose, crunching and creaking, above the driving lanes. Next were the doors to the sidewalk, the people doors. Remembering now the sounds in the night, she examined them for marks. She had painted those doors a few months ago. Dark red. She admired the way they looked in the white brick wall. No chipped paint, no sign of damage, no indication that anyone had banged on them with a metal instrument of some sort.
Opening rituals done, she took up her post in the cubicle as the early cars began to swarm in like bees hunting for the best flower. Rachel liked to be on hand in case someone had a dead cell phone, a flat tire, a defunct battery, whatever. Happy clients would keep her garage, and herself, financially afloat. No small trick these days.
Catching sight of her reflection in the glass of the cubicle, she turned her head from side to side. Hank had persuaded her to let her hair grow longer. She hadn’t wanted to at first, but examining her image now, she found she liked the change—straight hair, almost to the shoulder and parted in the middle. Her eyebrows were still too level, chin too strong—her mother had called it stubborn. Continual plucking might force her brows into an arch, but Rachel knew she wouldn’t have the patience to keep it up.
Her father thought the new hairstyle made her look too Chicana.
“But you’re half Mexican,” she told him. “That makes me part Mexican. I shouldn’t look it?”
For the first time she wondered if her father was anti-Mexican. That would be tough. How could you be anti-part-of-yourself? If that was the case, it might be because her mother’s parents were sort of anti-Mexican.
Marty Chavez would have done absolutely anything to keep Rachel’s mother happy; even stop being Mexican. But Madeleine had slipped away from both Marty and Rachel after being thrown from a horse.
No. The horse accident was only part of it. Madeleine might have recovered from that. She died after Rachel had taken time off from caring for her invalid mom, and left their farm in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for a shopping trip to San Francisco. She had long ago forgot why she wanted to go shopping or what she had bought. What she couldn’t forget was that she had brought back a very nasty virus.
It seemed a lifetime ago but Rachel still could hardly bear to think of it. Neither she nor Marty were ever the same again. The nightmare of it all had sent them skidding down a slippery slope with nothing to break their fall. Madeleine had been the one who gave their little family stability.
The time was heading toward eleven when Rachel remembered the van.
She found its dusty sides wedged between two black Cadillac fleet cars that had parked a bit over their lines. The rear plate on the van was Arizona. That might not mean anything. Newly transplanted California residents often waited as long as possible before paying the taxes and doing whatever it took to pass the emissions test and register and tag their cars. This particular van looked more like a panel truck than a passenger vehicle.
Was it abandoned? Stolen? Damn. That would be a pain in the butt. It happened a couple times a year, and Rachel was less than fond of dealing with cops.
There was that record of her DWI and possession arrest up north after her mom died. And there was the incident that had put her on a collision course with the power players in California’s water politics. The CEO of InterUrban Water District had been killed by someone driving a company car, and Rachel had found the guilty car in her garage. Bad headed for worse and she’d had to report her own part in the grisly mess, undergo interrogation and the interminable waiting, wondering if she would be charged with murder.
In the end, she wasn’t charged. And the ordeal did have a silver lining. It had brought her Hank, a water resources engineer at InterUrban.
She tried the rear door of the van. Locked. Not surprising. The inside of the rear windows had been sloppily painted white. Turning sideways, she slid between the van and its neighbor. The window in the driver’s door was heavily tinted.
When that door proved locked, she moved to the front window. Now she could see brown plush front seats, worn and empty except for a couple of squashed beer cans and some crumpled balls of paper on the passenger side. An abandoned vehicle? Maybe stolen and dumped after serving some shady purpose.
Rachel was sliding back along the front fender when her eye caught on something behind the front seats. A metal grill of some sort.
Cupping her hands above her eyes, she peered through the windshield. Was that a cage? With something inside? She pounded the window with her fist. If someone had left a dog locked up here, she would personally hunt them down and turn them over to the authorities.
She strained to make out the image in the shadows behind the seat.
It wasn’t a dog.
She was looking at a small, thin hand.
“Hey!” Rachel rammed the side of her fist against the window. “Hey, in there!”
The hand didn’t move. She rocked the van. Still nothing.
Back at the driver’s door, she hammered the tint-darkened window, but that only hurt her knuckles and she couldn’t see the hand from there. Leaving the van, she hurried back to her cubicle to find the jimmy she used to help the amazing number of clients who managed to lock themselves out of their cars.
The driver’s window was tightly shut and she had trouble slipping the jimmy inside. Slamming her fist against the door in frustration, it occurred to her that the van probably didn’t belong to a client or to anyone she knew. Its presence here was illegal, its use possibly criminal.
Rachel ran back to the cubicle, wrestled a toolbox from under a cabinet, and took out a hammer. A few seconds later she was raising the hammer and swinging it at the white-painted window in the left rear door.
The glass cracked and buckled but didn’t give way. A wisp of foul smell seeped out.
Inside, no sound. Nothing seemed to move.
The third swing made a hole in the window large enough to put her hand through. Her arm raked against the jagged glass. Blood dribbled across her wrist as she tried to find the latch release. Maybe there wasn’t any. Panel trucks were generally used for hauling stuff, not people.
Her sense of urgency building, she slid back along the side of the van, raised the hammer and brought it down on the driver’s window until again there was a hole she could reach through. This time her fingers reached the switch. Door open, she climbed inside, peered over the seat back.
On the floor of what looked like a makeshift animal cage, two boys sprawled, eyes closed. But no way could they have slept through the racket she had made. Rachel searched the panel of buttons on the armrest, then under the seat before finding the right lever to release the rear door.
At the back of the van, she grabbed an outside handle and pulled the door open. Only a metal stub remained where the hand release for the back door should have been. A rush of stale, musty air enveloped her.
The door to the cage inside, held closed and inoperable by the back door of the van, swung open. One boy lay prone, his face turned away, the other was curled in a fetal position, a hand held out toward her, a small metal bolt clutched between his fingers.
The odor of dirty diapers was strong. But these children weren’t infants, they looked maybe nine, perhaps a small ten. Whoever had left them here hadn’t provided a potty.
Both boys were dark-haired, taffy-skinned. They looked Mexican or Guatemalan, Salvadoran—from somewhere south of the border.
Rachel grabbed the shoulder of the boy closest to her and shook him. His head flopped back and forth but his eyes didn’t open. She grabbed the arm of the second boy. No response. She jammed a middle finger under his jaw trying to find a pulse. Was there a faint tremor? No time to wonder. Or to bring help.
Leaving the van’s doors ajar, she ran down to the level where she kept her own car, backed the new-to-her but aging Honda Civic out of its space, drove it up the ramp and edged it as close to the van as she could. She jumped out, opened the hatchback and lowered the back of the rear seat.
Neither boy weighed much, but she was afraid of hurting them. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay,” she whispered, knowing they couldn’t hear her, but saying it anyway.
“Please, please, please…,” she murmured over and over, hoping there really was a God who could fix this. It took a few moments to deposit each boy gently into the hatch.
Back in the Civic’s front seat, Rachel rested an elbow on the steering wheel, held her hand to her temple, and tried to slow the panic in her head. The hospital wasn’t far. But what was the fastest way to get there?
She revved the motor, popped the clutch and broke her own speed rules exiting the garage.
Wheels complaining each time she zigged or zagged around a corner, she caught the stale end of a yellow light, drove through the red, hung a hard left and entered the hospital parking lot neither noticing nor caring that she was in the exit lane. The lot was huge and packed with cars.
Skidding to a stop at the emergency entrance, she leaned on the horn. The brick wall of the hospital stretched on a block or two. Jefferson Hospital was old and rambling, built onto many times, but its reputation was top notch.
The glass emergency doors reflected the clear sky. Where the hell was everyone?
Rachel leapt out of the car, opened the hatchback and hurried toward the glass doors, which slid open automatically as she approached. “Help!” she yelled. “Please help me. I have two kids out here. If they’re not already dead, they don’t have long.”
That galvanized two men and a woman in loose, pale green shirts and pants who appeared in the hall across from the door, and trotted forward. The gurney they steered bumped past her and down the ramp outside the emergency door. She followed them to her car.
By the time they had lifted the first boy onto it, a second team had appeared. Clasping the other boy, one of the medics raised his eyes to Rachel’s, then transferred the small frame to the second gurney.
The glass doors whipped open again. A woman stepped out and motioned to Rachel. “Park your car and come in,” she called. “There’s paperwork.”
“I don’t know these kids,” Rachel said. “I just…sorta…found them.”
“That’s fine. But please come in.” The woman jerked her chin over a broad, sharp shoulder. “We still need a signature.” She moved aside as, one behind the other, the gurneys bounced up the ramp on their rubber wheels, rolled through the doorway, and disappeared.
The woman wagged her head at Rachel and motioned again. She was square-jawed and looked like a third-grade teacher—definitely a match for any unruly class. “Come.”
Sighing, Rachel nodded. She closed the hatch, got back behind the Honda’s wheel, and hunted for a parking space. It took a while. She had to circle the lot four times.
The woman met her at the entrance door.
“I don’t know those kids,” Rachel told her. “Not even their names. I found them locked in a panel truck parked in my garage. I never saw them before. I have no idea who they are or where they’re from, or why or when they were left in that van.”
As if she hadn’t heard a word, the woman led the way to a small office, offered Rachel a chair and sat down behind a small metal desk that was about the same color as the scrubs worn by the emergency room staff. “Mrs. McCarthy,” the woman pronounced, looking at Rachel over granny glasses perched near the end of her nose. “They call me Mrs. Mac. You want someone to look at that arm?”
Rachel glanced at the cut from the window glass. The blood had congealed. Her medical insurance had a big deductible. “No thanks. I’m fine.”