The long-awaited fourth book in the Thieves Series
By Ella West
copyright Ella West 2013
There is a warm breeze, bringing the smell of the sea into the city. The houses here are big, well big by my standards but then everything is big in this city. In this neighbourhood there are lawns and shrubs and paths and front doors and it all seems looked after. People who care live in these houses. Even in the street lights I can see that. This is a nice neighbourhood, one my parents would approve of, even feel a little bit in awe of. They would like to live here. Anyone would like to live here, unless they were a movie star or something like that.
No lights are on in any of the houses. It’s late so I suppose everyone has gone to bed. There are cars in driveways, children’s toys left abandoned on the grass until tomorrow so people live here, in this street, but maybe not in this house, the one I’m interested in.
“Have you found him, Nicky?” Tim’s voice is loud in my ear. I’m wearing this tiny earpiece so I can hear him and he can hear me but no one would know. He calls it “state-of-the-art technology”. I was just worried I was going to lose it. It’s so small. But now, after using it a few times, I wouldn’t do without it. Tim might not be standing here with me but it’s the next best thing.
“He’s in this house. I’m right outside it.” I say. It is kind of weird, talking to someone who’s not there, but no one is around to notice this time so it’s okay.
“I have your position. You’re on Honeywell Drive?
“Number 15.” I read the number off the mail box for him.
“Got it. Travel back when it’s safe.”
Besides the earpiece, I also have a GPS tracking system in my pocket so Tim knows where I am. This one, unlike in the past, I can ditch if I want but so far I haven’t had a reason to. Life is so much better than it was before.
I look back up at the house and something gets me. I suddenly shiver, even though it is warm, and a wave of homesickness threatens. Was it thinking about my parents before? Comparing this house, this neighbourhood to the one I grew up in, the one I live in now when I’m home and going to school, just a normal teen? I don’t know. I’ve only been gone a week. In another week I’ll be back on the plane, ready for the start of term three, holiday job done with until September. I shake my head. This is not the time or place to be thinking of all this. Too complicated, too mixed up.
But something is wrong. I get the photo out of my jeans pocket again of the guy I’m supposed to be seeking. This man with blue eyes and chubby cheeks is smiling straight at me. His blond hair is receding, making him look older than he probably is. I’m sure I’ve got the right guy, got the right house. I’m a seeker, as well as a finder. I can do this. I’ve got it right even though it feels somehow wrong.
“What’s up, Nicky?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t travel back?” Instantly his voice is full of concern.
“No, it’s not that.” I never have a problem with travelling and Tim knows that but he’s still unsure about it all. The fact I can disappear and reappear whenever I want to, pretty much wherever I want to, within limits of course, amazes him and I think still scares him at times as well. I’m not the only one who has been able to do it, but few people know about it. Besides my parents and Tim, maybe no one else knows about it now. Everyone who once did, I think, is now dead. Again, this is not the time or place to be thinking of any of this.
“What is it? Talk to me.”
“It’s like he’s here, in this house, but he’s not here.”
“That doesn’t make any sense to me, Nicky. Have you got the right house or not?”
“I’ve got the right house.”
“Right then, travel back.”
“I will, I just want to figure this out first.” I stand there thinking a minute, moving from one foot to the other on the pavement. “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” I finally ask.
“He’s a good guy. Stockbroker, wife, two young children, no criminal record. He goes surfing, watches baseball on TV.”
“Any idea why he’s missing?”
“His wife reported him gone two days ago. He left home in the morning but never showed up for work.”
“But there must be a reason why you’ve got me out here. Lots of people go missing, why is he so different?”
“There’s some concern,” Tim starts to say then stops. I know there are things he can’t tell me, that are classified or whatever, but sometimes these are the things I need to know, to do my job, to keep me safe. “There’s some concern about the shares he was trading,” he finally finishes.
“So he could be in trouble?”
“But he’s not dangerous? If he sees me he’s not going to hit me or anything?”
“No. Probably not. What are you thinking of doing?”
“Nothing. I just want to go into the house. Make sure he’s really there. Maybe I could just look through the windows.”
“It will be all right. There’s no one around. Seriously.”
“Just travel back, please.”
“I want to find out.”
“I’m sending a car.”
“How long?” I sigh, loud enough so he can hear it.
“Ten minutes. You have ten minutes and then there will be agents with you, picking up the pieces if they need to.”
“They won’t have to. It’ll be fine. Okay, send the car. You were going to do that anyway and I’ll just peep in a few windows round the back. Can you tell me anything about the house? Does anyone live here?”
“Give me a second.”
I leave the street and ease myself along the fence to the back of the house. The grass feels dry under my feet, the ground hard. The back of the house is not much different to the front, the same tidy garden, the same cut lawn, no signs of anyone living here.
“The house is unoccupied. It’s been sold but it doesn’t look like the buyer has moved in yet.” As well as Tim’s voice I can hear his fingers tapping a computer keyboard.
“How do you know that?”
“Well, there’s the change of ownership but the water’s off and there’s no phone. No electricity either.”
“Okay. So is there a reason why our guy would be here? He’s not the guy who bought it?”
“No. I don’t know why he would be in the house.”
“Maybe I am wrong. How long have I got now until that car full of FBI agents arrive?”
“About five minutes.”
There’s no curtains covering the windows but here, away from the street lights, it’s dark. I can’t see anything inside. The back door, however, when I try it, is unlocked. And I have a torch.
“Talk to me, Nicky. Tell me what you’re doing.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. Remember, you’re working for me. You do as I say.”
“Okay,” I sigh again loudly, just to make sure he understands. “I’ve opened the back door and have taken three steps inside after closing the door behind me.”
“You’ve done what?”
“It wasn’t locked.”
“So? Did I say you could go inside?”
“You didn’t say I couldn’t.”
I swing the torch beam wide. I’m in a kitchen, an empty kitchen. No one has been living here for a long time. Even the air smells stale, rotten. Maybe they didn’t clean out the cupboards, maybe there’s a dead mouse somewhere. I get the shivers again. Perhaps this isn’t such a good idea. I flick the light switch on the wall but nothing happens. The power must be off.
“What are you doing now?”
“I’m leaving the kitchen and entering the hallway. Okay?”
“No. But I don’t think I can stop you.”
After the hum of the city it’s quiet in here. I listen for sounds, of someone moving around, a television maybe, water running, anything. But there’s only silence and the sound of me breathing, my heartbeat, my footsteps. I open the first door along the hallway and cautiously look inside. The room is empty. So is the second. Bedrooms? Without any furniture it’s hard to tell. The third door opens with the sound of a soft click. And there he is.
“Nicky, talk to me.”
Chubby cheeks, receding hairline, blue eyes, smile, putrid smell. It’s the man in the photograph. He’s sitting in a chair facing me, eyes open, and he’s dead. I must freak because the torch slips out of my hand and hits the floor, the light going out. I reach down, frantically trying to find it. Being in a dark room with a dead guy is infinitely worse than being able to see him, even though his face looked gross in the narrow beam of the torch. At least I won’t have to get close to check his pulse or anything. He was quite definitely dead. No more surfing for him, no more going home to his wife and kids. I’ve failed. I am meant to find them alive. No point in finding anyone dead is there? So that’s why it felt wrong, when I seeked him out. At least now I know.
Finally, after what feels like ages but is probably only a second or two, my fingers touch the torch. I grab it, give it a shake, and the narrow beam is back.
“Nicky, what’s happening?”
“I found your . . .” My voice stutters to a stop as I slowly stand up. In the torch light I now see what the man is holding. It’s a clock of some sort except it’s showing numbers and they’re counting backwards. It’s down to twelve, now eleven. I flash the torch beam around, trying to figure it out and glimpse the wires on the ground from the door I’ve just opened to a box under the dead guy’s chair to the clock in his hands.
“Nicky, the car’s outside. They’re about to come in.”
“No. Don’t let them.”
Eight, seven . . .
“Five, four . . .
“There’s a bomb.”
Three, two. I travel.
This is my new life. Well, it’s really my old life with good stuff added in. Stuff I choose to add in. I live with my parents. School is a ten minute walk away. I’ve got this year and then next year and then I’m finished. I have some really good friends and we hang out together most Friday and Saturday nights and have fun. I swim competitively and that takes a lot of my time. Lots of early mornings and making sure I eat right. And then I have this holiday job. One of my friends works in the petrol station down the road in the holidays, another walks dogs. I do something a little bit different.
No one really knows about it at home. My parents do. That took a lot of explaining but they understood in the end and don’t worry, too much. Actually, I know they worry a lot. They lost me once, they don’t want something to happen to me again. Anyway, my friends, my parent’s friends, my teachers, they all know nothing about it and that is the way I want it to stay. They just all think I have an uncle who lives in Los Angeles who I visit every school holidays, you know, I’m hanging out with my cousins at Santa Monica, doing the beach thing, the malls.
Some of that is true. I am visiting a guy. His name is Tim Shaw but he’s not my uncle. And I do go to the beach at Santa Monica, which is like a suburb of LA, and I like wandering along the pier and seeing the sun is so nice when it’s winter at home. I always come back with the best tan. When all the other girls were getting spray tans done for the school ball, I didn’t have to. I was natural.
But it is a school holiday job. I am working. I am earning money. Really good money. It goes into a fund for when I leave school. I tell you, I will not need a student loan if I decide to go to university. I get paid in US dollars so when you convert that into New Zealand currency, believe me, it is a lot. By the end of the year I will have enough to buy my own car and I’m not talking about an old rust bucket. Not that I will be able to drive it. I still haven’t got my restricted driver license yet. It takes six months and I started late. Getting dad to give me some lessons is a priority when I get back home. But I won’t be buying a car when I do get my restricted. That would raise a few eyebrows. Keeping a low profile is always my number one priority, well, apart from keeping safe. Even in LA, I’m careful. Okay, my wardrobe is a little bit more out there than at home but that’s the way everyone dresses here.
I live with Tim. We are kind of flatmates. I have a big bedroom and all my stuff so when I hop on a plane in Auckland to come over here I don’t even need to pack my toothbrush. It’s easier that way, especially as I hate packing and unpacking. At home, Mum does all my washing and cooks the meals and even stacks the dishwasher. It only takes minutes, she says. But with Tim, I have to do all my own washing, help with the cooking, although we eat takeout a lot, and keep the kitchen clean. I even vacuum the floor when Tim’s in a cleaning mode. In LA I’m an adult, at home I’m kid. It’s weird but it works, as long as I remember where I am. And separation is nice, especially when you do what I do. Taking my work home is not an option.
Tim is what they call a FBI operative. I don’t know much about what he really does, he doesn’t tell me and I don’t ask. Anyway, everyone knows about the FBI, there are heaps of TV shows and movies with FBI people in them, although Tim says it really isn’t like that. I met him by accident, when I was doing a mission for the Project. The he helped me escape when everything went wrong. I wouldn’t say he saved my life, but he was there when I needed him. When he came and visited me several months later, needing my help, I couldn’t say no could I?
Okay, I admit it, it was a bit more than that. Home is nice, safe, but so boring. So routine. Get up, have breakfast, go to school, come home from school, do homework, have tea, do more homework, go to bed. So boring. In LA, with Tim, I have no idea what I will be doing each day. It’s part of the thrill, the excitement. Of course there are some days I have nothing to do but even those are amazing. I walk down the road from where we live at Santa Monica and go to the beach. The weather is always beautiful, except I’ve heard for in January, and I swim or lie on a towel or sit and watch. There’s always so much going on. An exercise class, or guys learning to surf or the life guards in the huts along the beach telling someone off for going out too deep. Sometimes, on the horizon, you can see aircraft carriers and other ships going past. Apparently there is a naval base nearby. I swim a lot in the surf. The life guards never tell me off, they can see I know how to swim, even in the big waves. They wear those red swimming trunks, just like in that old TV programme Baywatch, but they’re nowhere near as good looking. Some of them are really old, like in their fifties. I’m certainly not going to pretend I need rescuing, just so I can get up close to them. Maybe that’s part of the job description. No gorgeous hunks allowed. All the teen girls will just want to be rescued by you.
Tim is okay. He’s in his twenties, got a girlfriend, a dog called Mutt, as in The Mutt, who is shaggy and adorable and when you walk in the door for the first time for a few months he wants to lick you to death. It’s nice to be missed. When I’m watching TV he jumps up on the sofa and puts his head in my lap. After a while it gets really heavy but that’s Mutt.
Tim’s girlfriend Joanna lives further into the city, away from the beach. She’s nice. Wears amazing clothes, amazing heels. She works in an office doing something, I’m not quite sure what, so I only see her in the weekends and sometimes in the evenings, that’s if I’m not working. She never tries to mother me, which is good because Tim certainly does. We work pretty closely together, in some scary situations, so occasionally the odd hug, the odd “be careful” is needed. When he tries any more than that I usually tell him what I think. He is my boss, but he needs me to do the job, because no one else can.
It’s probably a unique situation. My friend Josh who works at the petrol station, he can get the sack whenever and be replaced the next day. Tim can’t do that to me because no one else can do what I do.
I’m not sure who got freaked out the most with that bomb. I was okay, I travelled in time to escape most of the blast. I remember the heat, the noise but then I was gone and standing next to Tim in the air-conditioned coolness of what they call an operational centre. Apparently, these rooms are usually full of people when an ops is happening. When it’s just me and Tim, it’s just me and Tim.
He’s yelling into his mouthpiece, to me to get out of there, to the guys he sent in the cars not to go in. Except by now they will have realised going into that house is not a good idea. He finally realises I am standing right next to him and then he goes all panicky and checks me over for singed hair and blown eardrums. After like I don’t know how many minutes of reassuring him I’m okay we finally turn back to the monitors. By then a TV traffic report helicopter has been diverted into the valley and coverage floods the cable channels. Tim and I watch as the top storey of the house catches fire, fire crews still too far away to stop it.
“There will be nothing left,” Tim says.
“The bomb was wired to the bedroom door. As soon as I opened it, the timer started. There was no time to bring anything back.”
“You shouldn’t have been in there.”
“What, do you think it would have been better to let the cops find him like that? They wouldn’t have been able to get out in time.”
“That doesn’t matter. What does matter is you almost didn’t get out in time.”
“So, they’re expendable and I’m not. Is that it?”
“You know the answer to that.”
He turns back to the TV screens. It’s true, we’ve had this conversation several times before and it’s always the same. I’m worried about other people getting hurt because of me. Tim is just worried about me getting hurt. Mothering. I pity the children he and Joanna will someday probably have. Maybe I’ll be able to give them some tips on how to handle it.
I watch the screens while Tim types up his report. It’s pretty brief, there’s not a lot to say, so it doesn’t take very long. He asks me a few questions, about the state of the body, what the bomb looked like, then encrypts what he has written and sends it to whoever it is who reads his reports. That person then sends the relevant information to whichever agency wanted to know about the former missing person, the now blown-to-bits person, and that’s the job done. Of course I would love to know more. How did the guy die, who killed him, who planted the bomb and why but that’s not my job. I just get to find the missing person, or in this case, the missing dead person.
I’ve never seeked out a dead person before. Paul had. He never told me it felt different but then he never talked about it. He was always freaked out about it. I wish he had told me. But now I know and next time I will be prepared.
Tim’s finished and he starts turning everything off. On the TV screens the roof of the house is caving in as now three helicopters circle. Fire crews have hoses snaking across the ground and the first jets of water seem simply to add weight to the crumbling timbers. The screens go blank as Tim hits the power switch on the remotes. He’s wearing gloves, the same as me. There will be no record that we have ever been in this room, no log, no booking form, not even our finger prints.
“Pizza or Chinese?” he asks.
It’s late but we often eat late when we’re working.
I opt for neither and we end up being the last customers in the Mexican restaurant a walk away from where we live. Over enchiladas we watch the waitress clean the other tables and the cook start to wash the floor.
It is kind of weird when I think about it, and I do bother to think about it, a man has died and we are not even mourning his death. I mean, the murder rate in this city is high, at least one a day, I don’t know, maybe more, but this was one we were involved in.
“It’s just a job,” Tim reminds me, picking up his beer.
“I know. I just wish we could have done more.”
“Don’t wish, don’t think. It’s over. Tomorrow will be another day, another job.”
“What? I haven’t been to the beach yet since I got here.”
“And I don’t think you are going to, not on this trip. It looks’ like we’ll be trying to pack in a month’s work before you go home next week. The agency is finally figuring out what you can do. Every missing case has been piled on my desk. I’m starting with the most recent. By the end of the week when you get on that bird we might be down to those gone more than a few days.”
I get up with the sun. While it’s cold and dark back home in the mornings, in the depth of winter, here in Los Angeles the sun gets up about six. No need for an alarm clock. I shrug on my shorts and T-shirt and find my running shoes from where I ditched them yesterday. I tie my hair up, clean my teeth, think for the millionth time that it’s odd that I like to run in the morning with clean teeth, side step The Mutt still snoozing on the floor next to the apartment door, and head out.
There’s a concrete strip along the beach that runs from the Santa Monica Pier south to Venice Beach. It’s early but it’s already cluttered with cyclists, skateboarders and joggers like me. It’s a matter of obeying the road rules, except here in the US it’s keep to the right, not the left.
Even though it feels like most of Santa Monica is on the path, the view of the sea and breathing in the fresh air makes it worth it. It’s about five kilometres to the Venice Beach Fishing Pier so it’s a good run there and back. I should really find somewhere to swim lengths but jogging is a nice change to being in the pool, especially when the weather is as glorious as this. And by running most mornings, I am keeping my fitness up, that’s what I tell my swim coach anyway when I get home.
Most of the people on the path have plugs stuck in their ears, listening to music on their phones. I do have my phone in my pocket, just in case Tim needs to get hold of me in a hurry, but I skip the earplugs. The sound of the surf is fine. It gives me a rhythm to run to.
The cyclists and the skaters try to dominate on the path, it does meant to be a cycleway, and at times I have to step off the concrete and on to the sand which is no big deal. Okay, I might get sand in my shoes, so what? The view, the sea, the amazing people, it is so breath-takingly wonderful. And I haven’t told you the best bit. When I get back to the apartment, after I shower and get dressed, it’s breakfast time which includes the most amazing orange juice. California is the best place in the world to grow oranges and the orange juice here is to die for. I miss it so much when I go home. It’s not watery at all and you can feel the bits of orange in it on your tongue. Ice cold, it is the best thing to rehydrate with after a run.
This breakfast time, as usual, Tim is scrolling through a news site on his laptop as he crunches on toast. The Mutt is sitting beside him, waiting for the crusts. Mum and Dad still get the newspaper each morning, delivered to the door, but Tim gets his news fix online. I still like to be spoon fed and flop in front of the TV and turn on CNN with a bowl of cereal. The bread here is full of sugar. It just doesn’t taste right. The cereal isn’t great either but the Special K tastes kind of like rice bubbles back home so I’ve settled with that.
Tim lifts his eyes off his screen and realises I’m back.
“Eat up,” he says. “We’ve got to go in a minute.”
My mouth is full of muesli so I can’t protest but I want to. The sea looked so beautiful this morning. I was hoping, even after Tim’s words of warning last night over the enchiladas, that we wouldn’t be working until dark.
“When will we be back?” I finally get to ask.
“Don’t know, could be a long day.”
The apartment has an underground car park. It would be awesome if Tim had a convertible but he doesn’t. It’s a standard made-in-America Chevrolet grey sedan. Very boring. “Very inconspicuous” Tim had replied when I first complained. Chevrolet is a make of car I’ve never seen in New Zealand so that at least is something. We get in and Tim drives the car out of the gloom and into the heat of Los Angeles. The air conditioning is already set to high but my legs, in my probably too-short shorts, are already sticking to the leather seats. It’s going to be a beautiful day here in the USA.
Tim easily navigates us away from the bustle of Santa Monica and onto a freeway. We’re heading out of the city. The roads are crammed with commuters heading to work but with four lanes, at times six, there’s room for everyone. I fiddle with the radio, trying to find a channel that isn’t country or Christian. I so miss The Edge and Hauraki from back home. Tim is a big country music fan and the odd song is okay but not a whole radio station of it. It just sounds the same after a while. He also owns cowboy hats. I’m afraid to ask about the six-shooter.
I keep fiddling and Tim eventually gets annoyed and puts it back onto his favourite country music station and we listen to cowgirls wailing about their man who won’t come home and guys wanting a woman who will wait up for them. Really?
The land out here, once we leave the houses and their sprinkler-green lawns, is dry. Not cactuses or sand hills dry. Just not a lot of anything dry. There are rocks and hills and blue sky and road and lots of cars and trucks and us. Tim and I don’t talk a lot so apart from the wailing from the radio and the sound of the car, it’s pretty quiet. And I don’t ask where we’re going on why. Because if I did, he wouldn’t tell me because he knows I’ll start worrying. Because I do. I worry. I worry lots and worrying doesn’t do anything except ruin a beautiful sunshine day so I don’t want to know where we’re going or what we are about to do until I have to. Then it will be bad enough.
And it is. Along the freeway there are places to get off and stop. Some have picnic tables and toilets and car parks. At others there is nothing except a place where stopping is allowed. It’s at one of these that Tom pulls over. I get out of the car and the dry heat hits me. After the air conditioning it is so good but I know soon I’ll be a sweat bucket.
Tim gets a couple of bags out of the car. On top of the closed boot he unpacks his laptop and fires it up, finds an internet signal and updates his files, starts to read.
“The kid is still missing,” he says, as if that is meant to mean something to me. It does and it doesn’t. It means we’re out here in the heat looking for a missing kid who in the time it took to get out here, still hasn’t been found by normal means. Everything else I need to know I’m about to be told. Everything I don’t need to know, and probably a whole lot more, I won’t be told, even if I ask. That’s the way it is working for the FBI.
When I say “normal means” that’s ground searches using people and dogs as well as helicopters and planes using heat seeking and night vision scanners. What they really need is me. And I’m finally here.
“You ready?” Tim asks. I nod and he chucks the GPS finder at me and I catch it and put it in my shorts pocket. It gives out a unique signal, Tim has explained, so only he can track me. I don’t care how it works, as long as it does work. If anything goes wrong, I don’t want to become the person missing.
He hands me the usual cardboard file. I open it slowly, sit in the back seat of the car, the door open and read. Jed is a three-year-old boy from Long Beach. Long Beach, I know, is not far down the coast from Santa Monica. His family parked in a layby yesterday morning and didn’t notice when he strayed from the car. He strayed so far his parents couldn’t find him. About three yesterday afternoon they gave up looking for him and called the police. I re-read the first bit. They stopped just after ten which is a long time until three. I wonder why it took them so long to call the cops? It doesn’t matter, what does matter is that’s a long time for a little boy, especially if he’s running. He could be anywhere. No wonder the cops and the dogs and the helicopters haven’t found him.
“The layby where they stopped, it’s just another couple of kilometres from here,” Tim says. “I didn’t think you’d want to be around all of it.”
He’s getting to know me too well. Worried parents are the last thing I want to see. And I don’t want any of the cops to see me.
I look at the photo of the smiling boy. He seems a real dude.
“What do I do?” I ask. “Grab him and sit tight until everyone arrives or just sight him and travel back?”
“Would be best if you just sight him. I’ll get the location from your GPS and then we’re done.”
He hands me the ear piece which also works as a microphone and I slip it in my ear, pull on a pair of thin latex gloves just in case and wait until Tim is looking back at his computer screen and then I travel. Watching a person disappear is not that cool. It makes the body do weird things, like puke up breakfast. People don’t meant to disappear, dissolve into nothingness, vanish. Tim is probably getting used to it by now, but still, it’s best I choose a time when he’s not watching.
It feels even hotter out here. I kick a rock and it rolls away, hurting my toes through my canvas sneakers. I hold my hand up to shade my eyes. Even with my sunglasses the glare is too much. There’s not much of anything out here. On the road, at least there was the road if nothing else, some part of civilisation to cling to. Out here there is nothing. And then I see him. He’s lying on the ground, curled up. He doesn’t look good.
I forget Tim’s instructions and run towards the boy.
“Jed? Jed, are you okay?”
It’s a dumb question but hopefully it will work as a conversation starter, if he can talk.
The boy starts, looks at me. His lips are dry and blistered, his skin burnt by the sun, his clothes covered in dirt. He’s trying to talk but he can’t.
I travel back to the car.
“You found him?” Tim asks.
“Yes,” I answer running around to my side of the car, pulling out my still-full water bottle from the door pocket.
I travel again. I’m behind the boy. I walk around to face him, rubbing the water bottle with my T-shirt, just in case there are any finger prints on it. He’s sitting up now and as soon as he sees the water bottle he tries to make a grab for it. I hold it to his lips instead, watching him painfully swallow. I stop him after a couple of mouthfuls. Too much water all at once can make you sick, however much you need it.
Tim is going nuts in my ear and I can’t ignore him any longer.
“He needed water, okay?” I tell him.
“And what happens if . . .”
I don’t let him finish. “I’ve got gloves on, I wiped the bottle clean.”
Jed wants more water and I give him the bottle again. If he’s wondering who I’m talking to, he doesn’t show it. All he cares about is the water.
“How far away is a chopper?”
“If I call one, are you going to travel out of there in time?”
“Of course I am.”
“How is he?”
“He’s awake, drinking the water on his own. Hasn’t said anything.”
Tim is silent for a moment in my ear. He’ll be talking to the FBI agent on the ground at the search site. How he has the co-ordinates of the missing kid will not be asked. The agent will make up something appropriate. He or she will be going through the logs of the helicopters and planes that have already flown over the search zone and maybe “find a discrepancy” that he/she wants checked out or maybe the co-ordinates are out of the search zone entirely and another story will be made up.
“A helicopter will be with you in five minutes,” Tim says in my ear.
Jed has half-finished the water and suddenly looks more alert. He’s staring at me then he gets up on his feet, wobbles, and takes off.
“Hey, where are you going?” I yell after him. He doesn’t reply, doesn’t even look back. I stand up and start after him, my walk becoming a run until I catch up and grab him from behind. I lift him off his feet and he wiggles and shrieks. No one wonder this kid got lost.
I sit down with him and hold him in front of me, so he has to look at me.
“Jed, there is a big helicopter looking for you and if you want it to find you, you have to stay still. Do you want the helicopter to find you?”
He nods slowly.
“I have to go now, but you have to promise me you will stay still. No more running. You promise?”
He nods again. Does this kid speak? Maybe he’s been taught not to talk to strangers.
I look at him again, trying to figure out what he will do when I leave, and sigh. I just don’t trust him. I don’t want to let him go in case he starts running again.
“How about I draw a circle on the ground and you stay in that circle until the helicopter comes?”
He watches as I draw a circle in the dirt around him with my fingers.
“You have to stay in the circle now.”
He nods again.
“You’ve got about two minutes,” Tim warns me in my ear.
I let Jed go and back away a couple of steps. He sits down in the circle, cross legged like he’s in preschool or something, and stares up at me.
“You’ve got to stay in the circle until the helicopter gets here,” I repeat, backing away even more steps. He’s still staring up at me, clutching the half-full bottle of water. It’s now covered in dirt, just like him. He could have found it out here, someone could have left it, one of the search party. The circle I’ve drawn is smudged by his sitting down. By the time the chopper arrives and Jed gets up again, it will be gone. And no one will believe his story of a girl telling him not to run. Everything’s fine, I just have to get out of here. I back away again, Jed looks down at the drink bottle and I take my chance. I travel.
Tim fumes most of the way back home – I shouldn’t be taking risks, my safety is more important than any of the lives of the people we are finding, don’t I realise how important I am? I do listen, even protest occasionally, but mostly I just let him get it out of his system. In the end he stops talking and we listen to his favourite country radio station.
Before we started back, Tim waited to get confirmation that Jed was safely on board the helicopter and receiving medical treatment. Job done, job over with, onto the next one. And the next one, it turns out, is on the way home.
There is a forest park a few hours out of LA. There are lakes and resorts and hiking trails and probably bears and wolves and other things quite prepared to eat me. In New Zealand we don’t have any predators, unless you count mosquitos, but here there are lots. Including snakes. Not fun.
Anyway, this woman has gone missing. She was out hiking with a group of friends and somehow got separated and never returned. She had been at the back of the line of walkers on the track. Everyone had thought she had stopped to take a photo of something and she would catch up but she never did. That was two days ago. The weather has been fine and the nights not too cold so she should still be alive, if the bears haven’t got to her.
Being in the trees is nice on such a hot afternoon. I can see the lake in the distance, down the valley. It’s blue and shimmering in the sun. I gaze at it, wondering if we could come back one day and explore this area more, but Tim is busy with his laptop in the car, finding an internet signal, looking at the paperwork.
The woman must still be missing because he hands me the folder and I open it, just like before, just like always. She’s young, early twenties maybe, blonde hair, smiling. I pocket the GPS unit, and wait for Tim to be ready. If I make sure I don’t travel to her too close, make sure there are plenty of trees between her and me, she shouldn’t see me appear out of nowhere. I can do that. It took a bit of training, but I can do it. We usually only find adults at night, so I have the cover of darkness to hide me, so it’s a risk doing this mid-afternoon. But people who have been missing for so many days usually see all kinds of things so if anyone does notice me travel, we could cover it up. But if there were too many times, someone might figure it out, that it was not a hallucination, someone confused, a trick of the light. We try to play it as safe as we can. However much Tim yells at me for taking risks, in reality I am very, very careful. He knows it. I know he knows it.
Finally he’s ready and I travel. Woman lost in woods here I come.
I gasp for breath, really gasp for breath. I can’t see. I shut my eyes and sink to my knees, still trying to get my lungs to work, my heart to stop racing. Tim is yelling in my ear something but I’m too winded to reply. There’s hard concrete beneath my knees, my fingertips. Why?
“I can’t find you,” Tim is shouting. “Where are you?”
I pry open my eyes. I’m in some sort of alleyway, between tall buildings. I’m in a city.
“Nicky, talk to me. Are you okay?”
“No,” I finally get out.
“You’re okay, thank goodness,” Tim says.
I sit back, wait for my breathing to calm down and wonder about Tim’s understanding of what “okay” means.
“What the . . .” he exclaims. “You’re back in LA.”
“I didn’t know you could travel that far.”
“Nor did I. That’s probably why I feel so terrible.”
I get to my feet slowly and look around. The alleyway is narrow. If I stretched out my arms I would almost be able to touch the buildings either side. Above me, there is tiny slit of sky. There are rubbish bins, overflowing with boxes and other things I don’t want to look at too closely, and just rubbish everywhere. It stinks.
“Probably a good idea if you don’t leave that alleyway you’re in. Not the best of neighbourhoods.”
“You’re telling me.”
“You’re probably the only white girl in about ten city blocks. Can you travel back to the apartment from there?”
“Just catching my breath first.”
“So, our subject isn’t in the woods?”
“The woman? No.”
“Can you tell me which building she’s in? You’re between two of them.”
“Sorry. Unless you want me to travel closer?”
“Just stay where you are for a moment.”
I do. At times like this I wish this finder seeker thing was easier. If only I could be like a compass needle and just point in the direction of whoever we are looking for. But it’s not that easy. I have tried, walking instead of traveling to something I know is close by. It doesn’t work.
I have to travel.
Tim is taking his time coming back to me which is okay because I still don’t feel like going anywhere. I wonder how the woman could have ended up in one of these buildings, when she is meant to be lost on a hiking trip. Someone is not telling the truth, or maybe she was nabbed there and taken here. None of it makes sense, which is probably why Tim is still silent in my ear.
I used to care for these people who are missing, who I’m trying to find. I still do, for the kids, but not so much for the adults. Sometimes people want to go missing. Sometimes it’s their own stupid fault. What does matter is there are lots of people searching for them, lots of time and money tied up which could be used for doing other things like stopping crime or keeping people safe on the roads or finding a cure for cancer. Who knows? I wonder how much money I’ve saved the California State Government so far just today? No wonder they pay me well.
The stench coming from the rubbish is starting to get to me but Tim is still not talking and there’s no way I can travel again yet. I watch the street. The sun is blinding out there, the footpath white next to the blackness of the alleyway. There is occasionally a person walking past, a car on the road flashing by. The tiny gap between the buildings only allows me a glimpse of the world outside. It doesn’t look that bad. Maybe I could just go out there for a breather, get away from this smell, this damp chill.
I start walking slowly towards the end of the alleyway but stop. There’s someone there. I can’t see their face. The light behind them is too strong. Whoever it is starts yelling at me, waving their arms. I turn the other way and run. The rubbish bins whip past, the rough, red bricks of the walls, the drainpipes coming down. I jump over empty cardboard boxes and don’t look back. The man is still yelling. I don’t know what he’s saying (maybe he’s speaking Spanish?) but his voice is at last getting fainter behind me.
The other end of the alleyway is coming up. With Tim quiet in my ear I don’t hesitate. I’m out into the sunshine, out on the street. Someone glances at me and I instantly drop to a walk, head down. Tim was right about that white girl comment. I’ve got to get off this street but there’s no way I’m turning around and going back into that alleyway. There’s an old woman fiddling with a set of keys. I slip in behind her as she enters the apartment building. She looks up at me surprised but I smile back.
“I’m just visiting a friend, upstairs,” I say.
She’s not listening, already shambling along the hallway. I make for the stairs, take them two at a time. Maybe it will be dark up here, nobody around, and I can travel. I’m out of luck. Instead, two guys are sitting on the floor, backs against the wall playing some sort of card game. I apologise as I step over their outstretched legs and I can feel my cheeks instantly flush as they stare up at me. This is so not good. There’s only one door on the landing, no stairs upwards, I’m stuck. Either I turn around and go back down, which would be totally suspicious, or I keep acting the part I started with the old woman downstairs. I swallow hard and knock on the door.
Hopefully no one is home.
I wait, like a millisecond, and turn around.
“They must be out,” I say to the two dudes who are now standing up, their game of cards forgotten. I wonder briefly if there is the slimmest of chances they are high on something and I could travel without them being too surprised. They would just blame it on a bad trip but maybe I shouldn’t risk it. It’s too late anyway, the door is opening.
“Nicky, what are you doing?” Tim’s voice is in my ear.
“Nothing,” I say in the smallest of voices.
“You’re not in the alley anymore.”
“No.” It sounds like a squeak.
There’s a guy at the door. Like a really big guy. He’s got enough gold chains around his neck and rings on his fingers to solve a small country’s overseas debt problem and he’s staring right at me.
“The cops will be arriving in about five minutes,” Tim says. This time I don’t answer. There’s too much going on. I just don’t have time. The wail of sirens seems to come out of nowhere, loud and right outside. Forget the five minute warning, Tim. The noise startles the big guy with the gold chains and I’m forgotten. He slams the door but not before I hear a woman cry out for help.
“Tim, she’s in here, she’s in this apartment,” I yell, hoping he can hear me above the sirens and the noise of my feet thundering down the stairs. The two guys are in front of me, their hands on the walls steading their plunge downwards. There are shouts below us and I stop, hesitating. The two keep going, round the corner of the stairs, out of view, more shouts, gun shots.
I have one chance. No one can see me. I travel.
The Mutt barks and pads over. I try to give him a pat between his ears. He’s so big I don’t even have to bend down to do it. My hand is trembling.
Breathe, I tell myself. Just breathe.
“Nicky, are you okay?”
“I’m back at the house. I’m fine.”
“Is that Mutt I can hear?”
“Yeah. I suppose I startled him.”
I can hear Tim sigh, or swear, or maybe both.
“Did you hear me, about the girl being in that apartment?”
“You mean, did I hear you yelling in my ear over the sounds of gun fire?”
“Something like that.”
“I heard you, I’ve passed it on. I’m going to be another three hours or so driving before I get back. You okay on your own for a bit?”
“As long as you let me go to the beach.”
“Okay. Whatever. Just stay safe.”
“There are life guards.”
I sit down on the sofa. Tim hasn’t said anything more so I pull the earpiece out, reach down and grab the tracking unit out of my pocket and put both on the coffee table. I wait for the shakes to stop. They don’t. I get up and go to the fridge and pour myself a large glass of OJ which is the best medicine I know for what I have and go back to the sofa with it. The Mutt also wants a hug which helps as well.
I sip the orange juice, my fingers playing with the Mutt’s ears, and think about just how bad this afternoon has gone and if there was anything I could have done differently. A mental debrief. Tim says the FBI do real debriefs all the time and occasionally we’ve done them too, just the two of us, but mostly it’s just “don’t do that again” or “good job”. How close had I come to getting shot? I finish the glass, sigh, get up and find my bathing suit. It’s time for the beach.
I always swim next to the same lifeguard tower, giving whoever is there a wave hello, making sure they know there is teenage girl, on her own, on their patch. There’s everyone on this beach from mums with young kids to weirdoes so I like to play it safe. I leave my towel folded on the sand just out of the shade of the lifeguard tower and walk down to the water. Here the sand is cool, licked by the waves every few minutes. The water is the perfect temperature. Even the short walk from the air-conditioned apartment to here has made me sweat. I wade into the first few waves then dive into the next, letting it massage my back, my legs, the soles of my feet and finally my toes as it passes over me. I come back up and breathe, salt water in my nose, in my mouth. It feels good. It tastes good. I lie back in the water and look up at the blueness of the sky and finally the shakes are gone.
When I come out of the water the lifeguard is standing there, calling out to someone in the waves. I turn around to see what’s happening. There’s an Asian woman, not that far out, but probably out of her depth. The lifeguard still has his shirt on. I’m wet, he’s dry.
“I could go and get her in, if you want,” I tell him.
He looks at me strangely.
“I think I’m the lifeguard,” he says.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
“Thanks for offering.”
“It’s just that I can swim.”
“I know. I watched you. But I can handle this.”
I nod awkwardly and head up the beach to my towel, telling myself off. I save people, I find missing people, but trying to do a lifeguard’s job? The lifeguard was right. Who do I think I am? Just relax for a moment, why don’t I?
By the time I have my towel stretched out flat on the sand the lifeguard has the Asian woman back onshore and he’s wandering down the beach watching another swimmer who is where they shouldn’t be. In New Zealand our lifeguards just sit and watch and if someone gets into trouble they zoom out in their little inflatables. Here, it seems, they don’t let it come to that.
I let the sun dry me, wriggling into the towel to get comfortable, and half snooze in the late afternoon sun. I don’t think dogs are allowed on the beach, certainly not unless they are on a leash, which is a pity because I think the Mutt would like it out here. He spends too much of his day in that apartment. I should take him running but I’m scared he’d have a heart attack or something he’s so fat and he’d be too heavy for me to carry home. Still, the company would be nice.
I think about Tim still driving. Maybe I should make him something to eat for when he gets back but there’s hardly any food in the fridge. There’s never any food in the fridge. We eat out all the time which is why but I know what my mother would say. Back home our fridge is always packed with left over cold meat from a roast and milk and yogurt and juice and butter and cheese and lots of pickles and lettuce and eggs and vegetables and everything you could want to make a meal. But then at home we hardly ever eat out.
Maybe we’ll just pick up something again tonight. And we do – pizza.
Tim gets back just before dark and, after giving me a careful look to make sure I still have all my fingers and toes attached, we head out to the operational centre, picking up pepperoni pizza on the way. We always have pepperoni pizza. Tim says it’s the only kind to have. Chicken just shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a pizza, let alone salad dressing.
I carry the pizza box into the ops centre, even though I’m pretty sure food isn’t allowed. But then, nor am I. We also have some cans of pop, as in soda pop, as in Coke. People call things weird names over here.
Tim starts up one of the computers, logs on with one hand as the other is holding pizza, and starts flicking through screens and reading. I sit on one of the desks, legs swinging, and eat up, trying not to let the cheese slide off. They sure do put on a lot of cheese.
“Okay, follow me,” Tim says and opens a door. Licking fingers, I follow him down a corridor, lights switching on automatically as we walk. Tim pauses at a door, takes a key out of his pocket and unlocks it. I follow him in and look around. It’s an office.
“It’s my office,” he says.
I look more carefully. There’s nothing here that says Tim, not even a photo of the Mutt on his desk. Maybe all FBI offices are like this. Maybe there are rules about it. He picks up two large cardboard file boxes, one on top of the other and asks me to get the other two and we shuffle back to the ops room. The boxes are heavy.
“Right, no more mucking around,” he says when we put the boxes down on one of the tables. “We haven’t got time so no taking water bottles to little kids or dodging bullets.”
I start to protest but I see he’s not listening. Instead he’s got his head in a file, the top one from one of the boxes.
“We’re going to work our way through theses and see how far we get. No longer, it seems, are we looking for important people, we’re looking for everyone. Everyone and anyone.”
“Sorry?” I ask, not sure what he means.
He sighs and put’s his hand on the box he got the file from.
“This box is the people who have been reported missing in LA today. In this box,” he moves to the next one, “are the ones who were reported missing yesterday. That box there is the ones who have been reported missing from the past week.”
“There’s less of them,” I say.
“That’s because the people reported today and yesterday as missing are usually found in a day or so.”
“So why am I needed?”
“Because they’re usually found dead.”
We start on the first folder.
Woman, 34, missing for two days, reported to police this morning. I find her in a motel.
Man, 57, unsure how many days missing, but his neighbour finally got concerned today when she saw his mail piling up. I find him in a dumpster and he doesn’t smell too good. And yes, I get that weird feeling again so I know he’s dead.
Man, 36, missing since yesterday morning, reported this morning. He’s dead under some trees in a park.
“Maybe I’m not doing any good. Maybe they’re all dead,” I say to Tim.
“Keep going,” he says, handing me the next folder.
Girl, 14, runaway. She’s in a house in what looks like a nice suburb and she’s not dead.
Girl, 19, missing for one day. But I can’t find her.
“She’s too far away,” I tell Tim as I give him back the folder.
“How far is too far?”
“Further than whatever it was this afternoon.”
He passes me the next folder.
Woman, 69, Alzheimer’s, missing for one day.
“It’s when your brain shrivels up so much it doesn’t work properly anymore and you forget where your home is.”
I find her at a bus stop. She’s sitting on a bench, her hands clasping a handbag on her lap. She must have seen me travelling but looks unconcerned. Instead she smiles at me, pats the bench next to her. What else can I do?
“The bus will be here soon,” she says, still smiling, looking along the road for it.
The timetable is there on a pole. I get up and glance through it. The last bus for the day was hours ago. I sit down next to her again and notice the smell of urine for the second time. The woman must have been sitting here for hours, maybe all day.
“You found her?” Tim says in my ear.
“She’s here. Waiting for a bus. Maybe I could just stay with her until the police arrive.”
“Good idea. Otherwise she might wander.”
“Where are you off to, girl?” she asks me.
“On the bus.”
“Oh, um, to a friend’s.”
“Five minutes,” Tim says.
We sit there, on the bench, the two of us talking as if we know each other, for a lot longer than five minutes. But it’s okay. The evening is warm. We watch the lights of the cars going past in the dark.
“Look at all those people going places,” she says. “Don’t you think people should sometimes just sit still?”
I don’t know if she expects an answer, and I don’t know how to answer, which works out okay as she keeps on talking.
“Everyone rushing around all the time. I like to sit still.”
Tim is back. “Cops can’t make it. One of her family is on their way. Is that okay?”
We sit on the bench talking for about another ten minutes, well, the old woman does most of the talking, and then a car pulls up. A man gets out, young, could be her son, and runs towards us. I stand up, back away. The old woman keeps on talking, as if I’m still sitting next to her. The man takes my place. He doesn’t even turn around to see where I’ve gone. I keep walking until I’m in the darkness of a doorway and I get the chance to look back. The man is helping the woman into his car.
“Next one,” I say to Tim in the ops room.
“Don’t you think you’ve done enough?”
“Okay, two more and that’s it.”
Tim sighs and passes a file over.
This time it’s an 18-year-old guy. Still at school. Didn’t come home last night. He looks kind of cute. Not that I look at guys these days. My heart got broke last year and it still hasn’t mended. Some days, I don’t think it will ever mend. Now I’m starting to sound like one of Tim’s country and western songs.
“You okay?” Tim asks. Maybe he saw the look on my face, maybe he just wants to get home.
“Let’s do it.”
It’s dark. After the lights of the ops room I can’t see a thing. I reach for the torch I always have in my pocket when working with Tim at night and switch it on.
“All okay, Nicky?” Tim asks in my ear.
“I think so, just figuring out where I am. It’s pretty dark out here.”
“You’re on a road, just out of West Hollywood.”
“Okay. No one much around.”
“Just head back then. I’ll get them to check it out.”
“No, wait.” In my narrow torch beam I’ve spotted tyre tracks in the dirt on the side of the road. Walking towards them, I see there’s a steep slope downward, trees growing somewhere near the bottom and something shiny. The roof of a car.
“Was the guy driving a red car?”
“Yes. It’s his parents’. It’s missing too.”
“Tim, get an ambulance. He’s gone off the road.”
“Travel back here.”
I do as I’m told. The guy isn’t dead, at least not yet, and me standing on the side of the road is not going to help anything. There is no way I can get down the slope to the car, it’s too dark, too steep and too far down.
“They’ll need ropes and stuff to get to him,” I tell Tim in the ops room and listen as he relays the information. At the same time he’s handing me the next folder and mouthing the words “last one” to me as he listens on the phone. He really does want to get home.
The last one for the night (but it won’t be the last one because I have a plan) is a teenage girl. The picture I have looks like her school photo, nicely positioned head and shoulders shot, perfect school-girl smile. She never came home last night after studying for a maths exam at a friend’s house.
I travel and again it’s dark, again I get that “I’m in the middle of nowhere” feeling. I reach for the torch, flick it on and see the same tyre marks on the same bit of dirt on the side of the road. I don’t even wait for Tim to say something in my ear.
“Better tell them they’ll need two ambulances,” I say back in the ops room.
“I wonder how many more kids are in that car,” Tim says after he contacts whoever it is he’s been talking to.
“I don’t know. How many more reports in that box do you have of teens that have been missing since last night?”
But it’s not that box I’m interested in. It’s the last box, the one with the files in it on people who have been missing more than a year.
“I’m not even going to look. Come on, it’s been a long day,” Tim says yawning. “Let’s pack up and get out of here.”
“Okay,” I say, but I’m already glancing through the first file, looking at the photo, reading how this eleven year old went missing almost four years ago, how one day she just never came home from school.
“Nicky?” Tim is standing in the doorway, a box under each arm.
“I can’t do it.” I turn and stare at him.
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t find her.”
The look on my face must be enough because Tim puts down the boxes he’s carrying. He walks over to me and takes the file out of my hands.
“Remember them finding those two women, last month, in Chicago?” I ask him. “One escaped, that’s the only reason they found them. This nut case had taken them fifteen years ago. Hidden them in a basement ten minutes’ walk away from where they used to live.”
Tim’s only half listening to me, looking through the file
“Why can’t you find her?” Tim asks.
“I don’t know, but I can guess.” I sigh.
“This photo is how she looked when she was eleven, she won’t look like that now will she, that’s why
you can’t find her?”
“Yes, or she’s dead and then she really won’t look like that now, or maybe she’s just too far away.”
“You can’t tell?”
“Could be all three. Doesn’t matter, does it? When I heard about those women on the news last month, I thought I could have found them, but I wouldn’t be able to, would I?”
“Maybe if you had been around when they first went missing, maybe you could have helped them then.”
With that we do call it a night. Pack up, turn off the lights, make sure there’s no trace of us left in the room. Tim suggests ice cream on the way back to the apartment but I just want to get to bed.
The next morning, I run the depression out of my system on the beach and then thoroughly drown it in Californian orange juice. Tim, as usual, is fiddling on his laptop. I’m parked in front of the TV on the sofa with my Special K. There’s a report about some problem with the commuter rail system which I half listen to, a small plane they think has crashed in the mountains near Yosemite National Park, wherever that is, and then it switches to police cars and ambulances with their lights flashing outside an apartment building. I sit up and reach for the remote, turn up the sound.
“Tim? Come and see this.”
I’ve recognised the building, the street.
“In a bizarre twist,” a reporter is saying, “police yesterday afternoon discovered a missing hiker not in the forest park where she got lost three days ago, but unharmed in a downtown LA apartment. A tip off from the public brought police to the building where they found the 22-year-old woman, Amy Madison, held against her will. Details are still sketchy but it appears Madison was abducted from the hike she was on and taken to the apartment. It is believed her family, who are owners of a number of high-fashion stores across the western states, had received a ransom demand the day she was reported missing but were too afraid to approach police. In other news…”
“A tip off from the public?” I raise my eyebrows at Tim.
“That’s what you are,” he says shrugging. “Turn the sound back up. Look, you’re on again.”
“Just turn the sound up.”
I do what I’m told. On the TV a red car is being winched up onto the road.
“The teenagers?” I ask Tim.
“All four are expected to make a full recovery,” the voice over is saying, “although police say if they had spent another night undiscovered it would not have been the case. A man walking his dog in the Hollywood Hills saw the tyre marks and contacted the authorities.”
The view changes to a couple standing outside a house. The woman is leaning against the man, her head on his shoulder, his arms around her.
“We’d just like to say thank you to the person who found then alive. If it wasn’t for them, Zoe would probably be dead by now. I don’t know if they realise how much it means to us, that she’ll be okay.”
The man swallows hard, trying not to cry. The woman is already sobbing.
Tim takes the remote off me and turns off the TV.
“Both stories are all over all the news websites,” he says. “Make you feel good?”
“How about Jed, the little boy in the desert?”
“Do you need your head to swell anymore?”
“Is he okay?”
“Yes. Of course he’s okay.”
“And everyone else we found?”
“What do you want? The entire news to be devoted to you?”
“No.” Suddenly I become worried. “Could that happen?”
“No. We’ll at least we’re trying for it not to. We haven’t yet passed on the information about all
the people you found last night.”
“What do you mean?”
“The ones that were dead, we’ll pass on that information during today.”
“More people will walk dogs?”
“Something like that.”
“Four teenagers in that car.”
“And none of the parents knew they were out together. All the families had reported the kids missing separately.”
“Oops. They’ll be in trouble.”
“So what are we up to today?” I’ve turned back to my cereal, scooping the last of the milk out of the bottom of the bowl with my spoon.
“I’ve got to go into the office. You can do whatever you want until it gets dark.”
“I said whatever.”
I do both. As I grow older, I’m enjoying more and more the art of shopping without parents. Knowing what I like, what will look good on me, but also ready to give something a go and here, one season at least ahead of home, it’s fun. It’s like looking into the future. I might not bring any bags with me to LA, but I usually take one home on the plane. And whoa, my favourite shop has a sale on. Not that price really matters that much with a bulging bank account, but even I like a bargain.
At the beach, lying on the sand next to my usual life guard tower, I endeavour to add another shade of tan to my winter-white skin. You can always tell the tourists here. White skin is the dead giveaway. I turn over, rotisseriate, and stretch my arms out above my head, feel the grittiness of the sand between my fingers, and think about Tim’s boxes.
Suddenly I’ve been given the chance to find people. Not just special people, not just important people, not just people who can pay which is how it was at the Project, but old people, teenagers like me, all sorts of people. This is what I’ve wanted, this is what I wanted to do when I said yes to Tim all those months ago and now I’m finally getting to do it. No big announcement. No drama, just do it. I wonder how it happened. Was I the big unknown who has finally proved herself or was there other things going on? Approvals to be got, contacts to be made, systems to be set up? I know Tim won’t tell me. He doesn’t say much about that side of it. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m still a teenager or because I’m not an official FBI agent or because I’m not a United States citizen or what.
Or maybe it’s because I’m the freak show, I can disappear and reappear wherever I want to, so that makes me different. I only get “the need to know” stuff.
At night, in the ops room with Tim, I start work again. First person found. Five minutes. Second person found (dead) ten minutes later. Third person found another ten minutes. As Tim hands me each file I check the time on my phone. If I do one every ten minutes, that will be six in an hour. In three hours that will be eighteen people found. Tonight I want to get through that whole box of people reported missing in the past 24 hours. I want them all found. No one is going to slip through into the other boxes, into weeks, months, years missing. Because then I can’t find them.