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Authors: M. P. Cooley

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BOOK: Faint Trace
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I watched Lucy for a reaction but her attention remained focused on her art. She dipped her paintbrush in a bowl of water before filling in the lines on her watercolor book, the brushstrokes revealing a spring lamb wearing a straw hat and carrying a pocketbook. Despite the fact that she wasn't using any real paint, the table was covered with newspaper, the edges rustling gently as the ceiling fan circulated the unpleasantly hot air. Kevin and I had discovered that while three-­year-­old Lucy might not have any idea of what chemo was, she knew what it did, leaving her father sick and shaking, unable to get out of bed. Four weeks into Kevin's last ten-­week cycle she broke down in tears, begging him not to go to the doctor, even as we explained that it was medicine.

“You're sick,” she'd cried, curling herself into Kevin's lap. I agreed with her. When not making him vomit, the chemo left him dull, the thoughts, speech, and movements of my normally sharp husband all half a beat slow.

Kevin loaded the chicken skewers on to a plate and pointed to the small porch off the kitchen. “Shall we?”

I kissed my daughter's head, her black hair the same fine texture as Kevin's before he started treatment.

“That's a really nice duck, Luce,” I said.

“It's a cow, Mommy.” She frowned, throwing her small arm over my neck, and pulling tight. “Are you leaving?”

I pointed outside, where Kevin loaded skewers on the grill. “Just there. Wanna come?”

“No. I need to finish my art,” she said, adding waves of yellow to the page.

Despite being only three feet away, something about having the screen door between Lucy and us made it easier to talk.

“Do the doctors have a plan this time?” I asked. “Or are they just going to start blasting and hope they hit the cancer?”

Kevin leaned against the porch railing, adjusting to find a comfortable position. Always lean, he'd lost almost all body fat since the illness. “They're ninety percent convinced this thing is in the lungs.”

“Why don't they know?” I hissed. I watched as Lucy's hand stilled and I lightened my voice, keeping it even. “Last time they thought it was the stomach.”

“Well, now we know it's not that,” he said. “They cut most of it out.”

He opened up the grill and flipped the chicken skewers. Since the stomach surgery we'd eaten a lot of pale bland food, as he had little tolerance for anything oily. I was happy to see him eat, period, but the red peppers made me glad, hopeful for a sign that things were returning to normal.

“Why are you mad?” he asked softly.

I knew I should be glad he could start treatment again. But they didn't know exactly what they were treating, and without some idea, they were poisoning him as sure as the cancer was.

“They're idiots,” I said. “Everyone else, they identify the cancer, seek it out, blast it away with . . .” I waved my hands, unsure of cutting edge treatments. “Biotech.”

He wiped an oily thumb on his Mission of Burma T-­shirt. “They know what they're doing. They haven't cured me, but they've slowed things down.”

I crossed my arms. “This is slow?”

He smiled. “I'm not dead yet, right?”

I felt my eyes tear, and he stepped close, wrapping his arms around me, his fingers slipping under the hem of my shirt to rest against my back.

I took two deep breaths, blinking away my tears. “They are going to make things worse.”

“Yes, worse. But then better. C'mon, June,” he said, running his hand up and down my back, “This isn't like you. Did something happen today?”

I generally didn't discuss case details with Kevin, mostly because it was an ongoing investigation, but also because I felt like I was reminding him what he lost. His work in cyber security might not have been on the front lines, but he still missed it. This time I did, skipping over the drive-­by in Piedmont, instead telling him about the loot we found in the container, as we brought the chicken inside and negotiated with Lucy to bring her masterpieces into the living room. She agreed, but only if she could pick the dinner music.

“OK,” Kevin said. “But remember the rule.”

“No Ramones at the dinner table,” Lucy said.

Lucy loved the dinner, mostly because she got to eat off a stick, but Kevin ate half the meat and left the veggies on the plate, the fiber and bulk too much for him. I scraped the remains into the trash and started to stack dishes in the dishwasher, taking direction from Kevin, who was offended by my lack of symmetry.

“No backseat dishwasher loading,” I said, waving the two of them into the living room. “Go.”

I had just finished putting the last plate in diagonally—­I knew it would make Kevin laugh—­when my phone rang.

“Oh, my friend, you are so lucky I have no life,” Ernie said. “I looked through the billing records on the storage unit, and discovered that in May 2008, instead of an automatic payment from that dummy account we tracked down, a manual check was sent, a check from a different account. And that manual check is issued to an address in Oakland. It's a long shot . . .”

“But it's a shot,” I said. I looked at the clock. It was seven-­fifteen, and generally Lucy was down by eight. “I could be there by eight-­thirty.”

“Take the night off, Lyons. I'm sitting outside the house right now and there's been no sign of the guy, just a teenage boy.”

“I'm your partner. You need . . .”

“Oakland PD already agreed to keep an eye on things overnight, and I'm going to head home soon, and then you and I can come over bright and early, scope out the house, maybe talk to the neighbors.”

When Ernie was lying, he didn't use periods. He probably planned to sit outside the house all night, but if I confronted him, he'd bug out. I graciously accepted Ernie's plan, knowing that I'd find him red-­eyed and quiet the next day.

In the living room I joined Lucy and Kevin, watching
The Little Mermaid
, Lucy mouthing snatches of “Under the Sea” as her head gently fell onto Kevin's forearm. Her bedtime passed, the room dropped into shadow, and from outside I could hear the streetlights buzz on. When the movie ended Kevin picked Lucy up. I almost protested—­he would still go weak at random moments. I stopped myself.

Rousing Lucy just enough to stand her in front of the sink, Kevin cradled Lucy's cheek as he brushed her teeth, and I pulled out her favorite pajamas, a purple nightgown she loved. We moved her to the bed, me holding her upright while Kevin dropped the nightgown over her head. I flipped on her nightlight.

“How about we have an early night too?” Kevin asked. If this were a year ago, I would have viewed it as in invitation to something more, but his hand shook with exhaustion, and I knew all that was on offer was sleep. I walked around the house, locking windows and doors, and starting the air conditioner in our room. I climbed into bed with him, rolling into his embrace. My hands could feel the angle of his ribs and the curve of his kidney, and his shoulder was sharp where I nested my head under his chin.

T
HIS
WAS
THE
first time I'd done a stakeout in a book-­lined study. Criminals didn't generally hole up in neighborhoods nicknamed “Professorville,” but we'd lucked into finding a home that was free because the owner, Professor Ginthner, was teaching psycholinguistics at the University of Salamanca in Spain this semester.


Para retirar es no salir corriendo, y permanecer no es ninguna acción sabia, cuando hay más razones para temer que to la esperanza
,” Ernie read.

I felt my breathing slow, matching Ernie's unhurried cadence as he read
Don Quixote
aloud. It was like a bedtime story, easing me into sleep after an all-­night stakeout in which absolutely nothing happened. I roused myself, sitting straighter in the wooden chair, and watched as a light went on in the kitchen in the house across the street. The teenager was eating breakfast.

“What you read, what does it mean?” I asked, bringing my binoculars to my face.

Ernie hesitated, stumbling over the translation. “To withdraw is not to run away . . . to stay is unwise when there is more reason to fear than to hope.” He dropped the book on the arm of the leather club chair. “I think Don Quixote's been talking to Stanzler.”

Jim Stanzler had let us know that he was giving authorization for the stakeout for only forty-­eight hours more. Normally, I'd agree—­this operation had been a bust. But leaving meant being relegated to paperwork for the foreseeable future. I was reaching the point of accepting that as my fate, but Ernie was fighting it tooth and nail, just as he fought me when I suggested he get a new partner for the good of his career.

“I'm going to transfer to the Albany office anyway,” I said.

Ernie rolled his eyes. “You've requested a voluntary transfer, Lyons, to a non-­hellish region with a cost of living that even a federal employee could afford. You're not going anywhere.” He folded his arms. “And I'm not either.”

That said, Ernie wasn't enjoying our assignment. “Man, you'd think that a professor of romance languages would have some racier stuff than this,” he said, glancing over the contents of the shelves. “I thought with all of these knights in shining armor that there would be more action, but it's a big fat nothing. Just wackos spouting nonsense, tilting at windmills.”

“Maybe pick a different book? Professor Ginthner said that we could help ourselves to anything on his shelf.”

“The good professor also called our stakeout a ‘lovely caper' and seemed a little too excited to have the police conducting the stakeout from his home.” Ernie slumped lower in his chair.

Ernie's discovery of the address on the check gave us hope that we would quickly find Van Hu and stop the counterfeiting ring, but so far Van hadn't made an appearance. There was a housekeeper, a Mexican woman who arrived at 9 a.m. and left at 2 p.m. and whose work, based on our surveillance, consisted of vacuuming and making casseroles. Her visits seemed timed so that she never crossed paths with the teenage boy who lived there. Professor Ginthner had been more than happy to give us the lowdown on the young man, who he said went to high school with his daughter.

“Taylor Simmons,” he said. “He's just about to graduate, and a bit of a loner from what my daughter Skyler says. He transferred into the school just this year, which is a difficult transition for any young person.” I had to tell Professor Ginthner to speak up since the international connection meant that we lost every third word he said. “I've rarely seen David Simmons, the father—­just brief waves during their move in. I sent over a bottle of Cabernet from my cellar, a sort of welcome-­to-­the-­neighborhood gift, and we've never spoken, as far as I remember.”

“Can you describe David?” I asked.

“I only saw him from afar. Asian, and younger than I would have expected. Although he might have been half Asian—­Simmons is hardly an Asian name. I've heard rumors that Mr. Simmons is one of those numbers/engineering types.” Professor Ginthner talked about engineers the same way others might talk about someone who believed in unicorns—­suspicious, and not to be completely trusted. “He does sourcing for a big tech firm and travels to Asia quite a bit, lining up microchips in Korea and going to Vietnam for . . . well, I don't actually know. The woman who owned the house before them said he was a very tough negotiator, but at the end paid full price for the house in cash.”

“And no one else lives there?”

“Well, there's the housekeeper, but she doesn't live in. And right after they moved in there was a young man who seemed to be around quite a bit, big and heavyset, and I believe Asian as well. A boyfriend, perhaps?”

The man he described sounded exactly like what we knew about Hu. Was Simmons an accomplice, allowing Hu to use his home?

“There's also the older gentlemen I see who comes in the afternoon,” Ginthner said. “Haven't seen him enter the house, but of course I'm not there every day.”

We'd seen the man in question. An elderly Asian man, he was definitely not Van Hu. Ginthner identified the man as a gardener, but Ernie and I put him somewhere between a mailman and criminal accomplice. Over the last ten days he had appeared four times, slipping into the garage and emerging with a package, invariably traveling to the post office and then to an apartment downtown. We were able to track him down through the apartment, under his name, Daniel Ouyang. He was not a criminal but a community activist, which made no sense.

Through my binoculars I watched as Taylor appeared in the driveway on a skate-­board—­his first class started in ten minutes and the high school was right down the street. He skimmed down the driveway at a speed that made me want to go outside and put a helmet on him.

“We're up,” I said.

Ernie and I raced downstairs past the Moorish benches and beveled mirrors that lined Professor Ginthner's hallway. Despite the professor's offer that we should feel free to use the whole house, we stayed in the attic, afraid of breaking some of the antiques or attracting the attention of the neighbors. We had a very short window between when Taylor left and the cleaning woman arrived, and we planned to get a good look at what was inside that garage so that if Ouyang made another appearance, we'd know what he was transporting.

We jogged across a street lined with beautiful bungalows expensively landscaped with native plants, with several porches sporting peace sign flags. Ernie and I were wearing running clothes, but didn't completely blend in, as most ­people in this neighborhood would be wearing space age fabrics that allowed peak exercise experiences instead of cotton shorts and hoodies with big pockets that hid our holstered SIG Sauers and let us carry keys, phones, and badges.

Far down the street I saw Taylor carelessly propelling himself toward the high school entrance. While Oakland had more than its fair share of bad schools, Taylor's was not one of them, with some of the best test scores in the state. We had approached school officials to see if they might let us take a look at Taylor's records. They laughed in our faces, but I was surprised when the vice principal we spoke to agreed not to mention our inquiry to Taylor or his father, and even gave us a little background.

BOOK: Faint Trace
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