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Authors: M. P. Cooley

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BOOK: Faint Trace
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“Still, that was pretty scary—­”

“Silver Honda, a block to our south, Ernie,” I said. “Ouyang and Van have returned.”

Three hours before, Ouyang had arrived at the house accompanied by two men. The first man, based on the description, was David Simmons, his linen shirt and pants giving him the look of someone who'd just stepped off a plane from the tropics. From this distance I could see the resemblance with Taylor, the two having the same black hair and angular jaws.

Ernie pulled out a camera as the second man exited the car.

“That guy! He's Hu!” Ernie said, snapping pictures of the man, trying to catch him at every angle. I agreed with Ernie. Cloaked in a black trench coat, the man we'd identified as Hu had quiet authority, moving quickly despite his bulk, pointing Ouyang and Simmons inside as he talked on his phone. The three men emerged from the house fifteen minutes later carrying heavy blankets and bags, dropping them into the trunk. They drove in the direction of the highway, and I watched as an agent in a blue Chevy pulled out behind them as they passed, keeping close.

There were four cars set up to tail the men, ready to catch them no matter which way the car turned, and I listened as the agents radioed in their location. An informant in the Saigon Death Squad had told us the gang was expecting Hu and company to boost another shipping container today, so we'd expected the three men to head in the direction of the port where their stolen counterfeit goods were waiting for pickup. Instead, the Honda wove its way down from the Oakland hills into the flat landscape of downtown, pulling into the driveway of a small Victorian that shuddered under the shadow of Interstate 880.

“Is that house lavender?” I heard one of the agents say. “What a way to bring down the property values in the neighborhood.”

“It's surrounded by empty lots,” a second said. “It is the neighborhood.”

“Folks, the cargo container is being loaded onto a truck as we speak,” I heard. “Are you sure Hu and company aren't coming to the port?”

“Do we even have confirmation that Hu was the third guy?” another agent asked and I thought he made a good point. The body type matched, but who knows whether the man with Ouyang and Simmons was in fact our target. He certainly seemed in no hurry to get to the port.

I let the radio chatter wash over me, listening for the moment when Ernie and I would take Taylor into protective custody. The teenager had proven he could take care of himself over the last month, but that didn't mean he should. Child protective ser­vices and a social worker were on standby, ready to step in once arrests were made. From our attic vantage I could see Taylor's bedroom, one of his projects on his computer screen—­an elaborate comic book character that Ernie swore was original.

The sky had begun to dim in the early evening light, pink and gold streaking across the sky. The street was quiet, but suddenly Taylor was there, gliding down the driveway into the street on his skateboard, pushing off again to keep the momentum going.

“Are you kidding me?” Ernie said. “The kid doesn't so much as leave the house in a month, and tonight he decides to go out on the town?”

We radioed in the information looking for backup but there was none to be had: The Saigon Death Squad had allowed the truck carrying the counterfeit goods to leave the docks, but were trailing close behind. We could anticipate where it was going—­the lavender house under the highway—­and our agents had started to box the gang members in as their cars got close, cutting off streets and making escape impossible. No one from our team could be spared.

“Can the social worker back you up?” Stanzler asked, and I heard several radios go mute. They were laughing at us.

“Car or walk?” I asked Ernie, and we took off on foot. In the distance I watched Taylor slow, joining a crowd of students and parents who were flooding the school. As we got closer I saw why: A big sign announced that it was class and club night. I wondered what Taylor's talent might be.

As we entered the lobby we were greeted by dozens of hellos in twenty different languages, the foreign language and culture club offering greetings and maps of the school, which Ernie and I studied closely. The classrooms surrounded a courtyard in a big loop, and different group activities were marked along the way.

“Do you want to go left and look for him among the yearbook, school band, and drama clubs, or go right and check out the school newspaper, fine art display, and speech and debate team?” Ernie asked.

“Shouldn't we stick together?” I asked.

“He's not armed and dangerous, Lyons,” he said. “We miss him here, we can catch him when he's eating his milk and cookies before bed.”

I
WEN
T
RIGHT
, passing through hallways lined with posters illustrating the Industrial Revolution and mitosis. During my classroom searches I heard snatches of conversation, parents using the opportunity to corner teachers about what their children needed in order to do better or the speech and debate club presenting a motion in favor of banning offshore fracking in California. As I made my way around the loop, the music got louder. The school band was doing a mash-­up of Franz Ferdinand's “Take Me Out” and Kool & the Gang's “Celebration” that wasn't half bad.

I listened to the radio hidden in my ear, following the updates from operation downtown even as I scanned the room for Taylor. I rounded a corner and ended up in an atrium, rows and rows of artwork lining pin boards propped in the hall. I walked slowly through the artwork, penciled studies of ferns and psychedelic self-­portraits in pastels hung with the student's name and grade labeled underneath. Most kids had one picture on display but Taylor had three. With blue ribbons taped to the corner of two pictures, I'd bet that Taylor in was the area—­his talent was art.

Taylor's first picture looked like an architect's draft, the precise renderings of a house drawn in pencil. Next to that was one of his comic book characters, done in Photoshop, all bright colors and metallic shading. The third was a drawing of a tree with ragged roots and a tilting trunk, oranges hanging from the branches. I stepped closer, studying it, and realized that the tree stood in Taylor's backyard.

“Excuse me.”

A woman approached, her cheeks flushed with the heat. She looked more like a student than a teacher, despite what her name tag said. “Are you Taylor's mom?”

I shook my head no. “I'm a family friend.”

“Oh, I'm so glad you're here,” she said, grinning. When I told her that his parents wouldn't be making the event her smile dulled, but she still pointed out the details in Taylor's work that made it exceptional.

“Taylor's parents haven't had a chance to make it to our parent/teacher nights, but can you please pass on how much I've enjoyed having Taylor in my class?” I agreed, all the time keeping an eye out for Taylor. In the hall I saw Ernie scanning back and forth, nodding to me when our eyes met. Taylor would not get past us.

“Taylor's got genuine artistic talent,” the teacher continued, “and he's so versatile. Rhode Island School of Design is the perfect fit for him, a great balance of fine art and practical design.” Her eager face brightened even more as she looked behind me. “There he is now.”

Up close for the first time, I could see Taylor had straight teeth and brown skin unmarked by acne or scars, and wore his bangs long, black hair swept to the side to reveal hazel eyes. Ginthner was right that Taylor's background was Asian, to some degree, and he didn't stand out here: This school had kids from every different ethnicity, racial tensions smoothed over by the uniform affluence of the teenagers. Taylor's polo shirt and khaki pants were pressed, a conservative choice when most of the students had on jeans and a T-­shirt. Loose skin was visible under the cuff of the shirt's sleeve, and the prong on his belt pulled to his last hole. He'd recently lost a lot of weight.

Taylor smiled and waved, standing out in a sea of kids trying to look worldly and blasé, his grin faltering briefly when he saw me. I watched as Ernie slipped into the end of the aisle, cutting off the exit. Taylor was unaware he was caught. Ernie didn't realize who he'd trapped.

I stepped forward, moving to intercept Taylor. He stopped suddenly and then began to retreat, almost tripping when he backed into Ernie. He spun, looking for an exit, before facing me. His smile was gone.

“Hi Van,” I said.

Ernie looked shocked but recovered quickly. “It's good to see you, man. How 'bout you come with us quietly? Don't want to scare all these nice kids.”

Van stood straight, anger aging him until he looked his real age: twenty-­five.

“You can't get to them,” he said. “They're safe.”

“Who's safe?” I asked, thinking of the gang members, or even Ouyang, Simmons, and the third man, who was definitely not Hu.

“You know. Don't act like you don't.” The way he whined, he sounded like a teenager. “The women. They're free.”

A
S
WE
WALKED
Taylor several blocks back to the car we radioed the agents tailing the Saigon Death Squad, letting them know that the cargo wasn't counterfeit Fendi bags, but instead live women, brought to the U.S. to be prostitutes. Over the radio I could hear how everything took on a new urgency, the agents securing Ouyang and his partners first, isolating the gang so that they couldn't attack the truck. Off radio, Stanzler called my number.

“Are you absolutely sure?” he demanded. “This changes the nature of the operation dramatically.”

I studied Van. He didn't look anything like the stocky young man we saw in blurry photos, but held himself like someone who had been in a gang for over a decade, worn out and ready for attack. The Squad's only requirement for initiation was willingness to do anything for the gang and having some Vietnamese ancestry. This man standing before me, young, but not as young as he pretended, was part of that gang.

“It's him,” I said.

By the time we made it back to headquarters, Taylor had started to deal.

“You know I work with documents, don't you?” he said, leaning on the interview room table. We'd placed a pad in front of him so that he could write his confession but instead he doodled, covering the page with jagged lines and circles, but also a cartoon character version of Ernie.

“We need the originals for evidence—­shipping manifests, correspondence arranging to transport those women from overseas, the names of pimps and clubs who planned to grab up the girls,” I said. “Not your counterfeits.”

“Yeah, but in order to create convincing fakes you need originals to work from.” He raised one eyebrow. “I've got everything, and if you put me in witness protection and give me enough money to go to college? It will all be yours.”

“Not sure if that's going to happen,” Ernie said. “We have to do some interviews, but let's just say if word gets out that some twenty-­five-­year-­old creep-­o was going on dates with fifteen-­year-­olds, well, that's not a situation where we'll offer a deal.”

Van dropped his pen. “I didn't touch anyone. I wouldn't. You will not find a single girl—­”

“Or boy?” Ernie asked.


Or boy
,” Van said, “who can claim I so much as flirted with them. ­People who victimize women . . . or men . . . well, if I was willing to steal from the gang, fake my identity”—­he waved at the interview room—­“risk getting arrested . . . why would I turn around and do that to children?”

“So no school dances?” Ernie asked. “No necking under the bleachers?”

“No. I went to class, I took notes, and I did my homework. Nothing more.”

I'd watched Van as he went to school and back again over the last month and I knew he wasn't lying. “So why go to the trouble of going back to high school? GEDs are easy to pick up.”

“But GEDs won't get you into a top-­flight art and architecture program, especially when you are wanted by the FBI,” he said. “I was set to go to RISD this fall and was going to have the life I was meant to, before I fucked everything up.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know my history. Don't pretend like you don't,” he said. “Mom, she was like one of those women in the container, a prostitute. They took everything from her, little by little. They would have let her starve to death on the streets of Mott Haven. She and I fought—­she wanted me to stay in school, do well—­but the AIDS drugs she needed”—­Van took a deep breath in and out—­“those cost more than what I could make at McDonald's. And Mom was illegal.”

“And your father?”

“I have absolutely no idea who my father is,” he said. “And no way to find out. Some guy who paid for full ser­vice in the backseat of a car in the Bronx?”

Van had begun to draw a border on the page, a twisted trunk curled into leaves. “The Death Squad, they got me young, and they would have used me up too. Not as bad as my mom, not my soul.” Van added crisscrossed lines to the tree bark, creating shadow. “But I knew where they got their supplies, everything from purses to ­people, and they locked me away.” He added darker lines, pressing hard with the pen and almost cutting through the page. . “For my mom, I would have done anything. They didn't need to lock me up.” Under the tree he drew a tombstone. “Until she died.”

Lost in his artwork, Van was talking freely, and Ernie and I didn't want to stop him with questions. It would all come out, either through his words or the pictures that appeared on the page.

Van explained how after his mother died the gang lost its hold on him—­she was only person he cared about. He felt her loss profoundly, and started thinking about what kind of life she would have wanted.

“I think she would have liked California,” he said. “She would always talk about the orange trees her family had when she was young, how she'd climb and eat fruit in the branches. I planned carefully and then made my move—­I created a new identity and school records that would put me on a college track, invented a family, and diverted a ­couple of containers with collectibles I could personalize for buyers.”

BOOK: Faint Trace
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