Thread of Innocence (Joe Tyler Mystery #4)

BOOK: Thread of Innocence (Joe Tyler Mystery #4)
3.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Thread of Innocence


Jeff Shelby

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2013 by Jeff Shelby

Cover design by JT Lindroos


This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the expressed written consent of the author.


First Edition: December 2013

Books by Jeff Shelby

The Joe Tyler Novels





The Noah Braddock Novels






The Deuce Winters Novels (Under the pseudonym Jeffrey Allen)





Short Story Collections





My daughter Elizabeth was running.

She was about a hundred feet ahead of me, her feet pounding the sand, sprinting away from me, a few foot from the ocean's edge.

I tried to keep up with her but she was faster than I was, younger than I was, and my lungs burned as my feet turned over in the soft sand.

She slowed as she hit our imaginary finish line, stuck her hands on her hips, then turned and waited for me to come in second.

I finally reached her and bent over, my hands heavy on my knees.

I won,” she said, breathing hard. “Again.”

I nodded, but couldn't get the words out in between gasps. I twisted my neck, looked up at her, and smiled.

She smiled back.

She'd been home for a week. Not from a vacation or from a trip, but from a nightmare. I'd spent years looking for her and I'd finally gotten lucky. Found her. She'd been back for a week and nothing was normal. Everything was awkward. Her mom and I slept in different rooms. She didn't say a whole lot. We tiptoed around each other, unsure of our words, our expressions, our body language. Strangers, all of us, in the same house.

But she and I found a small bit of normalcy in running.

I'd laced up my shoes the second morning after bringing her back to Coronado and she asked if she could go along. I could've been going anywhere and I would've said yes. She went upstairs, changed her clothes and then promptly kicked my ass in a swift four mile run along the Coronado sand. She'd done it repeatedly all week, insisting on sprinting at the end, always beating me by a wide margin to our finishing point. It didn't make things more normal between us, but it was at least something.

I straightened and she wiped at the sweat on her forehead.

You were closer this morning,” she said. Her breathing was steady, almost normal and I was still gulping mouthfuls of air.

I think you're mocking me,” I said.

She shrugged, pushed the wisps of hair out of her eyes, looking strikingly like a younger version of her mother. “A little, maybe.”

We walked slowly up the sand, cooling down. My thighs burned, but my lungs were finding the air they needed after the sprint.

We've always lived here, right?” she asked as we walked.

I sidestepped a pile of seaweed. “Yep. I've been here since I was a kid.”

“That's what I thought,” she said. “But I wasn't sure.”

She wasn't sure about a lot of things, but that was to be expected. Her memory was spotty, a product of blocking out some of the things she wanted to forget in the time we had been separated. We weren't pushing to bring the memories back. We were trying to let her go at her own pace.

“I keep trying to remember,” she said. “And there isn't much there.”

Everyone is telling us that's normal,” I said. “It'll take time.”

We walked a little further into the morning sun, the backside of the Hotel Del coming up on our left.

“I think I need to go back to Minnesota,” she said, stopping, her back to me.

A knot formed in my gut and I tried to keep my voice neutral. “Okay.”

“I mean...” She shook her head and swung around to face me, her hands on her hips. “I don't know what I mean.”

Say what you need to say, Elizabeth. Don't keep it in.”

She doesn't feel that way,” she said, cutting her eyes at me.

was Lauren. Her mother. My ex-wife. Elizabeth hadn't yet gotten so comfortable with us that she called us mom and dad again. It hurt, but it was understandable. So she referred to us with non-threatening pronouns, words that didn't bond us to her or her to us. She'd called other people mom and dad for a decade and no matter how much it stung, we couldn't just make that go away over night.

She's stubborn,” I said. “But it's not to hurt you. Everybody's struggling.”

Her hands stayed on her hips but she started walking again. “I guess.”

“But say what you need to say,” I said. “To me.”

We walked for about thirty seconds before she spoke again.

“I need my things,” she said. “And I need to talk to them.”

The Corzines, you mean.”

She nodded. “Yeah.”

The Corzines were the family in Minneapolis that she'd ended up with. I still wasn't sure how she'd arrived in their arms and I was still determined to find out who was responsible. I wasn't sure what fault to place on them. But, regardless. Elizabeth knew the Corzines as her family. Her parents. And as quickly as she'd been taken from our front yard years earlier, she'd been removed from their lives just as fast.

Are you saying you need to talk to them to figure out where you want to live?” I asked. “Or something else?”

The breeze played with a strand of her hair, tugged on it, and she tucked it behind her ear. “I don't know.”

“You know you aren't a legal adult yet.”

Uh, yeah. She reminds me anytime I even think about Minnesota.”

She, again, being Lauren.

“Sorry,” I said. “That came out wrong.”

Elizabeth didn't say anything.

“I meant that legally, you belong with us,” I said. “But I'm listening. You think you need to talk to them.”

She adjusted her hair tie, tucking away the wayward strand as we walked. “I just need to...figure stuff out.”

“What kind of stuff?”

I don't know,” she said. “I just...I don't know. Sorry.”

Don't apologize,” I said, wiping my forehead on my sleeve. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

They are my family,” she said and the words cut me like razors. “I mean, I know they aren't. But to me they were. Does that make sense?”

Nothing makes sense, Elizabeth,” I said. “But I understand it's hard. For you and for everyone.”

She stopped, dug the toe of her shoe into the sand and looked out at the ocean. It was gray-blue, a mirror image of the sky. “I'm just not sure about anything.”

“I don't think any of us are,” I said

She bent over and hugged her chest to her thighs. Somewhere along the line, in the time she'd been gone, she'd turned into a runner. A pang of loss jabbed at my gut, knowing I'd missed out on something that I couldn't get back. I wondered who'd introduced her to running, what kind of shoes she bought to start, if she'd run any races. It was a constant thing. I was always wondering. Always.

She stood again and exhaled. She messed with her hair again and looked at me. “So, do you think I can go?”

I'll talk with your mom,” I said, knowing that even though she wasn't comfortable saying that word, I was. Lauren was her mother in every sense of the word. “But we've got a ton to figure out here, too.”


Like school,” I said. “Like figuring out exactly what happened to you. Like figuring out...”

Like figuring you and her out,” she interrupted.

That was fair. Lauren and I were divorced. But now Lauren was pregnant and we'd grown close again, searching for Elizabeth. I was staying in the house because I didn't have any other place to stay on Coronado and because Lauren invited me to stay there. I wasn't sure if we were together or not. I didn't think Lauren knew, either.

“Yeah,” I said. “Figuring us out, too.”

She sighed. “She's just gonna say no.”

She was right. Lauren probably would say no. And if I was being honest, I didn't want her going either. I didn't want her running to the grocery store without me, much less traveling a thousand miles to the place she'd lived without me. I'd yet to sleep through the night. I tossed and turned, waking up with a start. I'd sit there, listening for some sound that might reassure me. When it wouldn't come, I'd pad down the hallway and stick my head in her room, a sigh of relief escaping every time I saw her, curled up in her bed.

But we couldn't suffocate her. That wouldn't work, either. Smothering her would make it worse and she'd come to resent it at some point. We had to be mindful of what she wanted. And needed. Even if we disagreed. Lauren was resistant. I was trying to play the mediator.

The morning breeze picked up off the ocean and I took a deep breath. I wanted to put my arms around her, hug her and tell her she didn't need anything or anyone else, that I'd take care of her for the rest of her life.

Instead, I tried to smile at her, reassure her that I was on her side.

“We'll see,” I told her. “We'll see.”




Elizabeth and I jogged slowly back to the house to finish our cool-down after the run. Lauren was just crawling out of bed and into the shower. Elizabeth disappeared upstairs to her room and I knew morning wasn't the best time to approach Lauren about anything. So I grabbed the keys and headed to the gym. It had been my morning routine since finding Elizabeth. I wasn't completely comfortable in my old home and I felt like Lauren and Elizabeth needed their own time to begin rebuilding their relationship. So I'd taken to vacating the house in the mornings.

I spent two hours at the gym, lifting and stretching. I'd ignored my body while chasing down Elizabeth over the previous few weeks and it showed. I was sore, I was weak and I was tired. But everything was slowing starting to come back. There was a metaphor in there somewhere, but I wasn't quite sure where.

The week since we'd finally found Elizabeth had been chaotic. The media wanted the story and were relentless in their pursuit of talking to us. I'd given several benign statements and made it clear that Elizabeth was off-limits and would be for quite some time. That had deterred most of the them and their round-the-clock near stalking of us had finally abated.

The FBI had interviewed myself and Elizabeth for nearly two straight days. It wasn't meant to be harsh, but reliving the entire thing from my end had sharpened the edges of my memory and been agonizing at time. I knew it was a necessary evil, but that hadn't made it anymore pleasant.

And when it became increasingly clear that Elizabeth had blocked much of the early part of her ordeal out of her mind, the FBI leaned heavily on getting her into therapy immediately so she could deal with the trauma. Lauren and I had talked with her, though, and she said she needed some time before she was going to be able to sit down and talk with anyone.

So we'd told everyone to back off, circled the wagons and gone about the business of trying to figure out exactly how we were going to put the pieces back together in our own home.

After a long shower at the club, I headed across the bridge, off the island and into downtown San Diego. I hadn't told Elizabeth or Lauren, but I was meeting with someone who I hoped might be able to help me dig deeper into the mystery behind my daughter's abduction. I wasn't sure how Elizabeth would react, but I knew that Lauren would tell me to leave it alone, that we needed to focus on the fact that she was back and leave the past behind. But that wasn't me. I couldn't do that. And she knew that, even as words to the contrary came out of her mouth. I wasn't going to rest until I knew exactly what had happened to Elizabeth. We may have circled the wagons around us, but I was still stepping out of the circle to find out who had made a mess of our lives.

Paul Lasko was sitting in a small corner booth at an out of the way deli, just off Broadway, near Horton Plaza. He was out of uniform, in khaki shorts and a black golf shirt. His short dark hair appeared to have just been razor trimmed and he held up his water glass in my direction when I came through the door.

We shook hands and I sat down across from him.

He pointed at the rectangular, laminated menu. “Everything's good.”


I like the turkey and avocado, but it's all good.”

The waitress appeared, a younger Hispanic woman with friendly eyes and a tired smile, and I took his advice and ordered the turkey and avocado, as did he. She took the menu and went back behind the counter.

“So,” he asked. “I was kind of surprised to hear from you.”

I was sure he was. I'd only met Lasko once, in the hour before we'd finally found Elizabeth. He'd pulled me, Lauren and two others over when an AMBER Alert had been issued for Elizabeth and he'd flagged the car we were riding in. It was a bogus call, one designed to slow us down and I still didn't know why it had happened. When Lasko realized the alert was bad, he'd cut us loose and we'd gone and found my daughter. He'd made it clear to me on the street that day that he hadn't like being played and I believed him. So I'd reached out to him, offering to buy him lunch, wondering if he might be able to help me. It was a longshot and I knew that. But I'd liked the way he'd handled himself that day and he struck me as a guy who didn't care much for bullshit.

“I'm sure,” I said, nodding at the waitress as she set a glass of water on the table for me. I picked it up. “I appreciate you taking the time.”

He smiled. He was in his early thirties, I guessed, tiny flecks of gray in the short hair, small wrinkle lines at the corners of his grayish-green eyes. “Hey, man. A free lunch is a free lunch.”

“That it is.”

The smile faded. “But I'm not dumb enough to think this is just a social call. Am I right?”

The fact that he wasn't dumb at all was why I'd gotten in touch with him in the first place.

You're right,” I said. “But I did want to first say thank you.”

Thank you?”

For being a part of getting my daughter back.”

I didn't really do much,” he said, shaking his head. “How is she?”

I shrugged. “Okay. Confused. Worn out. I'm honestly not sure.”

“Has to be hard.”

It is. For her and for us.”

I'm sorry.”

I shrugged again. “She's back. That's the most important thing. The rest will fall into place eventually.”

He took a sip from his glass and nodded.

But you're right,” I said. “I'm not just here to thank you.”

He tapped his temple. “Sharp like a butter knife.”

“Sharper than that, I think.”

He leaned back in the booth.

“I need some help,” I said.


With finding out exactly what happened to my daughter,” I said. “I want to know who took her and how she ended up where she ended up. I want to know who was pulling the strings and who was doing the work.”

He rubbed at his jaw. “Sure. I could see that.”

“I have a couple of ideas,” I said. “But that's it. They're just ideas. I don't have a whole lot of solids. Just small things I've pieced together.”

Okay,” he said. “But I'm not sure what I can do for you. I'm a cop, not a P.I.”

I need a cop,” I said.

He tilted his head slightly, not understanding.

“You know anything about me?” I asked.

He hesitated just a fraction of a second, then shook his head. “Not really.”

“But you know I was a cop, right? I told you that when you stopped us.”

He shrugged, noncommittal.

“I'm having a hard time believing that you didn't dig on me after I called and asked you to lunch,” I said. “But we can go with that for now.”

He didn't say anything, just ran his thumb along the rim of his glass.

“I'll preface what I'm going to tell you with this,” I said. “You don't like anything I have to say, don't want anything to do with me, no hard feelings. I buy lunch and you can walk away and we're still friends.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“All I ask is if that does turn out to be how you feel, that you keep the conversation between us,” I continued. “Like it never happened.”

He fidgeted a little in the booth. “Not sure I'm comfortable with that up front.”

“Then I'll just buy lunch and we can make small talk,” I said. “Because I need to know this conversation won't go any further if you aren't interested.”

Our sandwiches came and the waitress slid our plates in front of us. She refilled out waters and asked if we needed anything else. We told her we were good and she smiled and left.

He ate two bites of his sandwich, then said, “Okay. As long as you don't confess to a crime, we're good.”

Lasko was smart. He hadn't committed right away, thinking through the possibilities and consequences before he agreed to hear me out. I liked that because it meant he was taking me seriously.

I didn't waste any time or mince words. “I think someone in the Coronado P.D. was involved in my daughter's abduction.”

If that shocked him, he didn't show it. He took another bite of his sandwich and waited.

“Most of what I've got is circumstantial,” I said quickly. “Nothing hard. But my gut is telling me someone inside was a part of it. Two names in particular.” I paused. “You still interested?”

He picked up his napkin and wiped at his mouth. He set it back in his lap and nodded. “I'm listening.”

As he continued to eat, I explained to him where my suspicions came from, going all the way back to how Bazer treated me when Elizabeth first disappeared. I covered all of the details, even the smallest ones, in order to give him a full picture of what had gone on in the previous few weeks. I wanted him to know that what I was telling him wasn't just some crackpot theory or some out of left field idea I'd concocted in order to deal with the trauma of having a child taken from me. I needed him to know that I'd spent hours thinking it through and that what I was telling him was a genuine possibility. It might have been wrong, but there was plausibility to my theory.

He pushed his plate to the side, balled his napkin up and tossed it on the plate. He leaned back in the booth. “That's a lot of shit, Mr. Tyler.”

“Joe. And, yeah. It's a lot of shit.”

He folded his arms across his chest and stared hard at me. “You're missing one big piece, though.”

“What's that?”

The why,” he said. “You can draw some lines between your daughter and Bazer and Lorenzo, but you don't have any lines to the why. Why would either of them take your daughter?”

I don't know,” I admitted. “And I know. I am missing the why. It's the one thing I can't get a handle on and it's probably the most important piece.”

He nodded. “Agreed.”

“So I need to know if there is a why,” I said. “Because if there isn't a why, then it probably doesn't matter if I'm right about my theory or not. I won't be able to prove a thing.”

He nodded again. “It won't hold water.”

It was my turn to nod. “Agreed.”

So then this is when you tell me why I'm here,” he said.

The waitress came and cleared our plates, asked if we needed anything else. We both shook our heads and she dropped the check on the table.

I reached for the folded piece of paper, slid it toward me. “I need someone who can poke around. On the inside. Someone who can ask questions without drawing too much attention. Someone who can tell the difference between bullshit and the truth.” I paused. “And someone willing to stick their nose into something that might be pretty goddamn ugly.”

He held my gaze from the other side of the table and I couldn't read him.

He unfolded his arms and laid his hands flat on the table. “Why me? You don't know me. You don't know my history. Why are you asking me? And why do you trust me?” He shrugged. “Maybe I won't keep my mouth shut. Maybe I'll call Bazer as soon as I walk out of here and tell him he's got a former cop out to get him.” His eyes narrowed. “Why me?”

It was a completely fair question and I would've been surprised if he hadn't asked it.

“You cut us loose,” I said.

What do you mean?”

When you stopped us,” I said. “You made the stop. You listened to me. You had to make some quick decisions. You didn't worry about pissing off a superior by making the wrong decision or think you were smarter than the situation by drawing the whole thing out longer than it already was. You saw what was on the table, you made a decision and that was that.” I shrugged. “There was no bullshit. No jerking a chain to jerk a chain. You did your job. And helped me find my daughter.”

His expression was still neutral, his eyes still on mine.

“So I trust you,” I said. “I trust you to tell me if I'm right and I trust you to tell me if I'm wrong. Either way. And that's what I need. Someone who doesn't give a shit about department politics and will do the right thing, whatever that is.” I paused. “Am I out on a limb here because I really don't know you? Probably. But I trust my gut. I trust you.”

He looked away from me, toward the front window of the deli. I didn't think he was looking for anything specific, just thinking over what I'd said. Probably trying to make up his mind as to whether or not I was worth sticking his neck out for. I didn't blame him for that. If he decided to help me, there was no going back. Cops didn't like cops questioning from within. There was a reason most cops hated Internal Affairs. So just by asking Lasko, I was putting him in a tough situation.

He slid out of the booth and stood at the edge of the table, stuck out his hand. “Thanks for lunch.”

We shook. “You're welcome.”

He pulled a pair of sunglasses from his pocket and set them on top of his head. “I'll be in touch, Joe.”

I watched him walk out of the deli and I had no idea what he meant.

BOOK: Thread of Innocence (Joe Tyler Mystery #4)
3.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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