Tharaen – Hazel Hunter

BEING WELL OVER six feet tall had its advantages, though not as many when you were a woman. Lieutenant Diana Burke stood up to stretch her long limbs, and saw the rest of the gray cubicles around her had already emptied. One advantage of being well over six feet tall was the ability to check her surroundings in a few seconds. Beyond the maze of sound-reducing panels, the building’s glass exterior panels showed the glitter of harbor lights against a matte black sky. The last time she’d looked, the view had been of the city’s skyscrapers, framed by a silver-blue sky slashed with gold-edged clouds. Inside her right temple she felt the warning tap of another headache, and reached for the pill bottle in her top drawer. Down in the Gaslamp Quarter the party would just be getting started. She hadn’t gone there to drink at her favorite rooftop bar since she’d started putting in the extra hours that she didn’t report on her time sheet. The hours were hers, and she’d do what she wanted with them. Wasting them on frozen strawberry margaritas and guys who blanched the minute she stood up didn’t appeal much to her anymore. But finding the lost, and bringing them home, made every damn day Christmas morning. The smell of vanilla made Diana frown, until she saw the slice of cake someone had left parked on the end of her desk. That meant a birthday today in the unit, and she’d missed it. It annoyed her. She really liked the people she worked with, and she loved cake of any kind.

Except red velvet. Even thinking about it made her shudder a little. Why would anyone like cake the color of blood? It was almost as bad as those decorated sugar skulls and skeletons they sold around the city for Dia de los Muertos. Being the last one to leave work didn’t bother Diana. Most of the cops assigned to the Missing Persons Unit at the San Diego Police Department worked overtime without pay whenever a child or an endangered adult went missing, but it had been a quiet week. Only fifteen new reports, all on adults who were not considered at risk, had been filed. They also hadn’t had an AMBER alert all month. Typically ninety-nine percent of missing adults would be found within forty-eight hours, usually in good health. A few would take longer to return home, but eventually they’d show. One percent, however, would never come back.

If MPU was very lucky, in a few years a hunter or hiker would find what was left. Covering those crime scenes was probably what had rendered Diana incapable of eating candy bones on the Day of the Dead. She saw too much of the real deal. Knowing food would help keep the headache pills from burning in her gut, Diana scooped up and ate the cake with one hand while she used the other to outbox the stack of reports she’d finally finished. The paperwork was her least favorite part of the job, but tomorrow afternoon she’d do it again. It had become part of her new daily routine since her last partner had transferred over to the Sheriff’s Department. Updating all the case files had fallen in Diana’s lap, along with all the other work she used to share. She’d be flying solo for another month until her new partner finished forensic imaging training. That was something else she needed to add to the running list in her head: Be here for the newbie to go over the files and bring him or her up to speed. Right after I find Kinley and decide what to do with Baby.

The cake only made Diana feel hungrier, so she strolled over to steal some jelly beans from the unit secretary’s desk jar as she checked the hall. The janitor’s cart sat two doors down, and a couple of uniforms stood at the far end talking to the nightshift desk sergeant. When they spotted her they lifted hands in hello, and she did the same. The taller of the two uniforms had the pressed-but-clueless look of a recent academy graduate. He gave her the once-over and widened his grin. “Oh, don’t even tempt me, rook,” Diana muttered as she retreated back into the office to grab her things. “I’d snap you like cheap china.” What she needed was to go home, throw together a reasonably healthy stir-fry, soak in the tub, and go to bed before three a.m. The phone on her desk rang, suggesting that she wouldn’t.

“MPU, Lieutenant Burke,” she said as she tucked the phone receiver between her cheek and shoulder to shrug into her blazer. “It’s Gerry Stevens,” the psychiatrist said, sounding apologetic. “I thought I’d touch base with you one more time before I fly up to Seattle tomorrow. I’ve been transferred.” “Sorry to hear that,” Diana said. She knew Dr. Stevens had been fighting to stay at San Diego’s VA hospital ever since her patient’s baffling disappearance, in which she may or may not have played a part. Diana felt pretty sure it was a not. “Nothing new to report, I’m afraid. We haven’t had any calls on the tip line in months, and there’s been zero activity on her credit cards and bank accounts.

” She didn’t mention that Captain Kinley Chandler’s missing persons’ file had been officially moved to cold cases, or that she’d unofficially made a copy of it and was still investigating. A tired sigh came over the line. “I don’t know why I can’t let this go. It’s been a year since Kinley vanished. She couldn’t walk, and without medical treatment… Do you think she’s dead, Diana? She has to be.” “Until we find a body,” Diana said, “we don’t give up hope.” She grabbed her keys from her desk drawer, and then made a promise she would probably break. “I’m going to keep looking for her, Gerry, and we’ll keep in touch. Give me a call once you’re settled.” “Okay,” the psychiatrist said.

“Thank you, for everything.” Diana replaced the receiver and watched the line light blink off. She usually didn’t get on a first-name basis with civilians, but Geraldine Stevens had been calling her twice a week for the last year. She’d also met her at the crime scene, and walked and talked the detective through every moment she’d spent there with Kinley Chandler before the captain had vanished. That Gerry blamed herself for it was a given. She’d taken the badly-injured captain from her VA hospital to Horsethief Canyon, reportedly as a therapeutic outing. From all the reports the psychiatrist had provided, the captain had been seriously depressed, and possibly suicidal. Only there was no blood, no signs of trauma or a struggle, and no body. The only evidence forensics had found was Chandler’s wheelchair, sitting empty on the trail. They hadn’t even found any footprints in the soil around it.

After a year of working the case Diana knew just about everything there was to know about Chandler. She’d read her entire medical chart, her service record and the incident reports about the insurgent attack that had nearly killed her in Afghanistan. She knew she drank her coffee black, voted independent, cut her own hair, and splurged on a pricey gardenia body wash that smelled pretty heavenly. Diana had even read some of the biographies and history books about Scotland she’d found in Kinley’s house. While the facts pointed to an abduction, possibly to facilitate the captain’s suicide, all of Diana’s instincts told her otherwise. Unlike Geraldine Stevens, she had no emotional connection to the victim, so it wasn’t wishful thinking. Whether or not a third party had helped her, or abducted her, or beamed her up out of that wheelchair to their alien mothership, somewhere out there Kinley Chandler was still alive. Diana didn’t just feel it. She knew it—just as she had known about her mother. Her gaze shifted to the only personal item on her desk, a framed photograph of herself in a cap and gown, and a short, heavyset Italian man in a badly-fitting brown suit.

Her friendship with Detective Tonio Leoni had begun when he’d visited her at the hospital. After learning why she’d been admitted, he’d helped her case worker move her to a new group home run by church people. He’d also appointed himself her unofficial mentor, checking on her with weekly phone calls and monthly visits. He’d never threatened her or talked down to her, and when she got fresh with him he’d only chuckle. “Kid, I work Vice,” he’d told her after she’d sworn at him once. “You’re going to have to come up with something better than ‘nosy fat bastard’ to curl my hair.” She hadn’t realized it at the time, but Tonio had probably saved her life. Even if she had managed to survive her health situation, teen runaways usually came to bad ends. If they didn’t wind up as drug addicts who sold themselves until they overdosed, they were murdered or committed suicide. Keeping her from becoming another wretched statistic wasn’t the cop’s only motive for taking an interest.

“I’ve kept tabs on you for eight years,” he’d told her when she’d asked why he’d come to see her at the hospital. “Ever since your mom left you at the station. I was on duty that night, and I knew your mother. But you, you kept telling me that you could show me where she was.” She was tempted to tell him about the weird feeling she got in her chest when she looked for lost things—or how she almost always found them. But she didn’t trust grownups, and he probably wouldn’t believe her anyway. “Didn’t anyone go and look for her?” Diana demanded. “Yeah. I did.” His mouth flattened.

“And you were right. I found her a week later, exactly where you said she’d be.” She knew why he didn’t want to tell her any more than that. “How did she die?” Tonio took her hand in his, and sighed. “Bunch of sleeping pills mixed with booze. She was just a kid herself, got pregnant in school, and ran away from home. But she made sure you’d be safe before she did herself in, Di. You remember that she cared enough to do that first.” It took Diana a few more years to realize that Tonio had known her mother because he worked Vice, and she’d been a prostitute. Knowing the truth hurt, but it also freed Diana from the useless dreams every foster kid had of being reclaimed by their real family.

From that day she’d known she was on her own for good. The only life she would have would be one she made for herself. Tonio had helped, first by getting her through high school, and then by finding enough scholarship money to put her through college. She’d come out with a criminal justice degree, and applied to the academy. Tonio had been the one to present her with her badge when she’d graduated. “Look for the lost ones, kid,” he’d told her when she’d asked how she could ever repay him for being her mentor. “You save one, you save the world.” “I’m going to find her, Tonio,” Diana said as she touched the edge of the photo. Her mentor had died suddenly three years ago of a heart attack, but she always felt as if he was still watching over her. As Diana left headquarters she pulled on her Padres ball cap, and strolled to the far end of the lot, where she always parked Baby, her ’51 Cadillac convertible.

The black and chrome monster looked like a dinosaur, especially these days with everyone in the city driving electric cars and hybrids. Diana didn’t care. Her Baby was her one, self-indulgent bit of heaven on earth. She’d bought it as a rusty old hulk from a scrap yard when she was twenty, and spent every spare dime she had getting it completely restored. She loved every inch of it, from the wide white-wall tires to the mirror finish on the battering ram bumpers. Hell, if she had her way she’d be buried in it, but Baby deserved better. Diana climbed in and eyed herself in the rearview mirror. She’d never be beautiful, not with her angular face and bold features, but lately she’d let herself get a bit ragged. Dark circles showed through her faded concealer to raccoon her pale violet eyes. When she was brooding she dragged the edge of her teeth back and forth over her lower lip, which now looked as raw as it felt.

She had to start eating better, too. The gaunt hollows in her cheeks and throat were becoming more noticeable again. Without warning a huge wave of fatigue crashed over her, churning her stomach and sending the shakes through her limbs. She sat back and let it happen, closing her eyes as she endured the familiar nausea and fear. It felt like being pulled under by a rip current. The more she fought it, the deeper she sank. Diana recalled the image of the missing Air Force captain, and focused on that until the exhaustion and need to puke receded. “No,” she muttered and pushed some short spikes of her scanty red hair up under her ball cap, settling it more firmly on her head before she started the powerful engine. “Not until I find Kinley.” Driving past the road to her apartment made Diana feel better.

So did stopping at her favorite drive-through for a big vanilla milk shake and three orders of fries to fill her growling stomach. “Hey, Detective,” Jake said, as the grinning blond kid at the window handed out her order. He’d been serving her hot, salty fries several times a week since she’d gotten the Chandler case. “Find Waldo yet?” She gave him the official cop scowl. “Why? You know where he is?” They both laughed at the very lame joke, and she handed him back a fiver out of her change. “What’s this for?” Jake demanded. “The college fund,” Diana said, shaking a long fry at him. “Stanford, guy. I’m counting on you getting in.” He laughed.

“More like Mesa, if I don’t fail calculus again. By the way, no one says guy anymore.” She shrugged. “I call you bro, you might try to borrow some serious money from me.” “Like you’d have any.” He rolled his bright blue eyes. “Watch the road, Detective.” As she headed up the interstate toward Horsethief Canyon, Diana talked out her ideas on the case. She’d gone over the details a million times, but it helped. She never knew when she’d hit on a new angle.

“Okay, so Blondie’s combat search and rescue. She knows how to get in and out of tight spots. Maybe she already has a phone on her when she sends Geraldine back to the van to get hers. She makes the call to whoever followed them to the canyon. ‘Come get me,’ says Kinley.” Diana ate the fry she was holding and took another from the carton. “Military pal comes in, grabs her, erases his footprints with a branch, and hikes out through the canyon with her to another vehicle, which he uses to transport her to…where?” The fry didn’t answer, but it tasted delicious. “Doesn’t make sense,” Diana told the rearview mirror as she checked it. “If Blondie wanted to die, she was doing a pretty good job of it at the hospital. Not fast enough, maybe? Or she had stuff to do before the final deed? What stuff? No living family, no friends stateside, and no boyfriend.

No one to take her out of there. Gerry wanted her to live. That puts us back to square one.” Diana took the exit for the canyon. As she passed the fire station she considered who else Kinley might have convinced to transport her. She had interviewed every single member of the hospital staff who had come in contact with Kinley. Each and every one of them had solid alibis for their whereabouts during the time of the disappearance. She’d even met with the captain’s previous shrink, a skinny, stuffy jackass named Patterson, who had tried to patronize her and had ended up on the defensive. “Kinley Chandler had no interest in her own recovery,” the psychiatrist told her, pressing his bony fingers to his temple as if he felt a migraine coming on. “She didn’t socialize, she stopped eating, and she slept twenty hours a day.

I believe she had survivor’s guilt, and diagnosed her as high risk for suicide.” “But she never attempted to kill herself while under your care,” Diana pointed out. “And she refused the pain meds which she could have squirreled away to do the deed. When I checked her hospital room, I saw about twenty things she might have used to kill herself. Active duty combat—they’re trained to be resourceful.” “Being at risk for suicide is not the same thing as committing it,” Patterson told her. “Chandler was clearly building up to the act in an opportunity-restricted environment. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a patient waiting.” Later Diana had asked Gerry Stevens if Patterson might have helped Kinley get out of the canyon. The psychiatrist suggested only if he’d been held at gunpoint.

Once Diana parked her Caddy in the lot by the canyon trail, she finished her fries and milkshake, and deposited her trash in the park can before fetching her big flashlight from the trunk. She paused for a moment to clear her head with her personal mantra: Save one, save the world. “All right, Blondie,” Diana said as she switched on the high-powered light. “Let’s see if we can find out something new tonight.”


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