Authors: Brian Freeman
,” he murmured, as he realized who she was. “Catalina Mateo. Michaela was your mother.”
“You remember her,” she said. “I knew you would.”
Stride pushed back his chair and got up with a start. The reality struck him like a blow to the chest. He went into the living room, where it was dark and cool, and he took a loud breath, which felt ragged in his lungs. His face taunted him in the antique mirror. Short, messy black hair, swept with gray. A day of rough stubble on his chin and cheeks. The brown, brooding eyes, feeling everything, showing everything. He could feel the furrows in his weathered forehead deepen. Not wrinkles anymore—furrows. A storm washed over him. He felt his age. He sat down in the red leather armchair in the shadows, and he saw her face again. Michaela.
He’d never gotten past the guilt of what happened to her. For a decade, she’d been his nightmare.
And now this.
Catalina. Cat. Michaela’s beautiful little girl, descending into the lost life of prostitution. A runaway.
She stood framed in the doorway of the dining room, with the lights behind her. She came toward him tentatively. When he read her face, he knew they were both thinking about the same night. Remembering her mother.
Cat slipped to her knees and Stride folded her into his chest and hugged her with the tenderness he would give a child. Ten years had passed, but she was still a little girl. She was fragile and warm in his arms. He wanted to change the past for her and make everything right. He wanted to restore what she’d lost, but that was beyond his power. He couldn’t undo what was done or erase his mistakes. All he could do was make a promise.
Not to himself. Not to Cat. To Michaela. A new promise to replace the one he’d failed to keep ten years ago.
He would rescue her daughter.
He would save her.
The girl had vanished again. She was smart.
He threw down the garage door with an angry jerk of his wrist, shutting out the noise of the wind. With the door closed, he stood in perfect blackness beside the snow-crusted Dodge Charger. He switched on the light, which illuminated the concrete floor, with its mud and grease. The garage was neatly organized. Metal shelves. Tools on pegboards. Chest freezer. He grabbed a plastic gasoline can and topped off the Charger’s tank. Gasoline spilled onto the wool of his gloves, raising pungent fumes. Despite the cold air in the detached garage, he felt sweat under his winter hat.
He’d spent half an hour scouring Canal Park and the streets surrounding the city’s convention center. The girl had to be freezing. She had to be scared. There were moments when he knew she was close—he felt it—but wherever she was hiding, she kept out of sight.
He gave up on the search as it got late. The Charger was stolen. It wasn’t safe to stay in the tourist area longer than necessary. He didn’t think the girl would call the police, but he knew that they patrolled the Canal Park area through the overnight hours, and he didn’t want them eyeing the Charger with suspicion. A car slowly making circles through the deserted streets attracted attention.
He headed back to his hideaway in the forested lands north of the city. He could park the Charger, take his car from the garage’s other stall, and go back to his real life. Shed one skin, put on another.
He slid open the second garage door and studied the woods outside before he made his escape. He was sheltered from the highway, and it was a lightly traveled road. No one could see him. The owners were snowbirds; they wouldn’t be back for months. He had to be cautious about neighbors noticing tracks in the driveway, but few people lived year-round on the lonely back roads, and the wind and snow would cover up his trail overnight. This had been his lair for a month. He would be gone long before anyone discovered it.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, demanding attention. He knew who it was. Only one other person had the number for this phone.
“She got away,” he said, answering the call.
There was no reply. He could hear mixed emotions in the silence. Terror. Relief. Then finally a voice: “Maybe we should just forget about her. Maybe it’s okay.”
okay,” he said.
“The girl doesn’t know a thing. Let her go.”
“We can’t. Don’t you get it? She’s a bomb waiting to blow up in our faces.”
He heard another long, tortured pause.
“So what happens next?”
“She disappeared again,” he replied. “She’s on the run. You need to find out where she is.”
“I already told you exactly where she was going to be tonight. You said you would handle it and you didn’t. You said it would be over by now.”
His gloved hands squeezed into fists. He didn’t need blame. They were way past blame. He couldn’t believe that one teenage girl could put the entire scheme at risk.
“Just find out where she is,” he repeated angrily.
“How do I do that?”
“That’s your problem. And do it fast.” He hung up the phone.
He was breathing heavily. It was true; it should have been over by now. A teenage hooker had outsmarted him. He’d let her sneak through his grasp again. She should have been in his hands weeks ago; she should have been dead and forgotten. Once she was out of the way, the trail would be buried like dirt over a grave. They’d finally be safe.
He told himself he still had time to fix this. No one was asking questions now. No one knew the girl’s secret. Even so, the clock kept ticking. A month had passed. The longer he waited, the more chance there was for things to go badly. Someone had already made the connection and, sooner or later, others would follow, as long as the girl was out there. The dominoes would fall, snaking their way back to his doorstep. He couldn’t let that happen.
Time to go. The outside woods were deserted. The street was empty.
Before he got into his car, he spotted the chest freezer on the far wall. He couldn’t help himself. He checked it again, the way he’d checked it a thousand times, lifting the lid, feeling the frost envelop his face. The body was a horrible thing, rock solid, like an alabaster statue. It was odd how he still expected the eyes to pop open, the mouth to form a scream as it gasped for air. He wasn’t a monster; he felt regret. Sometimes there was no way but the hard way.
Some secrets couldn’t be allowed to come back to life.
He shut the lid of the freezer, leaving the body to feel the burn of the ice. It was a tight fit but there was enough room for one more inside. The girl was small.
“Go with me on this,” Maggie Bei said. She sat on Stride’s kitchen counter, kicking her legs and sipping hot coffee from a cardboard cup. “I think a sausage McMuffin with egg may well be the world’s perfect food.”
Stride glanced at the clock. It wasn’t even six in the morning on Saturday, and it was still dark outside. He’d been asleep for two hours, but the noise of his partner in the kitchen had awakened him. He opened the McDonald’s bag and saw a second sausage McMuffin inside, which he took out and ate ravenously. “I think you’re right,” he said.
“It’s the little slice of cheese that does it. I love that. And the egg that looks like a hockey puck. I could eat these every day.”
“No, some days I get those little breakfast burrito things.” She popped the top of a can of Coke with her fingernail and handed it to him. “You look like you need caffeine, boss.”
“You think?” Stride said. He still wore his jeans from the previous night and the same wrinkled dress shirt. He’d kicked off his old boots, and he felt the coldness of the floor under his feet. His head throbbed, but the fizz of Coke was like aspirin.
“Sorry it took me so long to get over here,” Maggie went on. “The phone didn’t wake me up. Weird.”
He wondered if that was true or if she’d chosen to ignore his call.
The tiny Chinese cop hopped off the counter onto her big block heels and sat at his dining room table. She wore drainpipe jeans and a tight red Aerosmith T-shirt that barely covered her stomach, despite the morning chill in the cottage. She acted as if nothing had changed between the two of them but, in fact, their relationship was strained. For years, she’d shown up with breakfast two or three times a week. He’d wake up and find her reading his newspaper, eating from her McDonald’s bag.
It had been nearly two months now since she’d appeared in his kitchen. Two months since they’d pulled the plug on their brief, misguided affair.
“Long time, no see,” he said.
“You act like it’s been three years, boss. We’re together every day.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do, but my weekends have been busy lately, okay?”
He noticed that she didn’t explain what she’d been doing, and he didn’t ask. He suspected she was seeing someone new and didn’t want him to know.
“So who’s the girl?” Maggie asked. She gestured into the living room as she chewed on hash browns. The door to the smallest bedroom in the cottage, which was in the corner facing the street, was closed. Cat had spent the remainder of the night in one of the twin beds there.
“I peeked inside when I got here,” Maggie went on. “She was asleep.”
“So was I.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t wake you up, did I?” She added pointedly, “Not anymore.”
“I know, we said we weren’t going to talk about it. Pretend like nothing ever happened. Zip my lips.” She pulled a red-tipped fingernail across her bright lips and winked at him. It was a joke, but with Maggie there was usually a dagger behind her jokes. “Anyway, she’s pretty. Who is she?”
“Her name’s Cat Mateo.”
Maggie had a near-perfect memory for details and she didn’t hesitate to pull the name out of her brain. “Mateo?” she asked. “As in Michaela Mateo? Is there a connection?”
“Her daughter,” Stride said. “Cat was just a kid back then.”
“I remember. Well, that explains the pretty part. She’s got good genes.”
“Yes, she does.”
“At least on her mother’s side. I don’t even want to think about what little pieces of Marty Gamble are swimming around inside her.”
Stride frowned at the reminder. Marty Gamble was Catalina’s father and Michaela’s ex-husband. Cat was the only good thing to come out of their violent relationship. Stride wanted to believe that Marty had left no imprint on the teenage girl in the corner bedroom, but bad seeds had a way of spreading like weeds.
Maggie watched his face with concern. “Is this going to be a problem for you, boss?”
“No, why should it?”
She rolled her eyes. “Because I was there. Because I know you.”
That was true. Maggie probably knew Stride better than he knew himself. She probably knew him better than Serena, even though he and Serena had shared a bed for most of the past three years. Stride and Maggie had been partners for well over a decade. When he’d first met her, she was a book-smart police grad, with a stiffness born of her childhood in China. She’d done a turnaround over the years, developing a sassy mouth and a taste for hot clothes. She was the size of a doll, short and skinny, with golden skin, a diamond stud in her bottle-cap nose, and a bowl haircut that looked like a mop. She’d dyed her hair as red as an Easter egg a few months earlier, but her hair was black again now, hanging over her eyes. As he watched, she blew her bangs off her forehead.
Stride was older than his partner. He was knocking on the door of fifty, and Maggie was staring at forty. Age didn’t matter. She’d had a crush on Stride ever since she met him, through his first marriage to Cindy and then his love affair with Serena, years after Cindy’s death. It was a crush that should have stayed nothing more than a crush, but sometimes life was messy.
Five months ago, they’d made love. Neither one of them had meant for it to happen; it was a product of desperate times. The consequences had rippled through all of their lives like a rogue wave. His life. Maggie’s life. Serena’s life.
“So what’s Cat’s story?” Maggie asked.
He explained what the girl had told him in the middle of the night. “She thinks she’s being stalked,” he concluded.
“Do you believe her?”
“I told her I’d look into it.”
Maggie stared at him over the steamy top of her coffee cup. “Sounds like a job for Guppo, boss. Or one of the street cops. Not you.”
“This is personal, not official,” Stride told her. “She came to me for help.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I want to have Steve Garske check her out and make sure she’s okay. Then I’ll drop in on the
and see what I can find out about this party last night. Maybe someone saw something.”
“You want me to come with you?”
“Actually, I was hoping you could run a background check. Cat’s still a minor. I know she had legal guardians back then, so where’s she supposed to be living? Has she had any arrests? I’d like anything you can find.”
“You don’t trust her.”
“I didn’t say that. I just want to know what’s going on in her life and how she wound up here.”
“She’s a sixteen-year-old hooker, boss. Hookers lie.”
“I know that, Mags.”
She didn’t miss the edge in his voice, and she held up her hands. “Sorry, you just looked like you needed a reminder.”
“Michaela had a sister,” Stride went on, ignoring the jab. “Dory Mateo. I left her a message.”
“Dory was a big-time user in those days,” Maggie said. “I busted her a few times.”
Stride shrugged. “I want to talk to her and see if she knows anything that might be useful. That’s all.”
“Meanwhile, what happens to Cat? She stays here with you? That’s a really bad idea.”
“That depends on what you find out. Until I know she’s safe, I want to keep her close to me. If I put her somewhere, she’ll run.”
Maggie crumpled the empty McDonald’s bag into a ball and rolled it around under her finger. “Listen, boss, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I’ve seen this movie before. After Cindy died, you weren’t always thinking straight. You made some big mistakes. Now you’re sitting here all winter without Serena, and along comes a girl who reminds you of one of the worst tragedies of your career.”
“So this is lousy timing. I’m not sure you can be objective about Cat. You think I don’t know what her mother’s murder did to you?”
“This isn’t about Michaela.”
“You’re right. What happened to her wasn’t your fault, and neither is the fact that her daughter got dealt a lousy hand in life. Bad things happen, boss.”
He didn’t say anything, because she had him dead to rights. Maggie got up and cleaned the table and shoved the wastepaper into the garbage can under the sink. Her movements were quick and angry but she stopped herself and stared through the dark window, letting her frustration bleed away. She wandered back to the table and stood behind him. He felt her fingers massage his shoulders, and then she pulled them back.
“Have you talked to her?” she asked.
He knew who she meant. Serena.
“And say what, Mags?”
“Blame me for what happened. That’s the truth.”
“No, it’s not.”
Maggie sat down next to him and stole a sip from his can of Coke. “You’ve got Guppo coordinating with Serena on the Margot Huizenfelt case. Why not do it yourself?”
“Because there’s no Duluth connection.”
“So? You don’t need an excuse. You don’t think she’d welcome your help?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Call her anyway.”
“Look, Mags, I appreciate—” he began, but his words were cut off by a wild scream piercing the morning quiet of the cottage.
“No no no no no no no no no no! Stop! Stop!
The noise was as shrill as the cry of an animal being torn apart, alive, in the next room.
It was Cat, wailing in terror.
Stride bolted out of his chair, spilling Coke in a river. He ran toward the closed bedroom door, with Maggie on his heels. When he hit the door with his shoulder, it flew around on its hinges, nearly separating from the frame. The little twin bed was on his right. The room was empty except for Cat, whose eyes were wide and fixed, her body convulsed as if electricity were rocketing through her veins. The blanket was on the floor. She flailed back and forth, swinging her hands as if tormented by a swarm of wasps.
“Cat!” he shouted, but she didn’t hear him.
He grabbed her wrists. She erupted with ferocious strength, dislodging him and knocking the pillows and nightstand lamp to the floor. He held her again, wrapping his arms around her body as she battled to get free. Her chest was bathed in sweat. Her heart beat crazily. He didn’t think she was even awake. He whispered her name, and slowly, she ran out of struggle as he held her. Her cries died into whimpers. When he eased her back onto the bed, her eyes sank shut and her body shrank into her chest. Her arms and legs squeezed into a fetal position. He retrieved the blanket and slid it over her. She murmured into the mattress, but he didn’t recognize what she said.
“Jesus,” Maggie whispered.
He left the bedroom door open as they left. Outside, he spoke softly.
“Something’s happening to that girl,” he said. “She needs help.”
“She needs a shrink.” Maggie’s face was grim.
“After what she’s been through? Wouldn’t you?”
“It’s not just that.”
Maggie held up something in front of his eyes. It was a butcher’s knife, long and sharp, dangling from her fingers. He recognized it. It was
knife, taken from the wooden block in the kitchen.
“Where did you get that?” Stride asked.
“It was under her pillow. It fell when she fought back.”
“Cat had it?” he asked.
“That’s right. Did you know she took it?”
“No, she must have gotten up during the night.”
“She could have killed you with this.”
Stride didn’t say anything. Maggie handed him the knife and he stared at the blade, which had a sharp edge as deadly as a machete. She was right. It would have cut him open and run him through nearly to his spine. If Cat had attacked him, he would be on the floor now, bleeding.
“Be careful, boss,” Maggie warned him. “I know you want to help, but you don’t know what’s going on in this girl’s head. She’s dangerous.”