Copyrightę2003 by Ed Howdershelt
The Mercedes taxi threaded its way through swept-aside mounds of late-November slush and snow to halt at the curb in front of a turn-of-the-century style building near the center of the US Armed Forces Education branch of the Kaiserslautern Universitat campus. The tall stone wall and cyclone fencing around the compound made it obvious that access to the area was restricted to US military and other authorized visitors, but just in case someone failed to notice the wall and fence, there were four-foot-wide signs by the guard shacks warning visitors that their cars were subject to searches.
'Looks more like a prison than a school,' thought Cade.
Ed Cade's decision to take a taxi had been based on his unwillingness to risk his own car unnecessarily on streets clogged by the sudden snowstorm. They'd probably have the streets mostly cleared by noon, but it was only a two-mile trip; not worth scraping the windshields and not far enough to warm the engine enough to make the car's heater useful.
The building was of large-block stone construction that had been typical in the Saar region of Germany at the turn of the century, complete with concrete overhangs above each window, a steep slate roof, and a demeanor that might have been perfect as the setting for a horror movie.
Edward Cade approached the offices of the university's consulate-liaison facility through a light sprinkling of December snow that was all that was left of the winter storm that had raged for three days as it had slowly moved south.
He'd read somewhere that Kaiserslautern, West Germany, was located at about the same latitude as Winnipeg, Canada, but that the winters in Germany didn't seem to be quite as severe as Canada's. Looking around and sensing the air, he decided that they weren't even as bad as some of the winters he'd endured in northeast Texas.
Two men of student age were emerging from the building as he climbed the steps. One of them asked him in German if he knew how to get to the gymnasium.
Cade shook his head and said, "Weiss nicht. Ganz neu hier auch."-'Don't know. Completely new here, also.'
The men nodded a 'thanks, anyway' and moved down the steps as Cade entered the building and looked for the elevator. One of the guys commented to the other on Cade's accent and speculated that he was from Mannheim. The other thought maybe Munich.
Cade thought, 'Heh. Try Dallas, guys.'
In actuality, Cade's German was the product of having had German exchange-student friends in junior high and his one year of high school, as well quick classes in Virginia and lots of local practice. He entered the elevator, remembering the directions he'd been given.
"Fourth floor, turn right from the elevator, sixth door on the left. Be there promptly at eight, please. I want to handle this before the offices open. Goodbye."
The woman's instructions had been terse, as had all her comments during their phone conversation. Not hurried; just brief. Succinct was the word.
John had said that she might have a problem with asking his offices for help in finding her seventeen-year-old daughter, who'd been AWOL from home for over three months.
Cade's tiny branch of the agency was barely known outside their own wing of the third floor, so everyone who knew about them at all usually assumed that they were the same kind of down-and-dirty spooks that populated the top two floors of the building in downtown Kaiserslautern. They weren't. At least, Cade wasn't, and he didn't think any of those he directly worked with were, either.
When Cade had first joined John's extraction crews, he'd wondered why the hell they'd located their primary offices so far from the East German border, but that had begun to make sense to him quickly.
Nearby Ramstein Air Force Base could provide state of the art air support and transportations and the blast-proof Kindsbach facility could track communications and aircraft all over Europe. Add to that the best-equipped US Army hospital in Europe only a few miles south at Landstuhl, a place that received almost as many transient covert visitors as it received actual patients.
He then began to wonder why they bothered to maintain separate offices in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Bonn, since the E-teams were all part of a much larger agency network, but experience had quickly disabused him of any notion that the branches of the agency could or would work well together without coercion.
The politics in the other offices ranged from petty backstabbing efforts and manipulation to gain promotions to phenomenally deceptive and sometimes obstructive ploys to gain control or political favor both within the agency and from outside.
John's offices weren't like that, partly because they existed only to further a single purpose; to extract people from Iron Curtain countries and to support agents who lived and worked on the other side of the line. The only way to advance within the agency from John's offices was to leave them for another office.
Ed Cade believed that it took a kind of sociopath to follow an 'anything for the cause' banner. He'd never found a way to turn off his brain and blindly follow orders, and John knew him well enough that Cade had never been assigned to work with any of the other offices in the building.
John had warned Cade that Debra McAlister seemed to have the typical resentment of the intelligence community that seemed to be fashionable lately. It was John's opinion that the grousers resented the need for the agency more than the agency itself. That need didn't fit into their preferred public image of things.
A missing seventeen-year-old daughter had driven McAlister to look beyond the usual sources for assistance. Some friend or acquaintance of hers had suggested that she speak to Cade's boss. John had left the matter of Cade's involvement up to him to determine by calling it a 'field decision'. Cade could take the job or leave it, supposedly without incurring any hard feelings if he didn't take it.
John had warned Cade that the woman was likely to be rather difficult at first. Cade had decided to play it by ear, but he'd let her know up front that her full cooperation was essential, and that without it, he'd refuse the case.
The attractive blonde woman who answered his knock on the office door was a living example of conservatism. Her hair was bound tightly and she wore a matching jacket and skirt of some indeterminate shade of brown over her tall, lanky frame.
She wore very little makeup and her earrings were simple little gold studs. Her rather mechanical greeting lacked warmth, as did her 'I'm in charge here' demeanor.
"Hi," he said, unbuttoning his coat. "I'm Ed Cade. John sent me."
She seemed to study him for a moment before saying, "Yes. Of course. I'm Debra McAlister. Please have a seat by the desk, Mr. Cade."
She offered no handshake, instead waving him to a chair by the desk as she walked toward it. He'd no sooner sat down than she handed him a manila folder inside a large envelope. Cade took a moment to riffle the folder's contents.
Inside it were pictures and copies of German police reports and reports from the U.S. authorities. The latest item in the folder was over a month old, dated October. That probably meant that nobody was looking too hard anymore.
Cade noticed that McAlister seemed to be staring at him. He looked up and met her gaze as he asked, "Yes?"
McAlister's hand fluttered briefly above her desk in a vague gesture and she said, "Oh. Nothing. Well, something, really. I expected someone a little older..."
"I'm not a trainee," said Cade. "If that's what you're worried about."
She gazed at him for another moment, then said, "You're what..? Twenty-five?"
"Twenty-three in June," said Cade. He grinned and added in a confidential tone, "Don't worry, ma'am. If I get in over my head, the grownups will take over."
The woman had the grace to blush slightly as she nodded and said, "I'm sorry. I was just expecting... Well, never mind."
To give her a moment to recover, Cade said, "I smell coffee. Mind if I get a cup?"
"I'll get it for you," McAlister said quickly. "Would you like cream or sugar?"
Her abrupt, intense response surprised him. He'd been expecting to receive directions to the pot, not an offer to bring him a cup. When he looked up, it became instantly apparent by her expression and manner that she simply didn't want him wandering around her office.
Cade said, "Black, with a little cold water to make it drinkable right away, thanks."
She turned her head slightly to regard him oddly in passing. Cade watched her head for an anteroom in a brisk march. It seemed to him that she was a good-looking woman trying to hide herself in that severe outfit.
Cade scanned the documents and pictures in the folder, asked a few questions, and sipped coffee for the next half hour. During that time Debra McAlister said nothing when she wasn't answering a question, and she answered questions sparingly at best.
After having to coax a more detailed answer out of her for what was probably the fifteenth time, Cade regarded her quietly for a moment, wondering if she was like that with everyone or just him, and whether her mannerisms were part of the reason her daughter was missing.
In a firm tone, she said, "Mr. Cade, I don't appreciate being stared at."
"Too bad," said Cade. "I'll bet you get a lot of looks, even in those clothes. Anyway, I wasn't staring; I was speculating about something. Do you have anything useful to add that isn't in this folder? Personal comments? Well-reasoned guesses?"
The blonde woman's gaze narrowed. Her words came in low tones.
"Speculating? Let's get something straight, Mr. Cade. I deeply resent having to turn to such sordid sources for assistance. I also resent the fact that they obviously thought so little of this matter that they sent one of their newest people to handle it. You'd be well advised not to irritate me further, and when you address me from now on, you'll include my title."
Cade settled back in his chair, sipped his coffee, and gazed at her.
'Irritate you further?' thought Cade. He hadn't begun to irritate her. It would be unavoidable if he was going to get around her so that he could look into things.
"McAlister," said Cade, "I was hired because of my qualifications and experiences, not my age. I was only speculating that your tight-assed nature may have driven your daughter out of your house, and you're just an embassy politician who called my boss for some unofficial help after the usual methods hit a dead end. I don't give a rat's ass whether you like me or not, and if you try to play power games with me you'll find that I don't play them at all."
With utter astonishment, the woman responded, "Is that some kind of a threat?"
Cade shook his head disgustedly.
"Hell, no, it isn't a threat, lady. I don't have to take this case. I'd just tell John to find someone else. We're short-handed, McAlister. It could be three months before anyone else is available for your personal problems, and they'd have to be willing to become involved. This matter isn't official business. It's more like a trade of favors."
Debra McAlister was staring at him. She seemed to be having trouble forming words for a moment, then asked in a hushed tone, "Three months?"
Cade quietly said, "Yeah. Three months. We stay busy, you know. As I said, I'm not here for you, McAlister. I'm here for your daughter and because John asked me to look into things for you. I'm also here on my own time and I'll walk if you give me too much more trouble, so let's skip all the pecking-order crap and get down to business."
With a slight glower, she asked, "Your own time? What does that mean? You work for the agency, and since the agency assigned you to me, you're working for me."
Cade shook his head. "Wrong, lady. I told you, this isn't official business. It can't be, for our outfit. I'm on leave between assignments. I have to use the leave time or cash it in. When John told me about your problem, I decided to use the time this way. I can damned well change my mind about using it this way, too."
The blonde said nothing for some moments. Cade prompted her.
"So, let's try this again. Is there anything you want to tell me that isn't in this folder? Sandy seems like a bright, outgoing young woman. It may be some kind of facade, but you seem exactly the opposite. You're a divorced mother of one who is trying to maintain a career and ride herd on a teenaged daughter while stationed in Europe, and you haven't seemed like a real friendly sort to me so far. I'm sure someone's already asked you this, but is it at all possible that Sandy's just run away from home for a while? Away from Mom in particular?"
Debra McAlister drew herself stiffly upright and asked, "How-dare-you..?"
"I just do," said Cade drily. "It's a gift, I guess. That's a question you'll have to face more than once if this goes any farther, so save the indignant outrage for someone who'll give a damn, McAlister. I'll want a good look at your home and her room in particular, and then I'm going to mill this stuff down for a few days to see if there's anything left to follow. I want numbers where I can reach you day or night, without secretaries or flunkies asking me why I want to talk to you. If there's any reason at all to suspect foul play, we can make the investigation official enough that I won't have to bug you for expenses. John can handle those details on an 'if or when' basis."
When the blonde simply stared at him for another few moments, Cade said, "I can't go to work on this until you loosen up, lady. These reports all say that the cops have signed off. They seem to think that she's tanning on an island in Greece and that she'll call home when the money runs out. Maybe they're right, but you don't think so and you called us for help. For some reason John thinks this may be worth a look, so he offered it to me, and that's where we are now. I'm willing to spend some of my leave time looking for her. Take it or leave it, but make up your mind real soon."
Cade set his coffee cup firmly on her desk and shoved the folder into the large envelope. He then reached for her yellow legal pad and wrote three numbers at the top of the page, then tore the page in half and presented her both pieces of paper.
"My numbers," he said. "Now give me yours."
In fact, her numbers were on file, as were every other official of any rank. Cade wanted to see her sign herself into cooperation by giving them to him. If she did, and if the numbers checked out against her numbers on file, she'd be ready enough to proceed. If she didn't give him the numbers, Cade would drop the folder on her desk and spend his leave elsewhere.
Debra McAlister stared at the torn yellow paper on her desk, then glanced at her phone, considering whether to call John to see if Cade was telling the truth. Cade shoved her desk phone next to the legal pad.
He softly said, "Yeah. Good idea. Go ahead, McAlister. Verify what I've told you. I damned sure would. You want me to wait in the hall?"
She looked up from the phone and their eyes met. Despite the tenseness between them, she felt that he was telling the truth, but she had to be sure.
Just as softly, she replied, "Yes, please. This is important to me."
Cade nodded and hefted his empty cup.
"No problem. I'll refill this on the way out. Look, I'll have to pick your brain about Sandy, so we need to be able to get along for at least a little while, okay?"
She nodded slightly, then grimaced inwardly. Damn. Cade had led her with his words; first to agree that he should wait in the hall, and then to nod agreement with his statement 'that they need to be able get along for a little while'.
Cade watched her face change slightly with self-reproach.
"You think I'm trying to manipulate you, Debra?"
"Yes. I think you do it without realizing it."
"Could be. You realize, though, that I'm here to help you find your daughter, not to sell you insurance, right?" He grinned slightly.
McAlister found herself returning the grin and nodding again and said, "You did it again. When every sentence deliberately leads to an agreement, that's manipulation."
He said, "Well, damn. Guess you think I'm doing it on purpose, huh?"
She snorted a stifled chuckle and said, "And again. That's five in a row, I think."
Cade smiled at her and said, "Well, then, here's your chance to change the pattern, ma'am. Care to make it six times?"
"No!" said the blonde, raising both hands in grinning mock protest. She reached for her phone. "Now get out there and let me call your boss."
Cade rose from his chair and headed for the coffee. He refilled his cup and took a seat on the bench in the hallway next to a discarded or forgotten German newspaper and picked it up.
It was one of the two Kaiserslautern dailies. Like local papers everywhere, there was little within it to interest anyone from beyond the area, but an article about the U.S. Army hospital in nearby Landstuhl caught his attention.
It turned out to be a diatribe about misbehaving soldiers. That, too, was hardly remarkable, since such problems were commonplace for every town near every military base in the world, U.S. or other.
Cade remembered the incident mentioned in the article, but what the article had failed to mention was that the bar in which the squabble had occurred had tried to charge a group of off-duty GI's forty bucks each for the four bottles of cheap champagne they'd consumed in celebration of someone's promotion.
That had been a mistake, given that one of the guys worked in the Provost Marshall's office. He told the bar manager that there would be no payment without a proper receipt that he could show his boss.
The manager had said that nobody had ever asked for a receipt before and that he had none to give and continued to demand payment. The GI had stood his ground on the matter until one of the bar girls had taken a swing at him.
Also unmentioned in the article was the fact that a bar girl who sold a bottle of champagne received a hefty commission on the sale. When the girl tried to hit him a second time, one of the other GI's restrained her, the manager had hit that guy, and that's when the real fight started that wound up in the street outside the bar.
The bar manager later told the German cops and the American MP's that the whole altercation had been a misunderstanding that had gotten out of hand. The GI's didn't have to pay for the overpriced champagne, but were "asked" never to return.
Without a receipt, the Army couldn't - or wouldn't - put the bar off-limits, but word had spread around the base quickly. The new bar in town had closed due to lack of business after only a month.
Cade heard the office door open and the blonde's voice say, "Mr. Cade?"
He rose to his feet. She left the door open and retreated into the office. Cade picked up his coffee cup and followed her, shutting the door and taking his previous chair.
As he sat down, she asked, "Cade isn't your real name, is it?"
"It's real enough when I'm working. And when I'm not working."
She nodded slightly and handed him the yellow paper with her numbers.
"John confirmed that you're on personal leave and that this investigation will be unofficial unless evidence of wrongdoing is found. I guess that means you'll need some expense money, doesn't it?"
"Not much. Enough to cover travel expenses for a week or so and maybe some tips for information. Call it a hundred bucks. This won't get expensive until or unless I actually find her trail. Something else, McAlister... Sandy's going to be eighteen soon and that will make her a legal adult in most of Western Europe, just like the States. I can't bring her back to you against her will after her next birthday."
The blonde sat very still for a few moments, gazing at Cade.
"Mr. Cade, I can't tell you how I know this, but I do. Sandy's in some kind of trouble. I don't have any proof. I haven't heard anything or seen anything that the police would call a reason for thinking so, but I'm her mother. Can you understand that? Are you sure a hundred will be enough?"
She pulled her checkbook out of her purse.
Cade nodded. "For now. No checks, please. I'll stop by for it tomorrow."
She rooted in her wallet and came up with some bills.
"I have about forty on me. Will that be all right for now?"
Cade took the money. "Fine. If I can't turn up anything, it may be all I'll need."
"You don't sound too hopeful, Mr. Cade."
"I'm not trying to sound hopeful. I'm trying to sound pragmatic. A lot of things can happen to a young woman in Europe, just as they can happen to one in the States. Some of those things are good. Some of them are bad. Some are very bad. I hope you've considered that possibility."
Debra McAlister's face set in a determined mask as she said, "No, Mr. Cade. I haven't allowed myself to envision what may be happening to her, and I won't. I understand what you're saying, but I refuse to dwell on it."
Cade stood up and took the folder from the desk.
"Well, then, if it's good news, I'll deliver it myself. If not, I'll let the authorities handle contacting you when they take over the case."
McAlister stood up, too. After a moment of hesitation, she stuck her hand out awkwardly and he took it.
"Well, Mr. Cade, goodbye for now, I guess."
He nodded and said, "For now. Stay put. I can find the door."
Outside, the wind had picked up slightly. Cade buttoned his coat and thought about checking in with John, but decided it wasn't immediately necessary. His apartment was as good a place as any to go over the reports again. If anything unusual needed further examination, he could visit the offices the next day.
The walk to the front gate of the university allowed him to get a look at some of the other buildings on campus. They were remnants of a past era that clashed with the modern, glass and steel structures on the other side of the campus wall. He waited in the guard shack's anteroom for a taxi rather than walk the two miles home.
The day after his first meeting with Debra McAlister, Cade went to her home when she got off work and - under her watchful eyes - searched Sandy's room. McAlister stood in the room's doorway throughout the search, but said nothing until Cade started pulling drawers out of the dresser and turning them over onto the bed.
"What the hell are you doing? The MP's didn't see a need to wreck her room."
"They were afraid of you, ma'am. I'm not. Make yourself useful. Look at the bottoms of drawers and up inside the bureau they came from."
The blonde was agitated. "Look for what?"
Cade pulled out another drawer and dumped it, then pointed at the tape residue on the bottom.
"For anything unusual. The reports said that Sandy was always treating her friends to movies and snacks and the occasional taxi ride. They also say she was able to get them booze, that she wasn't employed and received only a small allowance from you, and that she had no other known sources of income. Where's her Dad?"
"He's in the Air Force in Colorado."
"Did he correspond with her? Send her things? Send her money? Maybe he tried to get her to come live with him?"
"No, he lives in a BOQ on base. There's no room in his life for a teen daughter. He sent gifts at all the usual times. Not money. Or if he did, I wasn't aware of it."
The fourth drawer also had tape residue in a pattern that had held a legal-sized envelope to the bottom of the drawer. He held the drawer's bottom where Sandy's mother could see it.
"Sandy's hiding place, or one of them. Any idea what was in the envelope?"
Debra McAlister shook her head slowly as she entered the room for a closer look.
"No. It could have just been a favorite letter, Cade. Something from her father or a boyfriend."
"Tape's stretched and deformed. It was a well-stuffed envelope."
"All right, then, maybe she was saving more than one letter."
"Maybe. Check under all the other drawers in the house while I finish in here."
"What am I looking for?"
"Anything you didn't put there," said Cade. "Don't forget the phone table in the hallway. We'll also be checking under all of the furniture."
It was a long afternoon, but the search paid off. Two un-dusty books on the top shelf of the shelves in the living room yielded three hundred dollars in twenties and a phone number written on a scrap of newspaper.
Debra wanted to call the number to see who answered, but Cade stopped her.
"Let me find out who the number belongs to first. I have a friend at the Bundespost. She disappeared without this money, but not without the other envelope. Does that mean she simply forgot about it, or that she couldn't get back here for it? Or maybe she thought she wouldn't need it or was saving it for later? Got any idea where she got three hundred bucks?"
The blonde woman's voice was small and soft. "No. I don't know, and I don't want to think about it."
As Cade was about to speak, Ms. McAlister raised a hand added, "Yes, I know I have to think about it and I am thinking about it. I just don't want to."
Cade nodded distractedly and looked around the room again.
"You don't have any kids, do you Cade? If you did, you'd know how hard this is for me."
He said, "Yeah, you're right, McAlister. I can't know how hard this is for you and I never will, so let's stay on track, here."
In a condescending tone, she said, "Oh, yes, you will. Someday you'll have kids of your own. Something will happen. Something always does. Then you'll understand."
Cade turned to face her and said, "I don't have to understand, I don't want to understand, and I won't ever have to understand, McAlister. My girlfriend had a bad scare in March of '71 when she thought she was pregnant. It was a false alarm, but the whole mess scared me as much as her, if not more. I realized that I very definitely didn't want children, so I did something about it."
"What..? You mean you had a vasectomy?"
He nodded. "Seventy bucks and three days of discomfort. No worries, ever."
Her shocked voice was almost shrill. "But what if you change your mind?"
Cade snapped, "That'll be my problem, not yours. Can we get back to searching, now? When you were her age, where did you keep your secrets? The ones that wouldn't fit in an envelope, that is? The ones you wouldn't dare keep inside the house?"
Debra seemed to have to regroup herself for a moment. Her anger resurfaced.
"I didn't have any secrets that wouldn't fit in an envelope, Mr. Cade. I take it we're moving the search outside, now?"
Cade nodded. "Yup. For now, anyway. We're looking for loose boards or bricks and we'll check all the bushes and look for fresh-turned dirt."
"I almost hate to ask, but what are you expecting to find?"
"Drugs, money, anything unusual. Why did you ask what you already knew?"
She didn't answer for a moment, then said, "I'm just having a hard time accepting the possibilities, I guess. Never mind. Let's go outside."
Cade held her coat for her as she slipped into it and then held her arm on the icy steps as they descended to the walkway. She seemed not to know what to do next, so he told her to tap on the house's skirting to see if any of the boards were loose.
As she tapped her way along the right side of the house, he tapped the left side, but neither of them discovered any unsecured boards. They met at the back of the house by the rear porch steps. Cade tried all those boards, too, but none felt as if they'd lift without the aid of a pry bar.
McAlister was looking up at the eaves and roof below her daughter's window when her foot rocked slightly. She stepped off that flagstone and onto the one behind it without thinking, never taking her eyes off the roof.
Cade walked over and stood looking down at the flagstone. It was about a foot and a half square, but Sandy wasn't a small girl. If she really wanted to, she could have moved that stone. Cade got his fingers under the edge of it and lifted it.
McAlister's soft exclamation told him he'd found something before he'd lifted the stone enough to see for himself.
Cade pulled the stone to one side and saw the child's lunchbox that had been buried beneath it. It was a typical square metal lunchbox with cartoon characters embossed into the lid. He reached for it, but McAlister protested.
"Maybe we shouldn't touch it."
"We're wearing gloves and we need a look inside it before it disappears into an evidence locker."
Cade managed to work the lunchbox out of the hole without disturbing the surrounding dirt too much and set it to one side, then flipped the catch open and lifted the lid. Debra McAlister's knees gave out at the sight of the contents of the box. She was suddenly kneeling next to Cade and using his shoulder for support.
"Oh, no, not my little girl..? Please? Not my little girl?"
Cade said nothing as he lifted the flick-open knife off the top of a pile of condoms. It was one of the blade-in-the-handle knives. You shoved a button on the side inward and the blade shot forward out of the handle instantly. He tested it. It worked fine, but made McAlister startle rather ungently.
"Sorry," said Cade, returning the blade into the handle.
There were easily fifty or so condoms in the box. Cade handed the knife to McAlister and then shoved some of the condoms onto the lid as he searched the box. In the bottom right side of the box he found several joints and five one-hundred dollar bills in a blue Par Avion envelope with a Berlin return address.
Debra McAlister sobbed heavily, let the knife fall from her hand into the box, and tried to stand up. Her first attempt failed, and Cade got to his feet to help her, but she slapped his hand away with a sobbing, tearful snarl and heaved herself upright on shaky legs.
She climbed the steps to the back porch door, let herself in, and then found the door into the house locked. She picked up the brass ashtray and appeared to be on the verge of smashing the small window near the door handle, but after a moment of indecision, she put the ashtray down and came back down the steps.
Stopping a few feet from Cade, she fished through her pockets. Cade quickly handed her one of his handkerchiefs. She took it, then looked at it more closely.
"This is a paper towel."
"So? They do the job. I'll bring this stuff in if you want to go on ahead."
The wind was picking up a bit, whipping light flurries of snow into their faces. McAlister nodded and turned to go. Cade gathered everything into the box and followed after kicking the stone back into position to cover the hole.
He didn't hurry. She needed a few minutes to gather herself. Cade set the lunchbox on the front porch and stood watching the evening and thinking until he heard the front door open behind him.
"Aren't you cold?" she asked.
"Not enough to matter. Are you okay?"
She sighed. "No, but I've stopped crying for now and I put a pot of coffee on."
"Be right there, then."
Cade picked up the lunchbox and carried it into the house, then wondered where the hell to put it. McAlister didn't seem ready to deal with it, so he didn't feel right about setting it on the kitchen table. He looked around for a likely spot and felt a hand on his arm. Debra McAlister took the lunchbox and placed it on the kitchen counter, then threw a dishtowel over it.
She poured two coffees and set them on the table, then sat down with her back to the lunchbox and invited Cade to join her. Cade took his cup to the sink and added a bit of cold water, then sat in the chair next to hers.
A few minutes of silence passed before she stood up and quickly left the room. When she returned ten minutes or so later, she set a box of tissues on the table as she again took her seat.
Cade said, "I'm just going to sit here and soak up your coffee until you feel like talking. No hurry."
She nodded. Cade took out his memo book and wrote the name and address that he'd read from the envelope, then put the memo book back in his jacket pocket. Debra watched silently as he toed his boots off and put his feet up on one of the other chairs. He then settled back with his coffee and thought about how best to proceed.
Either Sandy had been hooking or she'd been keeping that box of stuff for one or more of her friends. There'd been nothing in any of the reports that could tie her to that sort of activity, but that might mean only that she'd never been caught.
Casual hooking - on base and off - was more common than anyone wanted to admit or believe. When military dependents were caught at it, the whole mess was normally handled quietly and the military parent or guardian was usually transferred elsewhere rather quickly.
When drugs were involved, the mess could get a lot messier, but the results were usually the same, eventually, unless the dependent was over seventeen and so deeply involved that charges had to be filed.
Sandy had left behind an eight hundred dollar stash, assuming that they'd found all of it. It seemed unlikely that she'd have left the money behind willingly. What seemed more likely was that she'd stumbled into something that she couldn't stumble back out of.
Turning the lunchbox over to the cops was the next thing to do. It should give them sufficient motivation to re-energize their investigations.
"Here." Cade turned his attention to her.
"What now? Obviously, we have to bring in the police, but what can they do that they haven't already?"
"Probably not much. They've put their lines out like fishermen hoping for a nibble and you'll hear tales of budget woes and lack of time if you try to get them to do more than that without more than you have to show them. Hooking is only a misdemeanor in most of Germany, if that's what she was doing. And it could be that she was just holding that stuff for a friend."
"Do you believe that?"
"I don't have to believe or disbelieve it. It's just a possibility, like the possibility that she was hooking. We won't know until we find her, and maybe not even then."
"What does that mean? 'Not even then'? Are you suggesting she's dead?"
Cade sighed and said, "Won't know that until we find her, either. Are you sure you're up to talking about things like this, McAlister?"
Debra McAlister sat quite still for a moment, then said, "I guess I have to be, don't I? Sandy's been missing for months and we've just found evidence that she was involved in criminal activities. If she were your daughter, what would you do now?"
"Keep looking. There isn't anything else to do."
"And if you find her, what then?"
"I guess that would depend on her condition when I find her. Someone may have been holding her captive. The slave trade is something nobody wants to acknowledge, and it comes in a lot of flavors. The porn industry uses people without mercy. White, blonde women disappear into the Arab countries and wind up under a kind of house arrest. The native women hate them and will rat them out in an instant for any little thing, but if they try to leave, they'll be stoned in the streets, so they have no choice but to remain inside and in service to whoever bought them."
"You're serious? They really still do that?"
"Last year we - that is, my team - pulled four American and Canadian women out of Iran. Two were pregnant and it was a helluva trip over the mountains for them. They'd been bar hopping in Paris one night and they woke up in Iran with rotten hangovers the next night. They'd been there for over three years. As I understand it, one of them had enlisted the aid of a lovestruck young man to get word to the US embassy. He was 'accidentally' killed when the Savak caught him, but we had the four womens' names and locations and used the info before the women could be moved and hidden."
"What's the Savak?"
"Iranian Secret Police. Arab gestapo. Nasty bastards, every one of 'em."
"Does your office work for the embassy, too?"
"Nope. One of our informants at the embassy caught the info on the fly and relayed it to us, then sat on it for a full four days while we went in for the women. If she hadn't kept it quiet, the embassy pogues would have blown it by trying to negotiate matters. The Iranians would have given everybody blank looks and bullshit until the women were safely hidden elsewhere, then they'd have simply said that the info was wrong."
"So how did your people get them out?"
"We let the Savak guys find us with a deliberate tip, then 'borrowed' their uniforms to visit each of the locations like stormtroopers. Nobody in Iran argues with the Savak. The US embassy guys saw four Savak guys and four blondes in an overdressed Cadillac pull up to the gates and panicked a little, I guess. It took us fifteen minutes to convince them that we all belonged inside the compound. They arranged a helicopter ride out of Iran for us later."
"What happened to the men who bought the women?"
"Not a damned thing, as far as I know, but at least they're on somebody's watch list from now on."
"Do you think that's what happened to Sandy? That she's been kidnapped?"
"It wouldn't be the worst that could have happened to her. If she's alive, there's always a hope that she'll get away or get word out."
"If she's alive... Please don't talk like that, Mr. Cade. I know it's possible that she isn't, but..."
"Yeah. But. Okay. What I'd do now, Ms. McAlister, is give this stuff to the cops. I'd call both the MP's and the German police and ask them to be here at a specific time, then present the box and let them wrangle over who gets it. That will make sure everybody has to acknowledge the evidence later. Pro: It may give them a kick in the pants to get moving on the case. Con: Cops moving on the case may make someone react poorly and cause Sandy to be put either deeper into hiding or in danger. It would also expose Sandy as a possible hooker and jeopardize your position here, and we still don't know why or how she disappeared."
Debra McAlister stared at the cloth-covered box and shuddered.
"God, I hate letting anyone see what's inside that box..."
"You have to do it sooner or later. Do you have a camera, Deb?"
His use of her contracted name caused her to glance sharply at him.
"A what? Uh, yes, one of those instamatics. Why?"
"We need pictures of the stuff. If the whole mess gets swept under some bureaucratic rug, you'll need something to show the media."
"The media!? Jesus, Cade! Are you crazy? It's bad enough the cops have to see this... This stuff!"
"Uh, huh. And if the evidence disappears, you'll need a way to prove that there was something more to this than a runaway teen. Get the camera, please."
"Just hold on a minute, Cade. I want to know why you think there's any possibility that this box would 'disappear'."
Cade sighed. "Well, damn, McAlister, why don't you just think about that while I call John? You work for the embassy. You know that cases are dropped all the time for one reason or other, aren't they? Somebody's diplomatic toes might get tromped, or someone might be embarrassed, so something is ignored. The fact that it's your daughter who's missing instead of someone else's won't make any damned difference. You know how it goes, so don't play the Pollyanna with me and fordamnsure don't delude yourself. If they decided not to pursue this, you'd be on the first plane back to the states and the evidence would disappear."
She sputtered and stiffened, then started to make a reply that began with, "The US Embassy..." Cade held up a hand to stop her.
"Bullshit," he said flatly. "Don't forget who I work for, McAlister. Sometimes we have to work around you embassy types to get things done. I'll make that call to John while you bring me that camera."
Debra McAlister watched Cade get up and walk to the phone table in the hall. As he ambled across the room, it occurred to her to wonder if he ever moved quickly. Cade disturbed her. At first she'd written it off to the fact that he worked for the agency, thinking that she'd prejudged him willingly on that basis alone.
As she rose to cross the room on her way to the stairs, she stopped to look in the hall bureau drawers and took an opportunity to glance in the mirror at Cade, who was standing almost directly behind her in the hall.
She was surprised to find that Cade's eyes weren't on her legs, as she'd expected them to be. They were looking right back at hers in a quiet, expressionless gaze. She busied herself completing her 'search' for the camera and walked to the stairs.
"That's right, John," Cade was saying as she started up the stairs, "Money and rubbers. Yeah, I know, but it doesn't feel like that."
Debra stopped at the top of the stairs to listen.
"I think she was taken, John. Yeah, I know that, too, but I don't think so in this case. No, not yet. We'll call them after we've taken some pictures of the stuff and the kid's room. Okay, I'll pull a couple of hundred and turn in the rest. I'll toss in some of the rubbers, too, and take a tissue sample from the box. Yeah. Okay, see you."
As Cade hung up, Debra moved away from the stairs and into the master bedroom to get the camera, then quickly returned downstairs. Cade was sitting at the table again when she entered the room. He had the box open.
"Mr. Cade, why are you removing money and condoms from the box? What was that about a tissue sample?"
Cade didn't look up from what he was doing as he pulled bills from the top, bottom, and middle of the roll and placed them on a sheet of plastic wrap. He then put a strip of the condoms with the bills and swiped one of the inside corners of the box with a Kleenex before placing the tissue on the plastic wrap, as well.
"Samples for the lab," he said. "They'll look for drug residue and check to see if the bills are counterfeit."
"Won't the police do that?"
"If we do it, we'll know it was done and done right."
Separating the pile on the plastic wrap from the rest, he snapped several pictures of the lunchbox and its contents, then headed outside to shoot the hole. As he headed back up the steps, he took a moment to look around the neighborhood, then took another few pictures of the surroundings in general.
Debra watched him until he turned to reenter the house, then turned away and pretended to be interested in the box on the table.
"McAlister," he said as he entered the kitchen.
She looked up at him. "Yes?"
"It's time to call the cops."
Cade wrapped the plastic around the items and put them in his coat pocket, then opened the camera and removed the film. He put that in the same pocket.
Debra hadn't moved from her seat.
"The cops?" prompted Cade softly. "I can call them if you'd rather."
He meant only that he'd make the call if she wanted. That was all. But Debra rose slowly from her seat and faced him glaringly.
In an icy, precise tone, she said, "Mr. Cade, I can and will make the call to the police about my missing daughter."
She then turned and stalked to the phone.
Cade stood up, rapped his spoon on the table once, and said, "McAlister."
Debra stopped, then spun to face him, and sharply asked, "What?"
Cade moved to stand facing her a few feet away and said, "I was just trying to give you a break, McAlister. Here's how it goes with the cops: I'll stick around and you'll tell them I'm just a friend. Let them find out on their own who I work for; it will have more impact that way and they'll realize that there's no way to sweep this case under the diplomatic rug. Call the Americans first and see how soon they can get someone down here. Call the Germans when the Americans are on their way. We want everybody to arrive at more or less the same time."
After a moment, Debra asked, "Anything else?"
"Yeah. You thought I was poking at you when I volunteered to call. This isn't about you and me or how well we get along. Nobody's paying me to make fun of you and I don't particularly think that teasing distraught mothers is fun. From now on, you will try to hear exactly what I say and you won't interpret my words."
Without waiting for a response, Cade turned and walked back to the kitchen, where he poured himself another coffee and sat down.
Debra stared at his back, her call momentarily forgotten until she noticed the receiver in her hand. She dialed the base MP's. They said they'd send someone down shortly, so she then called the German police. They responded similarly.
Setting the receiver back on the phone, she went to the kitchen and refilled her own cup, then sat down across the table from Cade.
"I heard," said Cade. "Now we put the box back in the hole and wait."
"Why put it back?"
"Let them find their own damned evidence. They like it better that way and they don't need to think that we might have taken anything out of it. Pretend we just glanced inside and then ran to the phone. Give the table a wipe where the box was sitting. Use tissues or something flushable."
Debra bristled. "I don't like being ordered around."
Cade sighed and said sharply, "Now, McAlister. Do it now, before the cops get here. Flush the tissues. That was an order. Do it while I call in."
She didn't move immediately, preferring to glare her opinion of him at him as he turned to go to the phone, but as Cade dialed, he saw her doing as instructed.
John answered the phone with, "Hello, Cade. I thought you might be able to stand her a little longer than this."
Cade chuckled and said, "You'd have felt silly as hell if it wasn't me on the line. Is Linda in the office?"
"She is. She's busy, too, so don't keep her long."
A few seconds passed before Linda Baines said, "Yes, Ed?"
Cade glanced back at McAlister, who was glaring sullenly at him and said, "Hi, Linda. Got a minute? Someone here needs reassurance. Or something."
"Well, that's certainly vague enough. I'll assume you're not referring to yourself. What's the problem?"
"Ego clash, I guess." He filled her in on their discoveries in and around the house, then said, "I'd like you to give her reasons for cooperating that she can believe. The cops will be here shortly."
"I see. Okay, put her on."
Debra was surprised when Cade held the phone toward her and said, "It's for you," but she rose from the table and approached him, taking the phone and saying, "McAlister here. John?"
Cade heard Linda say, "No. Not John. Don't talk, McAlister. Just listen," before he leaned against the doorjamb and watched as Debra McAlister listened to Linda's words. When she paled and seemed to sag against the wall, he used his foot to shove the low stool by the phone table under her. She tremblingly adjusted the stool's position and settled onto it.
Several moments later, Debra McAlister nodded slightly as she agreed to something and slowly reached to hang up the phone. She looked bleakly at Cade for a moment, mumbled, "I need a minute," and then quickly stumbled up the stairs.
Cade went back to his coffee and waited. The doorbell rang before she'd returned, so he went to open the door. The two German cops on the porch seemed slightly surprised to see him, then somewhat more surprised when a US Army jeep pulled up behind their green and white Volkswagen.
"Come in," said Cade. "Do you both speak English?"
"Yes, sir," said the blond cop. "There would be little point in sending someone to deal with Americans who didn't speak English."
He seemed to consider his words briefly, then added, "I meant no offense, of course. I meant only that most Americans speak no German."
Cade nodded and gave the guy a wry grin as the cops entered the house.
"Sorry to say it's true. No offense taken. Did you call the Americans?"
The blond cop, apparently the one in charge, looked confused as he said, "No, we did not. Our office said a woman called. Where is she?"
"She's upstairs at the moment. She's very upset. Maybe she called them."
"Uhm, yes, perhaps so."
Cade reopened the door for the two MP's and said, "Come on in."
As they passed him, he whispered, "Did you guys call the German cops?"
One of the MP's glanced at the German cops and shook his head. Cade smiled slightly as he closed the door behind them. The subterfuge concerning who called whom was a small thing, but it might well be useful later.
Once they were all inside, he called upstairs for McAlister to join them. A door upstairs opened and she said that she'd be down in a moment.
The MP with red hair said, "Someone called us about a missing person. You?"
"Uh, no," said Cade. "I'm not missing and I didn't call you."
The MP looked skyward briefly and said, "This is no time for jokes, sir. How about showing us some ID?"
Cade shrugged and fished out his DAC ID for the MP.
"You, sir," the blond German cop asked Cade, "How are you involved in this?"
"Yeah," said the red-haired MP. "Good question."
"I'm a friend," said Cade, gesturing at the top of the stairs. "Deb called me when she got worried about Sandy."
"This 'Deb' is a woman named McAlister?" asked the MP.
"Oh. Right. Yeah, Debra McAlister."
"And Sandy is...?" prompted the other MP.
"Her daughter. Deb found a loose stone in the walk. There's a lunchbox full of money and stuff under it. We think Sandy's gotten herself into some trouble."
The MP seemed to be studying Cade's ID card. He handed it to the other MP and said, "Run this, Jackson." Turning to Cade, he said, "The ID says you work for the State Department. Doing what?"
"I'd prefer to let the State Department tell you that. Their rules, not mine, okay?"
The expression on the MP's face said that it wasn't really okay, but he asked, "What can you tell us about the problem here? What was in the box besides money?"
"You'll have to ask Deb about that. I'm just here for moral support."
The other MP had moved a few paces away and was talking on his radio, reading information off Cade's ID card. He suddenly looked up at Cade and said, "Harris, Captain Carson is on his way here."
Harris glanced at him, then at Cade, and asked, "Do I want to know why?"
"Couldn't say," said Cade.
The two German cops had let things transpire until Jackson's tone had indicated that something other than routine was unfolding.
"Captain Carson wouldn't be coming here without reason," said the blond cop. He looked at Cade. "What reason might that be?"
"Me, probably," said Cade. "And the fact that Deb works for the US embassy. How about letting these guys see my ID, too, Harris?"
"Yes, please," said the German cop.
As he handed the blond cop Cade's ID, the red haired MP asked, "You guys know Carson?"
The blond cop nodded, but didn't elaborate. He read Cade's ID card, then handed it to the other German cop, who likewise called it in to the office. Looking back at Cade, he asked, "Did you see the contents of the box?"
"What was in the box other than money, sir?"
"I'd prefer to let you speak with Ms. McAlister about that, since it concerns her and her daughter."
"It would appear to also concern you, sir."
At that moment, Debra McAlister's voice, stronger than before, said, "I'll show you the box. It's in the back yard."
The other German cop leaned to ask the blond cop, "Was bedeut 'back yard'..?"
"Spater," said the blond cop, waving his question aside for the moment as he stepped forward to greet the woman on the stairs. He was obviously rather impressed with her, even though her face bore the red puffiness of crying.
Extending a hand to her, he said, "Good day, lovely lady. We are here to assist you however it may be possible."
"Your English is commendable, sir. Thank you."
She took control of the group by handing her DAC ID to the MP's and saying, "I'll show you the box now," as she headed to the back door.
Cade trailed the little group and stopped by the kitchen table, where he picked up his coffee cup and changed course for the pot.
The red-headed MP asked, "You aren't coming?"
"I think it would be better if everybody stayed together for the time being," said the blond cop.
"It's cold out there and the coffee's in here. I'll be right here at the table, guys. You can see me through the door. I promise not to try to escape."
The two cops, one American and one German, glanced at each other, then the MP said, "We'd really prefer that you come with us."
Cade sat down at the table and sipped his coffee.
"Somebody has to let Carson in when he gets here."
Having no way to coerce Cade politely, they dourly trooped out the back door and into the lightly falling snow to join McAlister. Through the glass panel of the door, Cade watched them take pictures, move the stone, take more pictures, open the box without moving it, and take more pictures before lifting the box out of the hole.
The doorbell rang. Cade opened the front door, found an Army captain on the porch, and said, "You'd be Carson. Come on in. Coffee's on."
As the man entered the house, he said, "And you must be Ed Cade. The description matches, anyway. Coffee can wait, thanks. Where are my men?"
Leading the way through the front room, Cade said, "Out back with the woman who called you and two German cops."
"German cops? Did she call them, too?"
"Must have. I didn't call them."
Cade opened the back door for the captain and stood aside as he passed through. A few steps later, the captain heard the door close and started to ask, "Who..?" before he noticed that Cade wasn't with him. When he looked back through the glass panel, Cade raised his cup and smiled from his chair by the table.
Carson looked at his men, then back at Cade, then he went back up the steps to the door and opened it.
"You're not coming out, too?"
"You already have five people tramping around out there. You make six, and they have the cameras. You don't need my help."
After a moment, Carson said, "Okay, then. Don't leave," and closed the door.
Cade got up to add a couple of scoops of coffee and some water to the pot and set out some extra cups, then returned to his seat to watch proceedings in the yard.
More pictures, a bit of discussion that made McAlister become slightly agitated, and then Carson picked up the box and headed up the steps to the house. Cade set a paper towel on the center of the table and pointed at it as Carson came through the door.
Carson took the hint and set the box on the towel.
"Coffee's up," said Cade. "Serve yourselves, people. You're going to be here for a while, so you may as well get comfortable."
He caught McAlister's attention and guided her to a chair, then went to refill her cup and bring it to her. The attentive gesture caused Debra's eyes to narrow slightly in suspicion, but Cade ignored her look as he sat down.
Carson said to his men, "You guys can get your coffee in the mess hall. Leave your notes and head back to base. I'll get with you later about reports."
Plainly disappointed that they were being excluded, the two men left as ordered. The German cops helped themselves to coffees and brought them to the table as Carson went to get one for himself.
After half an hour or so of questioning, the German cops decided that the matter of a missing American girl should be handed to their superiors and asked for Debra's assurance that she'd drop by their station later to make and sign a full report.
They also wanted to take the lunchbox with them, but Carson told them that it and any lab results would be accessible to them on base. After a call to their offices, they left without the box.
Carson remained seated at the table, using a corner of the paper towel as a coaster for his coffee cup as if marking his claim to the box. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully for some moments, saying nothing, as he let his gaze rest first on McAlister, then Cade.
"I'm wondering what you haven't told me," he said.
Debra looked puzzled. "I've told you all I know," she said.
"What about you, Cade?"
"Her daughter is missing. We found the box. She called the cops."
"Your offices don't usually get involved in this sort of thing, Cade."
"I'm on leave."
"That's the official story?"
"That's the only story, Carson. I'm off the clock."
Carson rose to refill his cup, saying, "You really expect me to believe that?"
"Check with my office. I'm on leave."
"Uh, huh. How do you know Ms. McAlister, here?"
"A mutual friend introduced us. We've been together ever since."
Carson glanced at Debra, then back at Cade. Sitting down with his coffee, he fixed Debra with a gaze and asked, "Is that true, ma'am?"
With only a moment's hesitation, Debra said, "Yes."
Carson pursed his lips and looked thoughtful again for a moment before saying, "Well, then, if I may say so, ma'am, Mr. Cade is a very lucky man."
He was expecting a response of some sort to his statement; something that would validate or negate the impression of togetherness that they seemed to want him to accept.
Quietly startling both Carson and Cade, Debra smiled slightly and looked into her coffee cup as she said, "So he tells me fairly often. Maybe I should believe it."
She glanced at Cade as she raised her cup for a sip.
He made an effort to smile back at her and said, "It's about time you started listening, lady. Why do you have to hear it from him to believe it?"
When she simply continued smiling and made no answer, Carson said, "Well, I'd better get this back to the lab and file a report. You realize, don't you, that your daughter is probably just... Well, she's probably just giving you a hard time, ma'am. Kids do that, especially when they're her age. The money in this box may be her life's savings and the..." he paused uncomfortably, "Uh, other stuff... Could be she's just holding them for one of her friends. She'll probably call for bus fare home soon or wander in on her own."
Debra stared at him long enough to make him even less comfortable, then said in an ominous tone, "We know about how long she's been gone and I've seen what's in that box. I'm past platitudes, Captain Carson. Don't even consider treating this as anything less than a serious matter. If I think for one moment that anyone isn't doing his utmost, I'll raise all the hell my offices can muster and drop it on him instantly."
Carson raised both hands in placation and said, "I'm sorry, Ms. McAlister. I was only trying to make you feel a little better."
"Well, please don't," she said. "The only thing that will make me feel better is finding my daughter and bringing her home."
Picking up the lunchbox, Carson edged away from the table and said, "I'll be on my way, then. You have my word, ma'am. We'll do our best. So will the Germans."
With the beginnings of tears in her eyes, Debra nodded slightly and softly said, "Yes, I know you will. I'm sorry for leaning on you like that. Thank you."
Just as softly, Carson said, "You just hang on, Ms. McAlister. Don't let go, no matter what. We'll find her for you. Call me if you think of anything that could help."
With a glance at Cade, he headed for the front door, where he stopped briefly to glance back again. Cade nodded to him and Carson left.
Debra McAlister was trembling, her fists clenched in her lap as she stared at the tabletop. Perhaps three full minutes went by before she spoke.
"Ed. Or Cade. You don't need the 'mister'."
She didn't look up and continued as if he'd said nothing.
"That woman -- Linda Baines? -- told me... She told me some of the things that have happened to young, white, American and Australian women in Europe, especially those with light-colored hair and eyes."
Cade said nothing and sat still. As she'd said, she didn't need platitudes, and he couldn't think of anything to say that would help.
"She said... Some are kept and some are sold... And that if they don't cooperate, or can't... Or when... Oh, Mr. Cade... Ed... How can people do that to other people?"
She shook her head as if canceling her attempt at speaking, then let her head loll back and stared at the ceiling for a time, her tears damply streaking her face.
'Damn, Linda,' thought Cade. 'You were only supposed to soften her up a little. You could have left a little room for doubt, couldn't you? Now she's half-convinced her kid's dead in a ditch somewhere in Libya.'
Cade scooted his chair next to hers and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her and simply holding her as her tears wet his neck and shoulder and her racking sobs began.
Darkness had fallen before the sobbing had finally wound down to deep sighs and the tears stopped flowing so freely. He helped her to her feet and would have helped her to the stairs, but she waved him off and proceeded on her own.
Cade stood by the table and watched her stumble to the stairs. Once she was out of sight, he started scrounging the fridge and cabinets for whatever would assemble into a passable meal at his hands. People usually felt starved after blowing themselves out the way she had, but he couldn't envision her doing anything about dinner in her present mood.
As he worked, he heard footsteps on the front walkway and went to see who was out there. The woman was about to ring the bell when he opened the door. She seemed startled to see him, then asked for 'Frau McAlister'. He gestured up and told her that Frau McAlister was indisposed.
The woman complimented him on his command of German and handed him two envelopes, saying that they'd been misdelivered next door. He thanked her and promised to give them to Frau McAlister as soon as possible.
She smiled and said that it was good that Frau McAlister had found such a nice man, then turned to leave. Cade closed the door behind her and set the mail on the stand by the door before returning to the kitchen.
Debra McAlister was a woman who regarded herself well, and possibly rather highly. She'd worked damned long and hard for her place in the world; she'd earned it and she knew it. She also knew that anything resembling a show of weakness was inherently dangerous, and as she flushed the tissues from another short bout of tears, she felt as if she'd exposed her emotional jugular to the man downstairs.
Her thoughts came to her in staccato bursts. The woman in the bathroom mirror was a walking disaster. Or rather, she looked as if she'd been through one, which she had. Correction; which she was still going through. This ordeal wasn't over yet, by any means, but there was no excuse for having come apart in front of a total stranger.
The front door opened, then closed a moment later.
'Good,' she thought. 'He's gone. Tomorrow, I'll call John and...'
And what? John had said that he had no one else to send.
She stood tall and tried to take stock of herself, going through the motions of straightening herself up on the outside in order to get a handle on straightening up her insides, but she found herself wanting in that department. The hollow ache in her chest seemed to show through, no matter what she did to her hair and face.
A small sound from downstairs distracted her from her self-examination. She listened for some moments, hearing nothing more, but when she reached for the aspirin in the medicine cabinet, another small noise made her freeze and listen again.
Water running in the kitchen. The rattle of a pot. A cabinet door closed. Debra McAlister was instantly incensed. After a day like this, someone was in her kitchen. Her kitchen. She slammed the plastic aspirin bottle on the counter and spun to march out of the bathroom, through the bedroom, and across the hall to the stairs.
Cade had most of the ingredients for a stew in the pot and was placing it on a burner when the whipcrack voice from the front room startled the hell out of him, almost making him lose his grip on the pot. He turned to see McAlister angrily march into the kitchen.
"What the hell are you still doing in my house!? I thought you'd left!"
Cade turned to set the pot down, then faced her. Debra McAlister stood by the kitchen table, hands on hips, an expression of outrage on her face.
"I thought you might be hungry," he said. "If not right now, probably later, and I didn't know if you'd do anything about it or not, so I..."
"So you took it upon yourself to ransack my kitchen?"
Cade looked around. Except for the pot, a ladle, and two bowls that he'd set on the countertop, he was unable to detect any signs of ransacking. There was a damp spot and a smudge where the celery had been. He snapped a paper towel off the roll and gave the spot a wipe.
"There," he said with a grin. "All better. Have a coffee and let me get a fire going under this..."
"I do the cooking in my house, or I damned well decide who's doing the cooking. Who do you think you are, to..."
"Enough," said Cade. "That's enough. You can shut up, right now."
Her incredulous "What?" echoed around the kitchen.
Cade toed open the sink cabinet and tossed the towel in the trash, then took a deep breath before again turning to face her.
"The stuff is in the pot," he said, retrieving his coat from the peg by the back door. "Throw it out or cook it or just sit staring into space all night and let it rot."
Cade stopped in front of her, shoving his arms into his coat.
"I'll tell you what, lady. I don't cook. I know a little about it, yeah, but I hate cooking. I was just trying to be nice to you, trying to help out a little before I leave, you know? Is that concept too much for you? Nice? Or is that a four-letter word to you?"
He jammed his hands in his pockets and stood glaring at her for a moment, then leaned close to her and said, "I've had enough, McAlister. I know you're going through hell, but you've been nothing but a walking bad attitude from the moment I met you, doing your absolute best to be a pain in the ass. My ass, in particular." Gesturing a thumb at the pot, he said, "So, like I said, cook your own damned dinner. Or not."
With that, he straightened, stepped around her, and headed for the front door at a march pace. Three feet from the door, he heard her say, "Wait," but ignored her.
"Wait, please," she said.
Cade opened the door.
"Would you stop, dammit? Please?"
He stood in the door way and asked, "What are you going to do, McAlister, apologize and promise not to be a pain in the ass anymore? Trade your spots for stripes and pretend you aren't really a leopard?"
Her hands fluttered as she walked toward him.
"I..." She laughed nervously. "Well, uh, yes. Something like that. I guess so, at least around you. I'm sorry, Cade. Don't go."
"Uh, huh. Sure you aren't just trying to keep me here because nobody else is available?"
"No," she said, then she sighed. "Well, not entirely. I know I've been difficult..."
Cade laughed shortly. "Difficult. Yeah. Now you're trying to appeal to my sense of humor, right?"
"Would you give me a damned break, here, Cade? I'll try to... I'll try to be better company, okay? I won't snap at you or argue with you."
Cade regarded her for a moment, then said, "Bull. You'll be your usual self by tomorrow. Maybe tonight. And I'd be a sucker if I stayed to see it happen."
She sighed again and gave him a look of exasperation.
"Well, take a chance. Please, Cade. Look, I really am sorry and I do need the help and I will try to be nicer around you. That's the best I can do."
Cade let the door close with a sigh of his own and said, "Yeah. I know. Okay, so we'll try again. Hi, I'm Ed." He stuck out his hand.
Debra McAlister let her breath out and took his hand.
"I'm Debra," she said. "Deb. Can you stay for dinner? We seem to be having whatever's in that pot on the stove."
"It's a stew."
She shrugged. "We're having stew, then. Well?"
"Yeah. I'd like some of that, I think. Thanks."
It was still early when he left McAlister's house. At the housing complex gate he called a taxi to take him the three miles or so to his own house on Johannesgasse. As he signed out in the visitor's log, Cade caught a window-reflection of the MP gate guard looking at him oddly.
Cade didn't turn around as he asked, "Is there something you'd like to know, Sergeant?"
The startled guard managed to say, "Uh, no sir. I thought I saw something on your coat, that's all."
"What kind of something? No, never mind. You're really wondering why Captain Carson wants to know what time I leave, right?"
The guard gathered up the log book and said, "Uhm... No, sir. That's none of my business."
"You're right. Thanks for being so understanding, Sergeant."
"Sir? Oh. Yes, sir."
When his taxi arrived, Cade glanced back and saw the guard dialing the phone in the guardshack. As his taxi turned left onto Ringstrasse, Cade saw a silver Opel Ascona with green US plates at the far end of the visitor's parking lot begin moving. It, too, turned left onto Ringstrasse, and it was never quite out of sight.
Cade had the taxi stop in the middle of a block halfway to his destination and got out. The Opel had been forced to take another street to avoid getting too close and was nowhere in sight as he entered the neighborhood pub on the corner.
He waved at the bartender on his way toward the washrooms and followed the hallway to the pub's other entrance on the other side of the block, then walked back around the corner.
The Opel was parked among several other cars in a lot across the traffic circle. Cade widened his approach and came up behind the car. After writing down the plate number, he approached the driver's door.
The startled driver almost reached for something, then stilled the motion. His companion simply sat looking at Cade. Both wore American clothing from a PX/BX, which, when taken with the US plates, made it fairly apparent that they were with one of the lesser security agencies. Probably MP's.
"Hi, guys," said Cade. "Next time, save me cab fare and offer me a ride."
Neither man spoke immediately, and the driver tried to appear confused when he said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Right. Tell you what, then... You show me some ID, and if I like what I see, I won't report you two guys for loitering together in a public park at night."
The driver's look of confusion changed to anger and he reached for the door handle, but the other guy grabbed his arm and said, "No. Stay put. He's made us."
The passenger got out and came around the car, reaching for something in his back pocket. Cade waited warily to see what that something might be, but it turned out to be an MP badge and ID card in a black wallet that, after a quick display, was put back in the guy's pocket.
"We're with 42nd MP Customs, Mannheim," he said. "I'm Smith and he's Jones, as far as you're concerned."
"Well, then, I'll be James Beam or John Walker," said Cade. "But I'll decide that later. Who put you on me and why?"
"We can't tell you anything more than that we're authorized to be here, Mr. Cade. You know that. You're in much the same line of work, I hear."
"Nope. 42nd is mostly a bunch of drug hounds. I don't chase drugs."
The driver, 'Jones', said, "A certain lunchbox contained heroin, Mr. Cade, and people like you don't show up without reason. Someone thinks you're worth watching."
Cade sighed. "Like I said to Carson, I'm just helping a woman look for a missing daughter. If I find any drug dealers, you're welcome to them. Do you guys know where I live?"
Smith said, "Damned right we do."
The driver glanced upward and shook his head. "Will you shut up? Yes, Mr. Cade, we know where you live."
"Prove it. Tell me."
"Close enough," said Cade, opening the back door of the car. "Since you know where it is, let's go."
Smith said, "We're supposed to follow you, not haul you around."
"You weren't supposed to get caught, either, so it doesn't matter, does it? If you don't want me to mention this to anyone, you won't make me walk."
"What the hell..." said Jones, before he got back in the car. "Yeah. Sure. Why the hell not?"
When they stopped to let him out in front of his house, Jones rather sardonically asked if Cade planned to go anywhere else during the evening.
"Nope," said Cade with a grin, "You guys can catch a nap. Of course, I'd say that anyway, wouldn't I? Maybe somebody better watch the back door, too."
That earned him a dirty look from Smith and a disgusted sigh from Jones.
Cade heard a familiar noise as he climbed the steps to his apartment, which was actually the top floor of a two-story house. His landlady's cat, Bugglebeast, was already clamoring at the stairwell door to be let out.
A woman's voice on the other side of the door said, "Yah, yah, ruhig, Katze."
As he approached, the door opened, Bugglebeast scooted out to greet him, and Frau Gestner said, "He ist your katz mehr als meine. Thinks he ist yetz Amerikanische."
Her melange of German and English was a deliberate and cultivated habit. She spoke English with a British accent and better than most Americans, but - as she'd explained it to him once - she'd learned over the years that it was better to appear to be trying to manage in English than to appear to have mastered it. You got more cooperation that way, and some things could be blamed on miscommunication.
In German, Cade responded with a smile, "He only wants to raid my refrigerator and vary his day a bit, right, Bugglebeast? How are you this evening, Mama Gestner?"
He reached to ruffle Bugglebeast's chin as she said, "Ganz gut. Franz had to repair some pipes today in Little America. He tells me you may now be involved with a woman from the Embassy."
"Franz could be a good spy if he didn't gossip like an old woman, couldn't he?"
"I am an old woman and he gossips more than me. So?"
"So, I'm only working with her."
"He says she is very beautiful and well-placed in the Embassy."
Frau Gestner gave him a stern look and said, "Vorsicht, Herr Cade. Be careful. You are not Papa material. Not yet. You, maybe not ever. I know men."
Cade laughed and said, "Yah, Mama Gestner. I'll be careful. I promise."
She studied him for a moment as if to gauge the truth of his words, shook her head slightly, and said, "Okay, GI. Take your cat and go now. I have work."
"C'mon, Bugglebeast," said Cade, heading up the stairs. "'Nacht, Mama Gestner."
"'Nacht," she said, closing her door.
As soon as he opened the door to his apartment, Bugglebeast zipped past his feet and scampered onto the kitchen counter, loudly proclaiming that he was starving.
"Yeah, sure you are," said Cade. "Look at you. You're the fattest semi-Siamese hairball in Germany. Gimme a minute."
Bugglebeast hopped down and followed Cade into the bedroom, where he watched from the bed as Cade changed into jeans and a t-shirt.
"Okay, ready," said Cade, holding his arms out.
Bugglebeast jumped into his arms for the ride back to the kitchen. After making the usual production of "searching" for the kitty treats in the fridge and putting a few on the countertop, Cade took a beer to the couch and stretched out with a paperback.
When Bugglebeast had made sure that no treats or fragments thereof were left to be discovered, he jumped down and ambled over to the couch, then hopped up and onto Cade's chest, where he stretched out and began to purr while staring fixedly into Cade's face.
"It's hard to read with you up there," said Cade.
Bugglebeast's ears flicked forward at Cade's words, then he put his chin on his paws and closed his eyes as he always did. Cade adjusted the book and read an hour or so, then got up to take a leak and return Bugglebeast to his downstairs home in completion of their nightly ritual.
After putting Bugglebeast into Frau Gestner's kitchen, headlights flashing through the glass around the front door caught Cade's attention. Looking out, he saw a car park across the street in the main lot. A few moments after stopping in a slot, the car's lights were turned off, but more than a full minute passed before the driver's door opened and someone in a long winter coat emerged. The overhead light in the car served only to vaguely silhouette the driver, but something about the scene made him think the driver was a woman.
Cade continued watching as the driver got out of the car and retrieved a small bag from the trunk, then headed toward his door. Near the steps, the light from a window revealed that he had a female visitor. He opened the door.
"Hi, Linda. Fancy meeting you here."
Linda Baines acted as if she'd expected him to be there and said, "Well, that's original. Is Mama Gestner making you sleep by the door, now? Here, I brought you something."
"Bringing your own lovely self would have been enough, you know. You turned up something about McAlister's daughter?"
"We did. Wait 'till we get upstairs, though. Where's Bugglebeast?"
Cade thumbed at the door behind him and said, "He's home, with his mama. Why, do you want him in on this conference?"
She shook her head. "No, not really. I'm still in my office clothes and he sheds like a cheap rug."
Taking her bag, Cade led the way upstairs. When the door below cracked open, he gave no indication of having heard it, just as he gave no indication of hearing it close.
As he opened his door, Linda said softly, "Your landlady peeks."
"Her house. She probably likes knowing who's in it."
With a 'that seems reasonable' expression and a shrug, Linda preceeded him into the apartment and headed for the kitchen.
"Got coffee?" she asked. "Not instant, I hope?"
"Sure, look in the cabinet over the sink," he said, setting the bag on the dinette table and pulling out two chairs.
"Then you can open the bag while I make it, Ed."
He nodded as he said, "Okay."
In the bag were two manila folders and about a dozen magazines. One folder was marked, "McAlister, Sandra D." and the other was labeled, "Steele, Thomas L.". The magazines were Dutch, dating back six months, and the pictures within them were hard-core porn. All had tabbed pages, so Cade opened one at the first tab.
That particular page was a collage of eight pictures, all dedicated to the sexual activities of one blonde girl with varying male and female partners. The girl was the spitting image of her mother, Debra McAlister.
Cade asked, "What's the age of consent in Amsterdam, Linda?"
"If it were just a matter of legal consent, I wouldn't be here," she said. "Sixteen, Ed. She was probably legal there when those pics were taken, but there's a little more to this."
He nodded. Yeah, there always is.
Linda poured two cups and set them on the table, then sat down and sighed as she reached for the latest magazine. She opened it to a marked page and handed it to him.
"Compare those pics to these, taken only a few months later."
The girl had gone from looking healthy and beautiful to looking as if she'd been used up completely. Scrawny and pale. A large, poorly-concealed bruise marked the left side of her face in an oral-act closeup and her sunken eyes seemed almost lifeless.
"I can't believe anyone bought these pictures," said Cade, "Much less published them. What kind of sicko would find her attractive in that condition?"
Linda glared at him. "Is that all you're concerned about? What about how she got that way in only a few months?"
"Drugs, disease, no appetite, overworked. My first question still stands, because without somebody to buy this crap, there'd be no market for these pics and she might not be in that condition to begin with."
Cade dropped the magazines on the table and picked up Sandy's folder. Blah, blah, scrape with authorities over being drunk at fifteen, probation, blah, blah, another scrape, probation again, same reason, blah, blah, and stop at suspicion of prostitution at age sixteen. Busted off-base, but released for lack of evidence or testimony. She seemed to have gone fairly straight for a while, then she'd been held for questioning in a group bust on a US base a hundred miles from home. Delivered to her mother and released again, no explanation given for that action.
Sitting back and sipping coffee, Cade asked, "What do you make of all this, Linda?"
She made a thoughtful face and said, "Daughter got into bad company. When things got too ripe, Mama tried to sit on daughter. Daughter rebelled."
"That doesn't explain why she left the drugs and money behind."
"No, it doesn't. Could be she didn't have a choice. Look at page eleven in the folder."
Eleven was the last page, an over-long form that was folded twice to fit the folder. It was a Dutch coroner's report of a young woman's massive heroin overdose.
Linda said, "She was found behind a dumpster in Amsterdam four days ago. She was murdered, in my opinion. Whether someone dosed her that high or let her do it to herself, she was murdered."
With a sigh, Cade tapped the folder and said, "Look at her sheet. She's been heading for some kind of self-destruction since she was fourteen, Linda. It's terrible and tragic and all that, but drug overdoses - or even murders - aren't really within our group's jurisdiction."
Linda bristled at his words, then settled into a cold demeanor.
"Look at the other tabbed pages, Ed."
"Why? This one's before and this one's after. I don't really want to see all the stages in between."
"She's only one of four girls. The other three are Americans, too. Take a look."
"I said no. They'll just be more of the same. What's the word, Linda? Why are we looking at this stuff? We don't chase druggies or porn dealers. We pull people out of Iron Curtain countries. This stuff is for cops, not spooks."
After a hard look at him, Linda stood up and went to the coffee pot. She unplugged it and brought it back to the table, refilled their cups, and sat down before speaking.
"John may not see it that way by tomorrow," she said. "It seems that a lot of this publisher's money goes to support terrorist activities. He's been linked to Carlos and to the Red Brigade. The trail is definite."
Definite. That meant that there was proof, but that the proof would compromise something else that somebody had going and couldn't be given to the cops.
Cade tossed the folder on the table as he spoke.
"Terrorists are handled by other departments and agencies, too, most of whom have told us not to get in their way at one time or other. Our group has been the agency's underfunded step-child for almost a decade, Linda. They only call us to yank a defector or his family out of the East or to take stuff in for somebody."
Linda rested her elbows on the table and looked at him as she calmly stated, "Maybe not after tomorrow. If John okays it, you may be making a Dragonfly Run to the West. Into Holland. Amsterdam in particular. Won't that be a change of pace?"
After a moment, Ed Cade said, "Oh, yeah, at the very least. You're serious?"
"Yup. The publisher, the editor, the photographer, and one Thomas Steele, a local boy whose folder is in front of you. All are scheduled for unofficial questioning."
"We can get away with that with the Commies, Linda. Even when we've put them back where we got them, they couldn't mention their visit to the West because their pals wouldn't believe they didn't talk to us, but it doesn't work that way on this side of the line. This could wind up on page one."
Linda was shaking her head at him as he finished speaking.
"Not if it looks as if they were grabbed by terrorists and held for ransom." She looked away and sighed. "There seems to be a lot of that going on lately."
"Then you and John have already decided?"
"Pretty much. I have, anyway, but we'll look at some things tomorrow. Noon meeting. You're expected, of course. This means we cancel your leave, though, if we decide to take an official role."
"Um... Tomorrow's Thanksgiving Day, Linda. Did you maybe mean Friday?"
"No," she said, "Tomorrow. We'll only be in the office half a day."
Cade nodded at Sandy's folder.
"She's been found, and I don't really want to be around when you tell her mother. You won't be showing her these pictures, I hope? That seems unnecessary."
Linda shook her head vigorously and stood up. "No," she said emphatically. "God no. Definitely not. We can't keep her from accidentally discovering them somehow, but we won't be the ones to show her these or even hint that these pictures exist."
She started stuffing the magazines and folders back in her bag.
Cade said, "Good enough, I guess. That only leaves one question. About tonight, that is. Want to stick around for a while...?"
Linda didn't even look up as she said, "Not while you're working for me."
"Had to ask," said Cade, blatantly eyeballing her legs.
Nodding slightly, she said, "I guess I can always rely on you for a compliment, right?"
"Anytime. Rain or shine. Let me know if it ever bothers you, boss lady."
"Bothers me? Ed, if you didn't work for me... Well, you know."
"Well, thank you, ma'am. If I thought you were serious, I'd be tempted to quit."
"Just tempted? Only tempted?"
"Yeah. Just tempted. Maybe if I had another job lined up..."
Linda laughed and reached for her coat. Cade helped her into her coat and carried her bag to the door, then checked the steps for ice before letting her leave. Only after her car had driven away did he return to his apartment and clear the table before heading to bed.
Around eleven in the morning, Cade tossed two bagfuls of laundry in the trunk of his Ford Taunus so he could wash his clothes at the BX washing machines at Ramstein after the meeting. He was talking to one of the women in the office when Linda called John at eleven-thirty to postpone the meeting. John suggested that Cade stick around until Linda returned.
When Linda arrived, she told them that she had gone to Debra McAlister's home, but that the gate guard had said that she'd gone to her office. At the office she'd found that McAlister had signed out for the day only a few minutes before Linda had arrived. The duty clerk had said that McAlister had acted strangely after receiving a large envelope in her office. She'd "gone completely ballistic", he said.
A quick check showed that she hadn't been contacted by the coroner's office, and the guard at her housing complex said that she hadn't returned home.
"So now Mama's missing, too?" asked John.
"Seems so," said Linda.
"Jesus. Looks like we may work a full day after all, doesn't it?"
Linda glowered. "This isn't funny, John."
"It wasn't meant to be. Assume that McAlister's in a rage or a panic. Why? What was in the envelope? Where is she going?"
"The envelope was delivered by a German courier," said Linda. "We're checking on who delivered it and who sent it. Figure that it was full of pictures. What else would set her off like that? And why would someone send them?"
John said, "She's top dog in a political office. If you win in a place like that, you almost certainly have to cause someone else to lose in the process."
John looked at Cade. "Any thoughts on this?"
"Nothing you haven't mentioned," said Cade. "But the envelope may not have been from anyone within the office. Did she stop at anyone else's office on the way out?"
"No," said Linda. "Straight to her car and gone, according to the clerk."
"Then she's probably on her way to see one of the people on your list," said Cade. "Publisher, editor, photographer, or Steele, I'd guess, although I don't know why any of them would be stupid enough to pull something like this. Eliminate the publisher and editor 'cause they'd seem to have too much to lose and they're a couple of hundred miles away across a border. Maybe the photographer, too, if he isn't a local freelance."
Linda said, "He isn't local. He works for the publisher."
"Then Steele is the best choice at the moment as a potential blackmailer. You said he was local. He might not know yet that the girl is dead. Where is he?"
John said, "In a small hotel just outside Ramstein. He's lived there since he got out of the Air Force."
Getting to his feet, Cade said, "She'll have to go through Landstuhl to make the best time from her side of K-town. I'll cut through the air base on the emergency strip if they'll let me and maybe get there first or soon after she does. I'll call in when I get there. Better use an official car. John?"
John handed Cade the keys to his pool-issue Chevy sedan and Cade left the office in a hurry.
Back in the thirties, the Nazis had instituted employment programs much like the ones in the States during and after the depression. They'd involved roads, bridges, and other public works, mostly. Hitler had been very proud of his autobahn, which was like an earlier version of the Interstate highways in America. During the war, parts of the autobahn had also served as ready-made airfields for both sides.
The air base at Ramstein had been established smack on top of a long, straight stretch of autobahn to be used as an airfield as the Allies occupied ever more of Germany toward the end of WW-II. Runways for cargo planes and jets had been built later and the old chunk of autobahn had been relegated to emergency use.
At the Northeast gate of Ramstein Air Force Base, Cade showed his ID and told the guard that he'd be using the old autobahn to cut across the base. The guard called his boss, an AP Lieutenant, for advice.
Lt. Hall asked to speak to Cade.
"I can't let you do that, sir. That's an emergency strip."
"This may be an emergency or a way to prevent one. You know who I work for, Lieutenant Hall. Call my office, but let me go through first. I have to get across the base fast, L.T. Nobody's going to need to land in the next five minutes."
After a moment, Hall said, "Okay, Mr. Cade, but know that I will be calling your office. Put the guard on."
Done and done. The gate went up and Cade charged through the opening as the guard yelled, "Watch out for ice!"
Oh, yeah, there was ice. More importantly, there were patches of no ice that snatched at his tires now and then as if trying to toss him off the road, but at eighty miles per hour, they didn't stick to his tires long enough to succeed.
Cade spent the last few minutes of the speed run downshifting and braking extremely carefully, then took the off ramp at the far end that led to the base's West gate. The guard who waved him through stood staring incredulously after him as Cade slicked through the gears and headed toward Ramstein town and the intersection of Landstuhlerstrasse.
A German cop was turning onto Ramsteinerstrasse as Cade whipped past, again doing nearly eighty. The cop quickly turned around, hit his siren and lights, and gave chase. Cade noticed him back there, but didn't slow down until he neared the turnoff for Landstuhlerstrasse.
The way was clear both directions, so Cade didn't slow down more than he absolutely had to in order to avoid sliding on the curve, then he flew over the railroad tracks just beyond the turnoff, heading toward town and the Kaiserhof Hotel.
As Cade pulled into the Kaiserhof's parking lot, he saw McAlister's new blue Volvo sedan parked right in front of the doors. It was at an angle that suggested that she'd skidded to a stop and the driver's door was open. Cade parked behind it, jumped out, and ran for the hotel doors as the German cop entered the parking lot behind him.
Inside the hotel, several employees were staring in the direction of the dining room, so Cade headed that direction. Sure enough, Debra McAlister was standing in front of a table at which sat a black man who didn't seem happy. He seemed very unhappy, in fact, and his face matched that of the picture in Thomas Steel's folder.
McAlister threw the manila envelope she was holding at the man's face and said something that made the man stand up and grab for her across the table. As she backed out of his reach, he came around the table and grabbed for her again, this time getting a grip on some of her coat.
Cade yelled, "Steele!", but Steele only glanced at him before slapping McAlister hard enough to pull her coat out of his grasp as she fell backward. He stepped forward to reach for her again just as Cade launched himself at him.
Steele was a big man, but Cade weighed almost two hundred pounds plus momentum. They went down together and Steele's head hit the edge of a table hard, stunning him for a moment.
Cade glanced at McAlister. She was trying to get up, so Cade focused on Steele and aimed a punch at his throat. The guy was too big to mess around with; a throat punch would keep him busy trying to breathe. Before he could make the punch, a hand fell on his shoulder and he heard the German cop yell, "Halt!"
Steele was coming around. He seemed not to notice the cop at all as he grabbed for Cade's coat and tried to pull him down into a punch. Cade managed to be a little to one side of the punch and wound up grappling with Steele, who took the opportunity to roll them over and rise to his knees, straddling Cade as he readied another punch.
Cade shoved his fingers at Steele's eyes and brought his knee hard up into Steele's crotch, then kneed him again. Steele squeaked in breathless agony, trying to cover both his eyes and his crotch at the same time for a moment. He then tried again to hit Cade, but Cade again avoided his efforts and this time glancingly connected the edge of his hand with Steele's throat.
The German cop had his baton out and ready as he approached. Steele wiped at his eyes again as he choked, then he tried to elbow the cop away when the cop put a hand on his collar. The elbow struck the cop near the groin, and the cop made his decision.
He had to use his baton four times on Steele's head before the big man rolled off Cade and lay still, but lay still he did. The cop was shaking a little as he used his radio.
Cade got to his feet slowly, so as not to alarm the cop, and walked over to McAlister. She was gently holding the side of her face as if to keep it together. Cade helped her to a chair and went behind the lunch buffet for some ice and a cloth napkin, then took the cold pack to McAlister and placed her hand to hold it against her face.
She was in that stage just before shock, trembling violently and making some kind of a small noise that she didn't seem to realize was coming from her until she gingerly applied the cold compress to her face and stared alternately at Cade and Steele.
More German cops showed up, as well as four AP's in two cars from the base. Debra McAlister refused an ambulance and Cade called Linda from the hotel's front desk, then Cade was allowed to go outside and properly park his and McAlister's cars.
An ambulance took the still-unconscious Steele away with one of the German cops as a guard. When the AP's took Debra McAlister to the base hospital, Linda stayed to deal with the cops and Cade followed the AP's in his own car.
Linda met them at the hospital and generally took over there, too, while McAlister was taken to X-ray. A few minutes later, Linda sat down on the bench next to Cade.
"I managed to slip a small baggie of powdered sugar into Steele's jacket pocket," she said. "Freddy said he'd look for it at about five, once they've transported Steele to Kaiserslautern, so you have about three hours to look around before the cops descend on the hotel again. You have your camera with you?"
"Nope. I left in a hurry, remember?"
Linda reached in her purse and handed him a tiny Minolta and two rolls of film. A quick check showed the camera contained an unused roll.
"Thought so," said Linda. "Unlike some people, I travel prepared. I brought you a phone bug and a pair of gloves, too. Not a scratch on you, huh?"
Cade put the camera and cotton gloves in his pockets and said, "A couple of sore spots. Nothing much. How is Herr Freddy these days?"
"Adjusting well, I'd say. Being promoted got his wife off his back for now, anyway. The gate guards said you must have been doing a hundred across the base."
"Nope. Only about eighty. There was ice on the road, you know."
Linda laughed softly. "McAlister will be ready to go pretty soon. She took a swat in the face. No broken nose. The Germans took Steele for assaulting an officer. They only need McAlister for admin stuff later."
"How did she know to go after Steele, Linda?"
"The dumb bastard called her and told her to expect a package, then told her that if she wanted to discuss anything, she should stop by his room for a private chat tomorrow afternoon."
After a pause, Cade asked, "Did you tell her about Sandy?"
Linda sighed. "No. I'm going to let the usual channels handle that on Monday."
Cade nodded. They sat on the bench in silence for some time before a nurse brought Debra McAlister out and set her on the bench next to Linda.
An uncomfortable silence ensued for a few moments before Cade said, "When you're ready to go get your car..."
McAlister interrupted him. "Thanks, Ed. You too, Linda. I did something so absolutely, truly stupid today... I just... Well, thanks. I'm sorry for what happened."
"You weren't seriously hurt," said Cade. "I didn't get hurt. Steele got laid out flat by a police baton and wound up being hauled off to jail. After going to court, he'll probably be thrown out of Germany as an undesirable. Things could have turned out worse, don't you think?"
"That would depend on what you call worse, I guess. The cops showed Linda the pictures of my daughter that Steele sent me. Did you see them?"
Cade played dumb. "You mean the envelope you threw at Steele? It was on the table before we left. Pictures are what set you off?"
Debra nodded. "I was sitting in my office wondering what the hell to do about Thanksgiving Day when he called. When they arrived, they made me sick, first, then I felt as if my whole world had collapsed, and then I just got so angry..."
Linda put an arm around her shoulders and another silence ensued. After a while, Debra excused herself and got up to go to the bathroom. Cade and Linda were standing when she returned, and the little group began moving toward the doors.
Before Debra got into the car with Linda, she asked, "Were you people following me or something? How did you know I'd be here?"
Linda glibly said, "Of course we are. After finding that box, you could be in danger, too. We know people pretty well, Debra, and you seemed kind of... Well, headstrong."
After a moment, Debra shrugged resignedly and nodded, then got in the car. Cade and Linda glanced at each other briefly, then they got in, too.
"Wait a minute!" Debra said as they pulled away from the curb. "The pictures. Where are they?"
"Sorry," said Linda. "They're evidence. The German cops have them, but I told them who in their offices we were willing to deal with in this matter. They were suitably impressed, and the pictures won't be seen outside a courtroom."
"Oh. What if I don't press charges? Can I get them back?"
Cade said, "The cop who was there is pressing the charges, Debra. He has to, because he was seen using that billy club on Steele."
"Oh. Damn. There's no way to get them out of there?"
Linda said, "Not likely. They were the root cause of the incident."
When the ladies were preparing to go pick up Debra's car, Cade said he thought they could probably manage without him and that he'd have lunch at the hotel restaurant, then get back to the office.
Debra asked, "Will you be dropping by the house later?"
Cade shook his head. "Probably not. I've been letting my laundry slide lately. This may be my last clean shirt, I think, and it isn't really clean anymore."
McAlister nodded and turned to go. Linda gave him a quick, critical glance as McAlister headed for her car.
When Debra was far enough away, Linda asked, "Why is it that you'll rip across the base at warp eight on an icy old road and charge into a guy like Steele, but you can't manage to be available later for a little comfort? She'll need someone near when she finds out that her daughter is in a morgue. I thought you two were getting along..?"
"Warp?" asked Cade. "Eight?" The phrase was vaguely familiar, but it took him a second to pull up the reference. Some show about a spacegoing Navy or something.
Linda grimaced and shook her head. "It's from a rather popular TV show, Ed. Don't you watch TV at all? They travel in space at warp speeds."
He thought about that a moment and said, "Okay, I got it. They bend space instead of spending fuel. Makes as much sense as anything else on the tube. No, boss lady. I don't watch much TV. You keep me too busy."
"Oh, so it's my fault that you don't watch TV?"
"Sure. You're a slavedriver. Look, Linda, I told you I don't want to be around when you tell her about her daughter. Somebody'd just think I was trying to take advantage of her, anyway. Fact is, I can't think of any reason at the moment for ever meeting her again, now that this whole mess is heading in a different direction."
Linda's look of incredulousness lasted only until her angry words began.
"You look, Ed. You said you'd finally made some headway with her. She's going to need someone to lean on..."
"Not a doubt," he interrupted. "And not me. We barely managed some honest civility between us last night. Let her remember me that way, Linda. If you don't order me to stick around, I won't."
Debra's Volvo was moving. She backed it out of the slot and turned around to drive it near them, then stopped.
"Is there a problem? You two looked as if you were arguing about something. Not me, I hope?"
Linda made a wry face and said, "He thinks I deliberately keep him too busy to watch TV."
Debra looked from Linda to Cade. "Huh?"
Cade said, "She made a reference to a TV show and I didn't know what the hell she was talking about right away. People like her think that sort of thing is weird. Wait 'till she hears my opinion about football."
Linda swiveled to face him and said, "Oh, do go right ahead and tell us, Ed."
Cade looked at Linda, then at Debra, and asked, "Does this sound like a setup to you, too? Linda here is a Green Bay fan. She goes crazy for a while every time they play and crazier when they lose. Are you a football nut, too, McAlister?"
Debra shook her head. "I barely know anything about it."
"C'mon, Ed," said Linda, her eyes narrowing. "Let's hear that opinion."
Cade met her gaze for a moment, then said, "Okay. Football: Twenty-two guys in colorful, skin-tight knee pants trying to hurt each other over the privelege of putting what appears to be an oversized suppository in their own end zones. The game is one big sado-masochistic innuendo."
For a moment, both women were silent and staring, then Debra guffawed with laughter and said, "Innuendo." She laughed again and said, "Inyourendzone," and cracked up laughing.
Linda was less amused. "Do you also have a cute definition of football fans that you'd like to share with us, Ed?"
"Nope. Never gave them much thought unless they were hassling me about not liking the game. Some of 'em get way too religious about it, you know. Oh. Yes. You would know, wouldn't you? I remember the last time Green Bay lost. You..."
"You'd be well advised to forget whatever you were about to say, Ed."
"I was only going to tell her about the bet you made with..."
"Do I have to do something drastic to make you shut up? I can, you know."
Debra hadn't stopped laughing. When her foot slipped off the brake, the car's lurch forward startled her, which only added to her laughter. When she was able to speak, she said she was going to leave before another fight started at the hotel.
"Good," said Linda. "If I have to hurt him, there won't be any witnesses. See you at your house in a few, Debra."
Debra McAlister drove off shaking her head and smiling.
'Good,' thought Cade. 'It may be the last time she smiles for a while.'
"You look thoughtful," said Linda.
"I was just thinking that it may be quite a while before that woman feels like laughing again, Linda. I'm glad we gave her a good one for the road."
Linda gave him an 'oh, I see' look and nodded. She looked at him examiningly for a moment more, then also left, shaking her head slightly.
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