Max stood and stretched, arching her back and rolling her shoulders. She reached high above her, fingertips brushing the ceiling of their office. She let out a languid sigh and spoke. "I don't know about you, but I'm ready for some lunch. What do you say?"
Jack grunted a reply, staring at his screen. His fingers hovered above the keyboard, ready to type, but not yet moving.
"Come on, Jack! Lunch! Food! You want me to bring you back something?"
"Nah. You go on." He looked up at her, leaning back in his chair. "I got an errand to run over lunch. I'll grab something while I'm out."
"Alright. But don't say I never offered to get you lunch. I'll be back in an hour or so." She grabbed her purse and covered the distance to the door in three steps.
"You heading back to the hotel? See if the restless sleeper is still there?" Jack grinned, shaking his mind loose from his case as Max wrapped her coat over her shoulders.
"Wouldn't you like to know. Guess you'll just have to hire a P.I. to find out." Max closed the door and left Jack alone with his thoughts in the room. She walked down the hall and turned to the stairs at the last minute. The old elevator could be so slow sometimes. Max wasn't sure where she was headed for lunch, but she knew she could walk in almost any direction and find something tasty. And if all else failed, there was always the deli on the corner. "Maybe a nice beef on wick …" she thought as she walked out of the stairwell and into the lobby.
She saw a courier scanning through the building directory and brushed past him on her way out the door. The cool spring air washed over her face, a slight breeze whispering through her hair. The skies were clear, but distant clouds promised rainfall soon. Max shrugged and turned left.
"Hey, are you Maxine Nix?" a voice called out behind her.
Max turned and found a young woman clutching an umbrella, furled in her hands. "I might be. I get that a lot."
"Yeah! I recognize you from the TV ads! I'm glad I ran in to you!"
"Whatcha need, miss..?"
"Laurel. Stokes. Laurel Stokes. I wanted to talk to you about my sister Irene."
"You had lunch yet kid?" Max sized the woman up, not too far from being a girl still.
"No, ma'am." Laurel shook her head.
"How about we talk over sandwiches and coffee, then maybe back at the office."
"Okay!" Max led the way into the deli and listened to her story.
"I think we can squeeze you in." Max mentally reviewed their open cases, which should be almost nothing if Jack's errand closed the O'Malley file. "Let's head back to the office and we can get Jack's take on it."
"You'll take the case?" Laurel lit up as the women walked back to the office building that housed Marten & Nix Investigations.
"No guarantees, but probably yes."
"Oh thank you so much!"
"Don't thank me yet. We still have to get Jack to agree to take the case."
Jack stared at his monitor for a long while after Max left. He finally looked up Caitlin's schedule, then confirmed the time. She'd be at lunch now. Probably that little diner on the corner a few blocks from her office. Jack sighed and pushed his chair back from the desk. He rehearsed what he would say to her.
"Hi, Mrs. O'Malley? You don't know me, but I've been hired to follow you for the last little while and, well, I think you're Airmid, the angel of the outcast and forgotten." He figured he wouldn't get past "hired to follow you" before she threw coffee in his face.
"Mrs. O'Malley, may I have a word?" Less likely to get coffee thrown in his face, but still not terribly friendly.
"Hi, Caitlin? We met at that party the other week, at the Johnsons?" Why is it always so much easier to confront the subject of an investigation when you catch them doing something illegal?
A knock at the door interrupted Jack's musing. "It's open." He slid his chair back to the desk and opened a the top drawer where he kept his Beretta.
"Package for a Jack Marten. You him?" The courier stepped through the door, envelope and clipboard tucked under his arm.
"Yeah. You need a signature?" Jack closed the drawer and stood.
"Yeah, right here." The detective signed on the indicated line of the paperwork held out to him. "Thanks. Here ya go." The courier handed Jack the envelope and took back the clip board, tucking it back under his arm. "Have a good one."
"You too." Jack held the envelope in his hands as the door closed after the courier. He replayed the interaction in his head. "Was there something weird about that? Or am I just being paranoid?" Long moments passed before Jack shook himself out of his reverie and checked his watch. "Crap! I'm gonna miss her!" He left the envelope unopened on his desk as he rushed out the door, coat and hat in hand. He was halfway to the elevator before he remembered to go back and lock the door.
On the street, Jack ran to his car, parked in a lot across the street. He got in the sedan and drove across town to Earl's Diner.
" … 56 now and clear skies with a high of 58 later on this afternoon. Overnight low in the mid 40s with a 60% chance of rain tomorrow. I'm Gil Eckey, 1010 WINS news time is 12:23."
"Thanks Gil. David Gross filling in for Brett McKay. The mayor today said he supports the HEROES Act, requiring all super-powered individuals to register with the DHS to be entered in to a nation-wide database—"
Jack turned the radio off and drove the rest of the way in silence.
He saw Caitlin sitting at the counter as he parked. Jack took a stool near her and made small talk with the waitress as he ordered.
"Hey, Sylvia, you hear these stories about some kind of angel of mercy helping folks in the lower wards?"
"I don't think so. What are they saying?" Sylvia poured Jack a cup of coffee.
"Some woman in a hood is apparently treating the folk who are too sick, or haven't got enough money, to go to the hospital. Can I get two eggs over easy and wheat toast?" Sylvia nodded. "They say she does it all with herbs. No pills or needles."
"No needles? Where do I sign up?" Sylvia glanced down the line. "Your eggs will be right out, hon." She moved on to the other patrons, filling their coffee mugs as she went.
Jack stared straight ahead into the kitchen, watching Caitlin out of the corner of his eye. She leaned toward him, clearly listening but trying to hide her eavesdropping. Jack waited, sipping his coffee.
Finally Caitlin gave up the pretense and turned to Jack. "Did they give her name? The people you heard talking about this mystery woman?"
"What's that?" Jack set his cup down and turned toward her, pretending he'd been lost in thought.
"The woman you were telling Sylvia about. She helps people?"
"That's what they say." Jack focused on stirring a spoonful of sugar into his cup.
"That's it? Just that she helps people? No name?"
"Kinda hurts when people don't remember your name, doesn't it Airmid?"
Caitlin laughed. "Who? I mean … I'm sure she's not doing it for recognition…" She looked away as Jack looked up and she saw his previously jovial smile was gone, a serious grin in its place.
"Oh, certainly not. But a little recognition would be nice … Even just someone to talk to about it."
Caitlin glanced around the counter and nearby booths. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. She lowered her voice. "Have you been following me? Is this blackmail?"
Jack lowered his voice in kind. "Yes to the first, and no to the second. I'm a private investigator, Mrs. O'Malley." He sipped his coffee again. "Damn fine coffee here. Thank you for introducing me to it."
"What?" Caitlin focused entirely on Jack, the last of her meal cooling and forgotten.
"Sorry. I skip around between thoughts sometimes. Your husband, Mrs. O'Malley."
"John? What about him? Did he hire you? To, what, spy on me?"
"He's just worried. Usually when one spouse says they have to work late, or they take frequent, unexpected business trips, to attend business conferences, well … it seems suspicious. He wanted me to find out if his marriage was in trouble."
"Does he know? Did you tell him?" Caitlin moved to the seat next to Jack.
"No. If it had been something as mundane as infidelity, then yeah, he'd have known last week. But this … it's not my secret to tell. I can't stall forever though. He should know the truth. I told him he'd know by Friday."
Sylvia came back with Jack's eggs. "You all finished, Caitlin?" she gestured toward the mostly empty plate at the empty seat.
"Yes. Thank you, Sylvia. Delicious as always."
"We'll see you soon. Have a good afternoon." Sylvia left Caitlin's check with a smile. "You need some more coffee, hon?"
"No, thank you Sylvia. I think I'm set for now." Jack picked up his knife and fork and cut in to the runny eggs.
After Sylvia walked away, Caitlin spoke. "Friday? That's not much time…"
"I know. But he's been waiting too long already." Jack chased a bit of yolk around the plate with a piece of toast.
"Okay. Thank you. For coming to me first."
"We're all on the same side, just trying to make a difference in our own small ways."
"You have powers too?" Caitlin fished some cash out of her purse and laid the bills on her check.
"No. Not for lack of boyhood wishes … but I'm one of the untold powerless. Everyone's entitled to their privacy. On Friday I'll tell John he has nothing to worry about, that you're not being unfaithful. I won't tell him what you're doing, just that his marriage is safe and I can't tell him anything else." Jack finished his coffee. "He'll start asking questions I can't answer, and I'll just tell him to talk to you. My guess is it'll be an easier conversation if you tell him before Friday. Have a good day, Caitlin." He stood, leaving some cash on the counter next to his plate, enough to cover the bill with a generous tip.
Jack took a deep breath as he stepped outside. The skies were clear and the rains wouldn't come until tomorrow. He looked forward to the drive back to the office.
Jack glanced at the unopened envelope. He'd moved it to the "in" box on his desk where it sat atop the pile of bills and other correspondence. "You say Irene hasn't been seen for a week?" He tapped at the legal pad on his desk, the pen striking a pattern of small dots on the corner of the page of notes.
"Yeah. Last time Momma saw her she was headed to the grocer in town but she never came home." Max offered Laurel the box of tissues from her desk. The young woman sat in a chair off to the side of the desks, where both Max and Jack could see the client while taking notes at their desks. "Thank you." Laurel wiped the tears from her eyes and blew her nose.
"Why haven't you gone to the local police?" Jack's pen hovered over his note pad where he'd written her answer to the question the first time he asked it.
"I did. When she didn't come on last Wednesday, we phoned the police and went to the station the next day. The detective said they would find her as soon as they could, but he only barely listened."
"Right. That was Detective O'Malley?"
"No. Carnahan. O'Malley was the desk sergeant who gave us your business card yesterday when Momma and me went back to ask Carnahan if he'd found anything." Laurel sniffed back another tear.
"Right." Jack reviewed his notes. "And the police haven't found anything?" Laurel shook her head. "But you think we can?"
"Sergeant O'Malley seemed to think so." She dabbed her eyes again, but the tissue remained mostly dry.
"That's O'Malley alright. Okay. We'll look into it."
"Really! Oh thank you!" Laurel leaped out of her chair and threw her arms around a momentarily stunned Jack.
"I … uh … Max? Little help?"
Laughing, Max gently pulled the young woman off her partner and guided her back to the chair. "We'll find your sister. They used to call Jack the little badger. Once he gets his teeth in a case, he doesn't let go until it's done."
"We've got your number. We'll call you if we need anything more, but I think you've provided enough for a good start." Jack gestured to his pages of notes on the legal pad.
"Thank you, so much! You have no idea how much peace of mind this will give Momma, just knowing someone's helping."
Max walked her to the door. "Are you going to be okay getting home? Do you want us to call you a cab?"
"No, thank you. I'll be fine. You're already doing so much."
Jack remained seated, trying not to roll his eyes until the door closed. "I'm going to regret letting you talk me into this case, aren't I?"
"Have you ever regretted taking a case?" Max fell into her chair, letting it roll a bit away from the desk.
"All the damn time." Jack sighed and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. The half-full bottle of scotch hit the desktop with a solid THUNK.
"Bit early in the day, isn't it?"
"It's five o'clock somewhere. And after that sob story? On top of the O'Malley case …" Two tumblers joined the bottle on the desk.
"What ended up happening with that? I saw the email from Jim. She's not cheating on him, but …" She watched him pour a finger into both glasses.
"But she wears a cape in her off hours." He replaced the stopper in the bottle.
"Really?" Max reached for the glass closest to her.
"No, not literally. She's got more of a hood … maybe a cloak or a mantle."
"But she's a cape?"
Jack leaned back and poured the contents of the glass down his throat. "Yup."
"You gonna tell O'Malley?" Max sipped hers.
"Nah. He just wanted to know if she's cheating on him, and she's not."
"But you talked to her?"
"Yeah." Jack uncorked the bottle and poured himself another drink. "Told her I had to tell her husband something by Friday. Any luck and she'll tell him herself. Either way, case closed." He set the glass on the desk and picked up the O'Malley file for emphasis, shuffling it to the "out" box. He grabbed the courier's envelope from the "in" box.
"Dunno yet. Courier dropped it off as I was headed out the door to talk to Mrs. O'Malley. Then when I got back her you ambushed me with the stray and her sob story." He turned the object over in his hands three times before laying it on the desk.
"Who's it from?" Max finished her glass and set it down, standing to lean over her desk to get a better look.
"Smitty." Jack squared the envelope with the blotter. "Old army buddy. Haven't seen him in ages."
"Well don't leave me in suspense! What's it say?"
Jack took a breath and tore off one side of the envelope. He withdrew the contents: a handwritten letter and a compass. Jack unfolded the letter and scanned it. "Seems fairly standard. Smitty wishes me well and wants to know if I'm coming to the 10 year squad reunion."
"That's a thing?"
"No. Not really. Personnel rotate through the squad frequently enough that it's not like a high school graduating class … We don't do reunions. Not unless it's something like World War vets getting together fifty, sixty years later and it's a special reunion event because they've all been out for decades and only a handful are still even alive."
"Where's this reunion supposed to take place? Do we need this compass?" Max picked it up, twisting it left and right, then looking up at walls of the office.
"Uh…" Jack scanned the letter. "Looks like Michigan? In a few days. Saturday. Shit."
"I'm not sure this compass works anyway."
"What do you mean?" Jack set the letter down and stood to look closer at the compass.
"Well, unless I'm seriously turned around, that's the North wall." She pointed at the wall covered in sunbeams and shadows from the afternoon sun. "But the compass says that way is … well, not exactly West. West North West? Is that a compass direction?"
"Technically, yes, that is a direction found on a compass. Let me see it." He held out his hand until Max set the compass on his palm. "Huh…"
"Weird, right? I don't have another compass to see if there's just something strongly magnetic in that direction, or else I'd say we should compare it against a known good device. But who has a compass these days anyway?"
"All your gadgets and no compass?"
"I've got a compass app on my phone." Max pulled the smart phone from her hip. "It's also got a level and interactive maps."
"So what's your app say?" Jack set the compass on the desk.
"It says …" Max tapped a few icons, then set her phone next to the compass. "That wall is North … ish." Max and her compass app pointed toward the North wall and its sunbeams.
"Alright, well, how do you feel about a road trip this weekend?"
"I feel good. Could be fun. If we have the Stokes case wrapped up … or at least some really solid leads? No. I feel less good." Max talked herself out of the road trip. "You go on. Have fun, catch up with army buddies. I'll work on the case."
"It doesn't sound too complex. Carnahan probably just has a ton of other things. Homicides. No body in a missing persons case, so it gets put in a queue. I bet we have something by Friday." Jack sat down, staring at the compass.
"Alright. Stay positive. That's the Jack I know and love." Max held her glass out to him. "Or at least the Jack I've never seen before." He poured and laughed.
"I'm not always a grumpy hard-ass, am I?"
"You made that poor girl cry today. You tell me."
Jack poured some scotch for himself, swirling it in his glass. "I suppose I did, didn't I."
"Now come on. Let's get a jump on this before the sun sets and you turn into a vampire." Max slid the empty glass back to him, waving off the refill.
"Okay. Irene Stokes." He paced to the white board and wrote her name in the center, then drew a circle around it. "Missing since Tuesday last week." He wrote the date under the name. "Sister Laurel." He wrote this name above the first, then circled it and drew a line connecting the circles. "Reported her sister missing the same day." Date under name. "Irene was last seen in the grocery store." The words "grocery store" filled another circle.
Max picked up Jack's notebook. She was always fascinated by the way his mind worked and made seemingly random connections, but so far everything seemed normal on the Stokes map.
"She talks to Detective Carnahan." Name. Circle. Line connecting to Laurel. "Why? Why come to New York City cops when you're from small town New Jersey?"
"Because you were vacationing in New York at the time?"
"Irene disappeared on her way back from the local grocer, not in the city. Think, Max! The answer is there."
Max stared at the board. "Because … Wait. Carnahan's not a city cop, is he."
Jack shrugged and wavered his hand. "Ehhh…"
"You threw me off with a misleading question. Carnahan is a city cop, but not New York City. His beat is the nearest big city to the Stokes."
"Very good! But how do we come in?"
"O'Malley. He got you looking into his wife after we found his brother-in-law's estranged mother last year."
"Excellent! Now you're getting it." Jack gestured with his left hand, holding the mostly empty glass of scotch, nearly sloshing the amber liquid onto the floor.
"So where do we start looking for Irene?"
"Back home, obviously. Retrace her steps as best we can. Maybe we'll get lucky." Jack flopped into his chair, sliding his glass along the desk as the chair rolled. He drained the glass and started at the board. He was missing something.
"You got another bottle down there?" Max shook the scotch bottle at him. It wasn't quite empty, but it soon would be if they kept drinking tonight.
"You tell me." Jack kept his eyes on the board, closing the drawer with his foot so Max couldn't peek.
"I'd say a little liquid lubrication is essential to your process, so five'll get ya ten there's two more bottles in that drawer."
Jack laughed. "No bet." He caught the edge of the drawer with his shoe and pulled it open, revealing two untouched bottles. "Guess I don't have to try hard to get every lesson to stick with you."
"Just most of 'em." Max winked at her partner then tried to see what he saw in the board.
"There's something … Something I'm missing …"
"I think you've got everything from your notes up there." Max flipped through Jack's note pad. "You want to giver Laurel a call? Maybe talk to her mom?"
"No. My questions were thorough …"
"Any idea what might be missing?" Max set the legal pad back on Jack's desk.
"If I knew that I'd know what — Michigan!" Jack jumped up, staring wide eyed at Max.
She paused before asking calmly, "What?" Max focused on her breathing, her heart beating in her chest. She always hated the jump scares in modern "horror" movies and now Jack had done it in real life.
"Connecticut! Smitty! His letter said Connecticut. His family's got a cabin out there." Jack bounded to the white board and wrote "Smitty" in a circle in a free space, unconnected to Irene and Laurel Stokes. He added the Connecticut connection a moment later.
"Okay, but what's that got to do with the missing girl?" Max leaned forward in her chair, trying to follow along. She'd learned sometimes it was better to trust his mania to either lead somewhere interesting, or burn itself out before she could convince him to do something else.
"Nothing. Probably." He added another circle with three letters: Pip. "It's almost certainly a coincidence that I got a letter from Smitty the same day a young woman comes to us about her missing sister." Another word joined the Smitty map: Device. He started to write another word, but thought better of it and erased it before Max could see what it was going to be. "Just a coincidence." Jack put the cap on the marker and stepped back. He tapped the marker on his chin as he studied the board.
"So … the missing girl." Max tried to steer Jack back on track.
"Right! Yes!" He turned toward her, marker in his outstretched hand. "Irene!"
Max stared him down until he turned back to the board, slumping in his chair. "You good now? Less crazy?"
"Yeah. Sorry … just … Connecticut. Brought back some things."
"How about some dinner. I dunno about you, but all I've had since lunch was your scotch." Jack nodded. "I'll order from that Chinese place on the corner. You want your usual?"
"Yeah. I think that'll hit the spot." Jack picked up his notepad and read through the notes again.
Max popped the last dumpling in her mouth. "It's getting late, Jack. Not sure how much more we can learn from the board. I'm gonna go out to Jersey tomorrow, check around where Irene was last seen. You want to come along?" She stretched in her chair.
"Yeah. I'll tag along. We should give Henry a call too." Jack picked up a piece of cold chicken with his chopsticks, absentmindedly bringing it to his mouth as he focused on the client board. Was it just a coincidence that Smitty and Irene ended up there on the same day? Only time will tell if they're connected or not, but Jack suspected it wasn't coincidence.
"Risinghawk?" Max wanted to be sure she was talking about the same person Jack was. Henry Risinghawk was an old friend of Jack's. "Doesn't he work nights as a bouncer at that club on 57th? You expecting trouble in Jersey?"
"Always. Fortune favors the prepared. And if we bring three people and something happens to incapacitate one of us …"
"Then there's still two of us, so we have a better chance of winning a fight."
"Who said anything about winning?" Jack laid his chopsticks on his plate and turned to Max. "In an ambush, best course of action is to run. Get some distance between you and the hostile actors. They sprung their trap when you were in the best position for them, so your best move is to be somewhere else. Two people can drag a comrade faster than one."
"What if running isn't an option?" A smile crept across Max's face. She had fun watching her friend get animated about problems that hypothetical instead of immediately life threatening. "Say we get ambushed in a building and the exits are blocked?"
"Then the best bet is to hide. Get behind cover. Try to put something between you and the hostiles so you have time to think of your next move instead of just reacting." Max's smile was infectious and spread across Jack's face too. He liked giving lessons and in another life might have been a teacher. Or a Drill Instructor.
"What if it's an open room and the bad guys are all around us?"
"Then we fight. Try to make an exit by going through some guys. Or listen to their demands and bide your time until an action less likely to get yourself or your allies killed presents itself."
"So the first action is to run. I think I can manage that." Max stood and stretched again. "For now, though, I'm going home. I'll see you in the morning, Jack. We'll meet here?" Jack nodded. "I'll bring coffee, you bring Henry, if he's coming."
"And maybe bring your own toothpaste? If you're going to make a habit of brushing at the office, I mean." Jack grinned and dodged the crumpled note Max threw at his head. He laughed, adding "I'll see ya tomorrow, Max." He turned back to the board as the office door closed and he was alone with his thoughts again.
Max walked to the subway stop, keeping an eye out for suspicious looking passersby. She made it to the train platform without incident and pulled out her phone. Three text messages from the guy she met last night. She sighed and deleted them. Definitely a mistake last night. She typed out an email to her friend Emily at the precinct. With luck they could get a hold of Irene's missing persons case and see if there's any details there that Laurel forgot today.
She sat down on the train and browsed her news feeds on her phone. Super hero sightings seemed to be up. One message board, usually full of nutters, had some sane posts today, including pictures of a man in a red and blue costume flying around San Francisco, as well as a woman in a yellow costume and a teal blur fighting something that could have been an alien space ship in the Bay Area. Official news out of San Francisco was a weather balloon and military flight tests. "Curious," thought Max. "Didn't Jack say something about O'Malley's wife being a super?" She made a mental note to talk to Jack about it tomorrow.
Another board with more political leanings was also talking about super powered people, and the HEROES Act which promised to make America safer by requiring all super powered individuals to be registered with the government, and if they wished to be comic book style heroes they'd have to go through a training program and be issued a license. Members of the House of Representatives were currently split on whether the bill should include an exemption from the training for members of the armed services and police, who have already gone through a similar certification and licensing process. Conspicuously absent from the bill was any mention of what would happen to the people who register, but don't want to go through the training. A vocal minority of representatives also lobbied for the identities of the super powered individuals to be made public.
Max tried to keep an open mind, but in her line of work she'd seen how often an alias or changed name could help keep someone safe, and how often exposing that information but them in harm's way. She made another note to call her congresspeople to urge them to at least kill the identities section of the bill.
She slipped her phone into her pocket as she got off the train, and walked the few blocks to her apartment. Before she got her keys in the door, her phone vibrated with an incoming text message. The guy from last night again. What was his name? Brian? Bradley? Brendon? She deleted the message and went inside, double checking the door lock before heading straight to her bedroom and into bed. "No matter how upscale the hotel, the bed is never as comfortable as your own" she said aloud before yawning and drifting off to sleep.
Jack turned on the radio and poured some more scotch into his glass. He said the jazz station helped him think, but really it was just background noise that wasn't a distraction. He drained the glass and stood in front of the board. He focused on Smitty, adding "Cabin" to the map. He put a question mark next to Pip's name. Then erased it. He put another circle on the board, around the word "Jack," connected to Pip and Smitty. He drew a box and filled it in with black marker, squarely between the three names.
He knew the Device wasn't in Connecticut. Unless Smitty and Pip moved it without telling him. Maybe that's what Connecticut was about? He touched his right hand to his chest, feeling the weight of the key hanging around his neck, under his shirts. It hadn't been off his next for ten years, but he still felt the urge to reassure his conscious mind that it was still there.
He sat back down and stared at the board for another hour, trading the scotch for water, before locking up the office and driving home.
Henry Risinghawk sat on the stairs in front of the office building that housed Marten & Nix Investigations. Jack greeted him with a smile and a handshake. "Henry! It's been too long. You keeping busy?"
"Oh, yeah. Plenty of work for a big guy like me." Henry stood, and with Jack one step higher on the stairs, the two men saw eye to eye.
"Glad to hear it. I think we could use a hand if you're up for it. I'll tell you about it inside." Jack flexed his fingers after letting go of Henry's hand, opening the door with his left hand. He held the door while Henry walked through, then followed the big man up the stairs.
The scent of freshly brewed coffee greeted them when they opened the office door. "Max? You're in early again." Jack called out, looking around for his erstwhile partner. The office seemed empty.
Henry stood near the desks, looking around the small office, while Jack bustled from place to place.
"Did you lose something?" Max asked from the doorway, holding a box from the corner baker in one hand.
"Ah ha! You cleverly hid yourself outside the office in order to surprise us with delicious pastries." Jack stopped his search and poured three mugs of coffee.
"Figured we'd treat Henry to breakfast while we walked. How ya doin, big guy?" Max set the box on her desk and opened it to reveal half a dozen donuts.
"I'm alright, Max. Thanks." He reached for a donut while Jack set the mugs on his desk. "Jack said you need a hand?"
Max nodded. "Yeah. Call it paranoia if you like, but something doesn't feel right about this case."
Henry nodded toward the white-board wall. "Something about a woman named Irene Stokes?"
"Observant as ever." Jack piped up. "On the surface it seems like a missing person. Could be anything. We're gonna check out her last known location after breakfast. Never hurts to have someone big and strong looking to dissuade trouble."
Henry nodded, his mouth full of donut.
"Hopefully we can get you back before you need to be at the club, but if things go sideways and you can't get back to work tonight, is that going to cost you your job?"
"Henry thought for a moment and washed the donut down with some coffee. "Mmm, that is some tasty coffee." He took another sip. "I don't think it'll cost me my job. Especially if I can call in and explain things. Should be fine."
"Good. We can get going any time then." Max picked up her coffee mug.
"You know … maybe we should invest in some to-go cups." Jack pondered his mug.
"Maybe," Max agreed, sipping her own coffee.
Henry decided to stay out of it and reached for another donut.
Jack pulled the car over to the side of the road. Everyone got out and gathered on the passenger side. Max held Jack's notes. "This is the last place Irene was seen. They found her car just here." Jack gestured to the shoulder of the road.
"It was empty?" Henry asked, taking in the area.
"Yeah. Well, no people, at least. Still had groceries." Max picked up one of the cameras and started taking pictures.
"And she was here a week ago?"
"Nine days, now." Jack crouched in front of his car. "Fortunately for us this road isn't used too terribly often. Unfortunately for Irene, that's probably why they took her here." Jack looked around, eying the tree line. "Max, you got the pictures Laurel took when they got the car?"
"Yeah. Hang on." Max let the camera hang from its strap around her neck while she fished the tablet computer out of its bag and called up the pictures Jack needed. She handed it to him and he held it at arms length, twisting the device slightly and turning his body left and right.
He stepped back and adjusted half a step to his right, lining up the trees in the background of the photo with the trees in front of him. "Okay. They took the picture from here. And Irene's car was here." Jack stepped forward until he stood where the car was in the photo. He lowered the tablet and inspected the ground at his feet. "Tire tracks. Here and here. From Irene's car. Then whose tracks are these?" Jack took two big steps in the direction Irene was traveling, then took pictures of the new tracks with the tablet. "Max, can you get some better shots of these?"
She nodded and jogged over.
"Could they be from the car Laurel took?" Henry asked.
"I don't think so," Jack said. "There's no car in front of Irene's in the pictures."
"Maybe a tow truck?"
"She said they didn't have any trouble starting the car. After they got a second set of keys from the house anyway." Jack studied the ground on the passenger side of the mystery tracks. Henry leaned on Jack's car, scanning the road and the tree line.
"You thinkin maybe a faked roadside emergency, then kidnapping?" Max took pictures of the area Jack was studying.
"Maybe. If I was gonna do something like that, I'd have somebody innocent looking standing next to the car, visible from the road. And one or more other guys hiding in the trees back here. "Jack walked toward the trees."
"But the family hasn't gotten any ransom demands or anything. What makes you think kidnapping?"
"Relentless optimism?" Jack glanced at his partner. She shook her head. "Just playing the odds. No body, so hopefully she's still alive somewhere. We just have to find her." He let the implied "before it's too late" hang in the air.
"Are these scuff marks?" Max pointed to some disturbances in the dirt near the tire tracks.
"Maybe. Could be dragging feet, could just be windswept dirt. Some thin broken branches here though." Jack stepped farther into the trees, then turned back to the road. "Henry! You still see me?"
"Yeah. Maybe not if I didn't know where you were, but you're not terribly well hidden there."
"How about here?" Jack took a few steps backward.
"Lots of shadows there. Much better."
Jack crouched down and took a closer look at the ground.
Max pushed through the trees to Jack and snapped a few more pictures. "Find something?"
"Maybe. The grass here is kinda matted down. Ah! And a cigarette butt. Someone definitely waited here."
"You sure they didn't just flick it from their car and it landed here?"
"We're too far back from the road." Jack brushed a leaf aside. "And here's a half smoked one." He stood up and ran his hands along the bark of the tree next to him until he found a bit of soot. "Stubbed out and then dropped. Looks much more like a kidnapping now."
"Which is a good thing?"
"For our client at least. Let's see if your friends in the force can make heads or tails of that tire track."
Max and Jack walked out of the trees, heading back to the car. "Is that all?" Henry asked, opening a door for Max.
"For now." Jack answered.
"Thank you!" Max stepped into the car and nodded to Henry when she was clear of the door. He closed it and got in himself.
"I'm not sure there's much else to be gained here, but there's plenty of time to lose. So we head back to the office and Max talks to some friends and we see if those mystery tracks can lead us to a vehicle." Jack looked both ways and pulled cautiously out onto the empty road.
"It's a slim lead." Henry said.
"Best one we got." Jack agreed with a shrug.
"Alright, thanks Sarah. Fast as you can get 'em." Max waited for a reply from Sarah on the other end of the phone. Jack and Henry talked quietly about the case.
"Wait, hang on. I'm gonna put you on speaker." Max pulled the phone away from her ear and pressed an icon on the smooth screen, then set the phone on her desk. "Okay, now Jack and Henry can hear. Can you say that last part again?"
"Sure." Sarah's tinny voice radiated from the phone's speaker. "This girl you're missing is the fourth one we've seen in about six weeks."
"Have any of the families gotten demands? Any of the girls been found?" Jack leaned in toward the phone.
"No demands, but one girl was found last week. Friday, I think. Maybe Thursday."
"Was she okay?" Max held her breath, waiting for Sarah's answer.
"Physically, yeah. No memory of what happened. Or at least she's not saying if she does remember."
"Where'd they find her?" Jack got out a pen and a fresh notebook.
"Upstate, wandering around Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam."
"That's a little weird." Max crossed her arms over her chest, pacing slightly.
"That's not the half of it. She wasn't hurt physically, like I said. The only marks of her capture were some light bruising on her wrists and ankles, and she was completely bald."
"They shaved her head?" Jack stopped writing.
"Not just her head. Everywhere. No hair. Arms, legs, eyebrows, you name it."
"But she's okay now?" Max.
"Yeah. Back with her family. Her hair's growing back normally, as far as they can tell."
"And the other two missing women. They're a rough match for Irene?"
"Yeah. Mid 20s, healthy, active. The first girl, the one they found, she was blonde. Probably still is. The others were both brunettes, but one was more of a light brown and the other had darker hair."
"And Irene had black hair." Jack finished. "Do you know where these women were taken from?"
"Back roads, mostly. Within a few miles of where you said Irene was taken. All of them driving alone. All of them left the car, nothing stolen as far as we could tell."
"Alright. Thanks, Sarah. I really appreciate it." Jack wrote furiously, trying to keep up with what Sarah said.
"We really appreciate it." Max emphasized. "Give my love to Tim. We'll see ya at the Policeman's Ball next month."
"Wouldn't miss it. Take care of yourself Max."
"Thanks. Have a good one Sarah." Max picked up her phone and ended the call. "You look like you've got a plan."
Jack looked Max up and down.
"I don't think I'm going to like this plan."
Henry glanced from Jack to Max and back. "If she doesn't like it, I bet I won't like it either."
"It'll be fiiiine," Jack said, trying to assuage their fears.
"No! Nothing is ever fine when you stretch it out like that!" Max protested.
"No, really, it'll be fine." Jack insisted.
"So you keep saying. Let's here this fine plan then." Max leaned back in her chair.
"Okay." Jack stood and paced in front of the white board. "Tomorrow morning I have to meet Smitty at his family's cabin in Connecticut, so I'll leave tonight. After I meet with Smitty tomorrow, Max will take my car and drive around the back roads of New Jersey until she is kidnapped."
"Yeah. Definitely don't like this plan."
"You'll have one of your tracker gizmos. Henry and I can follow you at a distance and once we find out where the other women are —"
"By following the kidnappers as I'm abducted," Max interrupted.
"Then we'll bust in and set everyone free."
"Sounds kinda sketchy." Henry chimed in. "Even for one of your plans."
"That's just cause I haven't fleshed out the bare bones of it yet. It'll sound better in the morning. Trust me."
"If you say so. But I'm only going along with it until I think of a better plan." Max picked up her empty glass.
"What makes you so sure they'll take Max anyway?" Henry started poking holes in the plan.
"Because they don't have a redhead yet?" Jack sounded less sure than he meant to. "Besides, I'll figure out how to make Max more attractive by morning."
"You'll do what now?"
"More attractive to the kidnappers, I mean. As bait. Make you a more enticing target!"
"I'm not sure whether to get you steak sauce for that foot in your mouth, or a shovel to help you dig that hole faster." Henry sat back, chuckling.
"Do you even think before you speak, Jack?"
"It's been known to happen on occasion."
Henry decided to change the subject before they killed each other. "Sounds like you won't need me tonight." He stood and picked his jacket off the back of the chair. "When I get to the club I'll let 'em know I won't be able to make it tomorrow night. Gives us plenty of time to rescue Max and the others, and if the hostage situation goes super smooth then I get to enjoy a night off."
"Sounds like a plan. See you in the morning Henry." Jack paced forward and shook the big man's hand again.
"See ya tomorrow." Max looked sullen in her chair. After the door closed and before Jack could start, Max said "I'm not letting you out of my sight until I think of a better plan. I'm tagging along to the cabin."
"I guess I can't stop you, but it'll probably be pretty boring for you. Probably lots of war stories and old-buddy catching up." Max tried to gently dissuade Max from tagging along. He had a feeling Smitty wanted to talk about the Device and he didn't think the others would want Max to know about that yet. He and Max had worked together for almost five years now, and he trusted her with his life, but trust is a hard-won commodity and he didn't think Smitty and Pip would share it so easily.
"Good. Great. Fine. More time for me to think up a plan and let you know as soon as I have it."
They drove in silence for the better part of two hours before Max finally asked "Are you sure you know where you're going?"
"Yeah. Yes. Of course." Jack peered into the darkness outside the car. The roads through the woods started to look the same about half an hour ago. "Definitely. I mean, the directions were practically in the letter."
"I read that letter. No. They weren't."
"Maybe not explicitly. But if you read between the lines …" Jack trailed off as he took a right turn onto a dirt road. "This feels familiar."
"Is it because it's just like that last dirt road you turned on to?"
"No. No. This is definitely the way to the cabin." Jack started to remember the actual route Smitty drove them on years ago when he first showed them the cabin. He felt sure he was on the right track.
"And you want to go chasing after me and the kidnappers tomorrow."
"That'll be different. We'll have a tracker gizmo. I won't have to try to remember roads from ten years ago in the dark." He made another turn onto a private driveway.
"If everything goes well." Max crossed her arms over her chest.
"And if things don't go well Henry and I won't be far behind you. You'll be fine, Max. Just remember. Run, hide, fight, in that order. You'll be fine." Jack stopped the car in front of a cabin that looked a little run down, but still serviceable. With a little elbow grease it could be ship shape in no time. "And we're here. Looks like we got here before Smitty."
"Should we go in?" Max go out of the car at the same time Jack did. She opened the back door of the car to retrieve her overnight bag.
"If it's open. I sure hope it's open …" Jack approached the door. The boards on the porch creaked under his weight, an ominous groaning. He tried the knob and found it unlocked, so he opened the door and let himself in, calling out in case Smitty was there already. "Hello? Smitty? It's Jack. I brought a friend of mine …"
The darkness didn't respond. Max fumbled at the wall near the door until she hit a light switch and filled the interior with light, revealing a simple one room cabin. She was pleased to note the attached bathroom and modern plumbing fixtures. At least they'd have running water and a modest kitchen. "Should we just make ourselves at home?"
"For now, yeah. Might as well settle in." Jack set his bag down by the door and walked to the pantry. "Not fully stocked, but not empty either. Chili for dinner?"
"Sure. Why not. At least I'll be kidnapped tomorrow on a full stomach." Max found a comfy looking char and fell into it while Jack cooked.
Jack was looking for bowls and spoons for the chili when he and Max heard a creak at the front door: the porch groaning under another weight. Max stayed still in her chair. Jack froze with his hand on the cupboard door as the front door opened.
A woman stood in the open doorway, a duffel bag on her back. "Jack?" She stepped in and dropped her bag next to Jack's.
"Pip! It's so good to see you!" Jack forgot about the chili and the bowls and rushed forward to embrace his friend. "Smitty didn't say you'd be coming too. How the hell have you been?" He stepped back and let her move into the room to close the door.
"It's great to see you too!" Pip beamed at Jack, returning his hug. "I've been … alright. Between jobs, and homes, at the moment. I hear you're a PI now in the big city? And I bet you got a letter too?" She reached in to her jacket's inside pocket and pulled out a letter that looked similar to Jack's.
"Yeah. Detective work isn't nearly as glamorous as the movies make it seem, but it pays the bills. Mostly." Jack reached for his letter, then remembered he left it in his bag, which was now at Pip's feet. "Yeah. My letter's in my bag." He gestured toward the floor.
"We can compare notes later. Who's this?" Pip nodded toward Max, still curled up in her chair, just watching.
"Oh! Where are my manners? Maxine Nix, this is Phillipa Hoffbauer."
"Just 'Pip' is fine. And may I say it is a pleasure to meet you." Pip crossed the floor to stand before Max, offering her hand to shake.
"It's nice to meet you too …" Max responded warily, shaking her hand. "Jack's told me … actually nothing about you."
"Doesn't talk about his old war buddies much?" Pip glanced at Jack with a withering stare. Jack grinned and went back to the kitchen area. "Can't say I really blame him. I wouldn't want to dwell on the past if I could spend the future with someone as lovely as you." Pip still held Max's hand gently.
"Wait … back up." Max drew her hand back. Pip stepped backward. "There's … a couple of things to unpack there." Jack chuckled quietly. Pip watched Max with a smile on her face. "First, did you think Jack and I are together? Because we're not. I'm pretty sure if we tried dating one of us would be in jail for the murder of the other within a week. We only work together at the office because office space downtown ain't cheap, and we work well together, somehow."
"Alright." Pip sat on the couch near Max's chair, her smile widening.
"Second … forgive me for being blunt but there's no point dancing around it. Are you hitting on me?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"I'm flattered but I'm afraid I can't reciprocate…"
"Ah, of course. Such is life, eh Jack?"
"At least you've still got your poker career, right?"
"Sometimes! Whatcha cookin up over there?"
Max sat still, amazed at how easily this woman could bounce from being romantically rejected to asking about food with no more than the briefest lament.
"Chili, if I can find any bowls. Or at least spoons …"
Pip jumped up from the couch to help Jack look for the flatware and dishes. "Did you check under the sink?"
"Why would I ..?" Jack stopped mid thought as he opened the cupboard under the sink to reveal dishes wrapped in news paper. "Huh … Alright then. Soups on, I guess."