Actions

Work Header

Missing Persons

Work Text:

“Expecting a call, Nick?” Tracy set her coffee on her desk and dropped into her chair. Her partner had beaten her in to work after the early winter sunset; now, he stared unblinking at his glowing voicemail indicator, brow furrowed. “Or avoiding one?”

Nick’s smile wiped a decade from an already-handsome face. Grinning, Toronto’s top homicide detective looked like one of Tracy’s younger cousins with cookies stuffed in his pockets. “If I never get the final ballistics data on the weapon Rita Scott used to murder R.H. Lo, I never have to finish the report, right?”

“Nice try.” Tracy switched on their computer and sipped her coffee while she waited for the machine to boot. Their computer, on her desk. The city budget allotted one PC to every two detectives. Two phones, two inboxes, two reading lamps — two typewriters, even — but one desktop computer, and never on Nick’s desktop. Tracy wondered what Nick’s previous partner, the late Don Schanke, had thought of that. “You’re going to start pulling your weight with our paperwork, Nicholas B. Knight, or a little birdie might start wondering whether that tanker you drive meets the fuel reimbursement regs.”

“Trunk space. It’s about trunk space.” Nick picked up his phone and punched in his badge number to retrieve his voicemail.

Tracy did the same. As she jotted notes from day-shift messages, she reflected on the continuing puzzle of her partner. He was both charming and aloof, idealistic and skeptical, deeply informed about weird things, like exorcisms and sociopaths, and startlingly ignorant of normal things, like popular singers and TV shows. His severe allergy to sunlight verged on a disability without hampering his police career. And while Nick’s mostly black wardrobe had at first struck her as mourning — he’d lost his previous partner and captain in the plane bombing massacre her first night on the job last autumn — she’d eventually decided that Nick just wasn’t a colorful guy.

Then she’d lost Vachon. Black looked like mourning again. Grief had no expiration date.

Javier Vachon. Spaniard. Vampire! Slacker. Guitarist. Biker. Informant. Friend. The man with whom she’d been falling in love . . .

At least Nick knew for sure that Don Schanke and Amanda Cohen were dead and buried. Tracy wondered every day whether Vachon had walked into the sun like his vampire master, as he’d implied he would when he’d sent her away, or whether he’d succumbed to that horrific infection alone in his bed, or whether he could have somehow, some way, fled to some unimagined salvation. What happened when a vampire died? Tracy had found nothing except Vachon’s few possessions when she’d returned the next night.

No body. No ashes. No hope, either.

Work had been her refuge at first. Tracy had poured herself into every arrest report, weapons-discharge form, requisition blank, brief sheet and case summary. But as she’d pulled herself together, she’d realized that giving Nick any leeway on paperwork meant losing a landslide. He’d once taken a bullet to the skull for her, sure, but fill in an ammo audit? Hah!

“Knight. Vetter.” Captain Joe Reese opened his office door. “You’ve caught a mighty cold one. Better get in here.”

Tracy and Nick raised their eyebrows at each other, confirming shared cluelessness before following Reese into his office. Nick closed the door behind them. Tracy rested both hands on the back of a chair and Nick stood beside her.

Reese settled himself behind his desk and tented his fingers, looking up at the two detectives. “I just got off the phone with the captain at the Twenty-Seventh. One of their missing persons cases has landed on your plate. A Kevin Li from Scarborough; started his first year at York University this past fall. A messenger’s bringing over the files now. Their people can brief you tomorrow. They’re day-shift, so check your calendars.”

“Where was the body found?” Nick asked.

“Well, now, there’s the rub,” Reese sighed heavily. Tracy thought that Reese’s brown suit and red tie would fit right in at one of her father’s press conferences, but not the captain’s stoic gaze. A career-long climb up through the ranks had worn Reese into cynical pragmatism without wholly quenching his faith in their mission to serve and protect. “There’s no body . . . yet. Also no body-equivalent in fluids or parts, no witnesses, no evidence of death.”

Tracy began, “We’re glad to pitch in and help, but the Missing Persons squad—”

“You’re guessing right that this is a favor, Vetter,” Reese interrupted gently, “but it’s not for the Twenty-Seventh.”

“Oh.” Tracy bit her lip. She’d thought that she and her father had reached an understanding after the Computer Ops debacle. Apparently not.

Reese nodded. “Commissioner Vetter strongly suggests that this case be reinvestigated as a homicide. Without a body.” Reese spread his hands. “You’ll just have to do what you can. Give Dr. Lambert’s team at the Coroner’s Office a break. Maybe it’ll be good for the both of you, coming at things from the other end for a change. Get the juices flowing.”

Tracy looked at Nick. Poker-faced, he’d slid his hands into his pockets. She looked at the closed door and then back to the captain. She licked her lips. What was her father up to this time? “I don’t remember any high-profile unsolved disappearances in the past year.”

“Anne-Marie Li — the mother of the putative vic — thinks Metro PD has dropped the ball. She’s threatening a lawsuit and media tell-all blitz. Eventually, she’ll find herself a reporter delighted to overplay her point that if her son had been a little younger, he would have still been a minor when he disappeared, kicking in all the heightened scrutiny for a missing child. And I guess she’s not wrong that if her son had been a pretty blonde girl — no offense — rather than a, what do you call it, goth Chinese boy, the media would have covered it differently.” Reese sighed again. “I know that neither of you are parents yet, but I’ve got to tell you, this is one of the nightmares.”

“With all due sympathy for the mother, it’s no crime for an adult to up and leave.” Nick pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms. “Even a very young adult. What qualifies this absence for ongoing investigation? Foul play? Physical or mental illness? Gangs, drugs, guns, money?”

Reese shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “Sheer persistence by Ms. Li — who is on her way here right now, I’m sorry to say. You’re going to have to let her tell her side tonight and then go back and interview her again for real once you’re up to speed.”

“If I remember correctly from the Academy,” Tracy said, “less than one percent of all missing adults turn out to be crime victims. This is way off our beat, Cap.”

“Your father promised the Twenty-Seventh that this case would go to Knight. Now, I know that the Commissioner knows that you’re partners and all, but you’ve got to see the bigger picture here.” Reese stood and buttoned his suit jacket. “Knight, you’ve had the best solved rate in Toronto going back to that so-called ‘vampire’ killer in ‘92. You caught both Dollard and ‘Vudu,’ or whatever the RCMP figured out the bomber’s real name was—”

“Smith,” Nick supplied. His eyes were shadowed. “James Stephen Smith.”

Reese inclined his chin. “And you solved the asteroid hoax last year. You duck and weave past the news cameras, and more power to you, but people know your name. That’s an asset here.” Reese tilted back his head to pin Nick’s eyes. “Just soothe Ms. Li down from this lawsuit and media thing. Finding her son would be icing, but if the press asks: did we put our best people on it?” He looked at Tracy. “Yeah, we did.”

The Homicide and Missing Persons squads had been on good terms since before she got her shield. Tracy hoped that they still would be on the other side of this case.

* * *

Tracy pulled her black blazer on over her violet sweater. She’d swung by the locker room after the messenger had delivered the Kevin Li case files and she and Nick had divvied them up for an initial speed-read before Anne-Marie Li arrived. Blazers projected authority, Tracy had once read in a magazine, and she thought that she might need an edge with this notoriously persistent mother of a missing man not all that much younger than she was.

Besides, the precinct had been freezing ever since the construction crew had moved on to the heaters from the plumbing. “Fresh Paint” signs had plastered the Ninety-Sixth the night that Tracy had arrived. The facilities division had rolled from one project to the next ever since.

Satisfied with her clothes, Tracy grabbed her hairbrush for a quick swipe through her straight blonde bob. But when she raised her arm, she suddenly saw a figure reflected behind her in the mirror: a man — a vampire — with huge brown eyes and long brown hair damp from the shower . . . She whirled, but of course it was only a memory. Of course there was no one there.

Of course.

After a moment, Tracy gasped for air. She’d apparently forgotten to breathe.

* * *

Tracy craned her neck to look over her shoulder, following Nick’s gaze to the front desk. Her partner’s head had whipped up from their paperwork as if he’d smelled smoke.

“Myra,” Nick breathed. He was off and across the room as fast as Tracy could stand up from their keyboard and turn around.

Across the intake counter, Tracy saw Officer Carol Lewis, one of her fellow coffee devotees among the night-shift regulars, chatting with a tall, angular, Asian woman in a red wool coat and a shorter, rounder, white woman in a faux-fur parka, whom Nick soon enfolded in a hug. Walking over, Tracy heard “Detective Nick Knight” introduced to Anne-Marie Li, their new vic’s mother.

That was when Myra Schanke’s identity clicked for Tracy. Her partner’s late partner’s widow. Tracy’s steps slowed.

“Carol, can you find us an available interview room?” Nick asked the uniformed officer. “Myra, Ms. Li, this is my partner, Detective Tracy Vetter.”

“We met at my husband’s funeral,” Myra said before Tracy could. She took Tracy’s extended hand between both of hers. “It was good of you to come.”

“We’re all so very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Schanke.” Tracy felt like an imposter, but Myra patted her hand before letting it go. Tracy then found herself eye to eye and hand to hand with Anne-Marie Li, whose age she couldn't guess but whose grip could probably bend steel, Tracy thought. “And yours — I mean, your son’s disappearance — Ms. Li, though I have to tell you that we’ve only just now been assigned to his case.”

“I know.” Anne-Marie grimaced. “Everyone keeps telling me that I’m pushing too hard, but to me it seems that when I’m not pushing, nothing’s moving. Myra tells me that Missing Persons has done everything it can, so I say, fine, I believe you, what’s next? Homicide? Okay, here we go again.”

“How do you two know each other?” Nick asked.

“We attend the same parish, and . . .” Myra looked at Anne-Marie.

“And the same bereavement support group. It’s not that there aren’t networks specifically for families of missing people, but there are really very few of us by comparison. Not much literature, either. I feel like I’m making this up as I go. They say that the grief process — the coping process, really — freezes until you know for sure what happened to your loved one. That’s where all this talk about so-called ‘closure’ comes from. Well, I simply refuse to stall out, Detectives. I defy uncertainty.”

Carol said, “Interview Room 3 is free now.”

Tracy and Nick exchanged a look.

“Right this way, Ms. Li,” Tracy gestured down the right side of the squad room.

“Let me show you our new breakroom, Myra.” Nick pointed down the left side, beyond Captain Reese’s office. “The Ninety-Sixth has had a lot of construction this year . . .”

By the time Nick rejoined them, Tracy had gotten Anne-Marie a cup of coffee and exchanged pleasantries, and Anne-Marie had set aside her coat, revealing a well-worn, high-end, navy sweater set and slacks.

With Tracy seated across from her, Nick standing at the end of the table and no one behind the two-way glass, Anne-Marie covered the case background with practiced efficiency. Nineteen-year-old Kevin was an only child. Despite suffering a rare form of dyslexia, he was a steady “B” student and a musician — jazz at school, punk with his friends. She and his father, Carson Li, had divorced when he was ten. Carson, an investment banker and dual Hong Kong-Canadian citizen, had returned to Hong Kong then, subsequently sending money per the child-support settlement, but rarely letters or phone calls, and never visits. Anne-Marie, a high-school math teacher and Toronto native, had raised Kevin on her own ever since. Kevin had no girlfriend, and no, no boyfriend, either, Anne-Marie said, reciting as if from memory, and she’d never seen a hint of drugs, gangs, cults, suicide threats or anything else that the Missing Persons detectives had suggested.

“Tell us about the disappearance,” Tracy prompted.

“Kevin lived on campus. His roommate assumed that he’d gone home for the weekend. When Kevin didn’t return on Monday, his roommate told someone who told someone who called me, and I called the police. In a few hours, your people found his car in a movie theater parking lot with a dead battery. In five months, you haven’t found him.”

“What about his wallet?” Nick asked. “Driver’s license, credit card?”

Anne-Marie shook her head. “Never turned up. No reported use from that day to this.”

“Passport?”

“In his desk.”

“Forgive me, Ms. Li,” Tracy asked gently, “but what makes you think Kevin didn’t run away? If we can call it that with a legal adult.”

Anne-Marie pressed her lips together. “It’s funny, but people take me almost seriously when I point out that there was a new episode of his favorite TV show that Friday night and he set his VCR for it, but he never watched it. He’d watched that show without fail every week for two years. No one believes that I just know that he would never scare me this way. And even Myra thinks that I’ve cracked under the strain when I say that I can feel it, Detectives.”

“Feel what?”

“I feel in my heart that my son is dead. You’re looking for a corpse.”

* * *

Tracy sat on her bed in her white cotton pajamas and tried to figure out how to hold Vachon’s guitar. She wasn’t trying to play it, but only to put her hands where she remembered his. He had touched this here, and that there, and she had watched his strong fingers forge music as she’d listened, perched on the staircase looking down into what had been the church basement. Stroking the smooth wood and tight wire now felt like trying to reach him through a pane of glass, through time, through the difference between life and death.

Her apartment was silent except for the radiator’s rattle.

This helpless uncertainty of no body, no ashes, no grave, was an illusion, Tracy told herself. She’d never touch Vachon again and she had to accept that. He’d never touch her again. They’d never have a chance to . . . Their last kiss, as he’d ordered her away from his deathbed, really had been their last. By then, he’d no longer been starving or delirious, but the raging fever had still been breaking him apart inside, consuming him, convincing him that he wouldn’t make another night. Vachon had known that it was their final goodbye. Tracy hadn’t. Despite his condition and his talk of rejoining the sun, despite what she’d said about dying young, she really just hadn’t known that was the end. Their end. His end.

She wrapped her arms around the guitar, rested her forehead against its neck, and cried.

* * *

Tracy honked her car’s horn one more time. The last rays of the sharp winter sunset were probably beautiful, but she was missing them in the shadow of the disused warehouse containing Nick’s loft. Here, it was dark and cold, because she couldn’t bring herself to idle the engine when she knew how wasteful and polluting that was. Her alarm clock had wrenched her from a sweet dream in which Vachon hadn’t caught Screed’s fever in the first place. And she hadn’t had her coffee yet. Mike Bollinger and Bruce Freeman, the Missing Persons detectives who’d originally caught the Li case, were on day-shift. With them staying a little late and Tracy and Nick heading in a little early, it would all work out evenly if Nick got a move on. Tracy leaned into the horn.

She jumped when a figure loomed at the passenger-side window. It was Nick . . . she thought. In a ski mask under sunglasses, a Russian ear hat and a muffler, on top of his normal black, wool, winter coat and leather gloves. Laughing, Tracy unlocked the door and started the car. “I was all ready to say that this was the first time that I’ve ever seen you in the daylight, but I don’t think I’ve actually seen you yet.” ‘Solar urticaria’ was what Natalie had called Nick’s allergy to sunlight, Tracy remembered, but Nick couldn’t have wrapped up more diligently if he’d been a vampire like Vachon. She suddenly wondered how they would manage in the long days next summer. Detective wasn’t a work-from-home occupation. “Is that really you under there?”

“Want to see my badge?” Nick fastened his seatbelt and hunched down. “Drive. Please?”

“I thought that you were going to navigate.” Tracy pulled out onto the street. “Didn’t you use to work at the Twenty-Seventh?”

“Turn left up here. Yes, that was my precinct from when I came to Toronto until Captain Stonetree retired.”

“Is that when they reorganized Homicide?”

“Yeah.”

“So you’ve actually had three captains in three years. That’s not easy — completely aside from what Vudu did, I mean.”

“Smith,” Nick corrected her softly. “No voodoo, no black magic, just a guy with an agenda, an ego and no conscience.” Tracy didn’t know why Nick insisted on bringing the bomber into the normal world by naming him; she was just as happy to file him away under his alias as another impossible monster — and she’d been the one held hostage. Nick was silent for long moments. “So where were you five years ago, Trace?”

“In my first uniform.” She had been so proud. Her father had been proud, if not quite proud enough to set down his phone. Her mother had been . . . three sheets to the wind. Ah, family. “Fresh out of the Academy. You think I’m green now—”

“I don’t think that.” Nick might have turned to look at her, but it was hard to tell through his mummy wrappings, and she kept her eyes on the road. “Don’t let your family, or me, or the captain, or anyone else play with your head, Tracy. That power is in the hands in which you place it.”

Tracy never knew what to say when Nick went all Professor Jedi Master on her. Luckily, it didn’t happen often.

She took her car out of gear as they rolled to a stop in front of a yellow light turning red. Across the intersection, a motorcycle that looked a lot like Vachon’s also waited for the light. Tracy wondered idly whether it were actually was his. It could be. She’d left it parked at the church that last time that she’d gone back looking for him. She’d taken his guitar, yes, but she’d left the rest of his scant possessions as a kind of funeral sacrifice on the city’s pyre, or in denial that he wouldn’t somehow return, or maybe just from wholesale emotional exhaustion. She didn’t need to know which.

In the moment just before the red lights between them would go green, Tracy saw the motorcycle’s rider move his arm — clutch, shifter, throttle — and then his leg, adjusting his balance, and she was transfixed with the impression that it wasn’t just Vachon’s bike. It was Vachon himself up on it, completely covered by the leathers and the helmet’s tinted mask. Height. Stance. Gesture. As the motorcycle gained momentum, Tracy turned her head to watch it go by.

Honk! The car behind her laid into its horn. Blushing, Tracy engaged her gears and stepped on the gas.

“What was that?” Nick asked.

“Nothing.” Tracy was shocked to discover that she’d been holding her breath again. Is this what happened to Nick when he zoned out behind the wheel? Memory overtaking reality? She wished that she could talk to him about this. She wished that she could talk to anyone. But if she left out the vampire aspect, her relationship with Vachon would sound . . . even crazier than it had actually been. “I was just daydreaming at the traffic light. You must be a bad influence.”

Nick chuckled. Then he reached out a gloved hand and turned on her radio. She appreciated that he didn’t try to change the station to that creepy deejay he always tuned in on his Caddy’s dial. She wondered suddenly whether the Caddy’s radio were broken, like its heater, and CERK was the only station it got. Nick must really like that trunk space, to put up with so much for it.

When they reached the Twenty-Seventh, Tracy found parking easily available in the convenient front lot, instead of crowded around back of an annex, like at the Ninety-Sixth. The building was much younger than the Ninety-Sixth’s, too, glass, steel and brick instead of quarried stone, but it evidently hadn’t snagged the renovation and maintenance funding that the Ninety-Sixth had. Captain Cohen’s final victory for her precinct, perhaps.

Once Nick peeled off his sunglasses, ski mask and ear hat, almost everyone they passed had a word for him, and he replied to every one of them by name. It seemed to Tracy that even the lightest comments about weather or sports balanced on memories of the absent Don Schanke. While the glances at her at Nick’s side were merely curious, she couldn’t shake the sensation of intruding on this previous life that Nick had lived, of crowding Detective Schanke’s ghost at every step. She felt relieved when the door of the briefing room closed on them and their counterparts from the Missing Persons squad.

Both Bollinger and Freeman wore unremarkable dark suits that didn’t quite fit. The shorter, baby-faced Mike Bollinger paired his with an ordinary red power tie and white dress shirt; the taller, shaggier Bruce Freeman sported pastels that made Tracy wonder whether he’d noticed the ‘80s ending. While Bollinger reminisced with Nick about a case involving lingerie models, Tracy watched Freeman wheel over a handtruck squeaking under the weight of full filing boxes.

“We got your papers by messenger last night . . . ?” Tracy let the statement become a question.

“Those were the reports.” Freeman crossed his arms. “Forty-eight hours, seven days, thirty days, ninety days: the whole drill. These’re the raw notes. They’ll fit in Knight’s trunk.”

Tracy rolled her eyes at her grinning partner.

“As you know,” Bollinger turned to Tracy, “all information on non-endangered missing adults is supposed to be obtained through official channels. Not violating people’s privacy means letterhead, approvals, escalations, and just generally a lot of hours on the phone.”

“We appreciate that.”

“Do you?” Freeman turned a chair backwards, straddled it and crossed his arms over its back. “A decade ago, only about 69% of missing persons cases were ever solved in Canada or the states. Today, it’s 93% and climbing. Computer databases and DNA tests are great, sure, but what’s made the difference is the cops on the job. Spotlighting patterns. Tracking trends. Cooperating across jurisdictions. But no matter what you do, most missing adults still just turn up on their own when they’re darn well good and ready!”

“We know that Homicide didn’t ask for this.” Bollinger gripped his partner’s shoulder briefly. “We trust that you know why it’s . . . discouraging . . . to have to turn over a case to you without a body.”

“This is no reflection on Missing Persons. It’s politics.” Nick twisted the final word with a distaste that Tracy hadn’t previously heard from him, even about murders.

Freeman narrowed his eyes at Tracy.

Five would get ten that he was blaming her for her father’s sins. She sat next to him to play her own politics as best she could. “So I saw in your reports that Kevin Li was a chronic runaway throughout his adolescence. Anne-Marie didn’t mention that.”

“Probably trying to super-glue the good-mother angle to your first impression.” Freeman sighed and straightened in his chair. “Which isn’t to say she’s not a good mother. She’s lived for that kid. He’s her world. It’s just that Anne-Marie Li thinks we left some stone unturned because of the history. The boy who cried wolf gets eaten in the end, you know? She thinks that we’d been itching to stop taking his disappearances seriously as soon as he wasn’t a minor anymore. Lemme tell you how seriously we took it!” Freeman smacked the file boxes. “Kids get into fights with their parents and they take off. It’s the way of the world. And Kevin Li had been doing it ever since his father split on them. He and his mother yell; he runs; he comes back.”

“But not this time,” Nick said.

Bollinger nodded. “Not only didn’t he come back this time, we were unable to establish a triggering event. If he fought with his mother, roommate, professors, therapist, bandmates — whoever, we couldn’t uncover it.”

Tracy latched onto a word. “Therapist?”

“An academic intervention for his dyslexia.” Bollinger shook his head. “Another dead end in the investigation.”

“Hey, did you know that the swapped-letters words-backwards thing is actually really rare?” Freeman asked. “I thought that was all that dyslexia was, until we caught this case.”

“And that’s the kind Kevin Li has?” Tracy asked.

“Yeah. Didn’t slow him down any, though his mother tried to make out it counted for classifying him as endangered.”

“Let’s get back to that classification,” Nick said. “Adult disappearances with no suspicion of foul play, mental or physical illness, suicide threats or suspicion of drowning are ‘non-endangered.’ What does that mean for how we investigate?”

“The right to walk away?” Bollinger sighed. “What it means, Knight, is an exquisitely uncomfortable junction between family emotions and police experience.” He lifted some manila folders out of the top box and set them on the conference table. “Here’s where we started this all, five months ago.”

* * *

Tracy winced as she opened her refrigerator. It looked like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard and smelled like week-old chicken. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been living off fast food since she’d plunged into the Li case. From the moment that she and Nick had hauled back those file boxes from the Twenty-Seventh, she’d been working half again as many hours as she reported, digging through the hundreds of phone notes, letter copies and interview transcripts that Bollinger and Freeman had accumulated, seeking a connection the other detectives had somehow overlooked.

With The New Jerry Show playing unattended in her living room, Tracy made herself a tuna and jam sandwich, what her grandmother had called ‘jellyfish’ when all the Vetter cousins had swarmed her kitchen on holidays.

Tracy took a mental inventory. She obviously hadn’t been to the grocery store in too long, and she was running short on clean laundry, too. Exercise was a joke. Sleep was scarce. Captain Reese would be appalled, she knew. This case wasn’t worth it by Homicide standards. Not even counting whatever public relations ramifications her father had calculated.

But when Tracy did sleep these days, she’d begun to dream more of a vanished college student whom she might yet be able to save than of the infection-wracked vampire abandoned on his deathbed. Why hadn’t she insisted on holding Vachon’s hand to the end, whatever came, whatever he said? Had she been honoring his wishes or fleeing her fears?

Tracy munched her sandwich and warned her subconscious that bringing back one man would have no effect on the other. This wasn’t a deal that she could strike with the universe. The universe didn’t make deals.

And even vampires didn’t live forever.

* * *

“We’re ordering pizza from down the street,” Carol told Tracy and Nick at their desks, pencil poised over a notepad. “Want in?”

“Not tonight, Carol.” Nick smiled up at her.

“Yeah, not tonight, not any night; I know. I remember when you and Schanke were new here and Schanke explained about your macrobiotic diet for your skin condition. I thought that he wanted your share of the donuts! But he was actually just trying to make sure that no one would ride you about it.”

“I didn’t know that.” Nick blinked. “Thank you.”

“How about you, Tracy?” Carol asked. “We’ve got enough interested parties for a veggie-lover’s!”

“Sure—” Tracy started to reach for the drawer in which she kept her purse, but then pushed herself away from her desk and its multiplying stacks of manila folders. “Wait. No, actually.” Tracy hadn’t taken as much as a bathroom break since she’d arrived this evening. She’d thought that she’d seen Vachon again on her way in to work, this time at a gas station; the motorcyclist, whoever it was, had been just donning his helmet over long, wavy, brown hair as she pulled up to the pump. She was losing it. “Sorry, Carol!” Tracy tried for a bright smile. “I’m going stir-crazy. One more meal at my desk might just push me over the edge.”

Carol raised her hands in surrender and moved on to Captain Reese’s office.

Tracy stood and crossed her arms. What she wouldn’t give for a body! Not to mention a TOD in hours rather than months. “I don’t know how they do it, Nick.”

“Who?”

“Cold case investigators! This is a nightmare. It’s like some sort of virtual reality — only not even as real as that prototype game that you lost after the R.H. Lo case.” Tracy began pacing a tight little line behind her desk. “Kevin’s dorm room basically no longer exists. Sure, Bollinger and Freeman documented it, but the roommate went on living in it, and the university even assigned another student to it as soon as the term ended. Kevin’s car runs just fine now, though it was dead in the parking lot when they found it. Yeah, we have the mechanic’s records of the jump-start and repairs, but it’s not the same. And then there’s his mom’s place!” Tracy threw up her hands. “Nothing exists anymore except inside the paperwork.”

“And the crime — if there was a crime — happened out here.”

“That’s another thing!” Tracy sat on her desk and leaned toward Nick, lowering her voice. “It’s sheer good luck that we haven’t had a new homicide come along. As long as there’s no active killer out there, fine, let’s play along with my father’s public relations strategy. But when one appears? And, anyway, if we have to work cold cases, there are unidentified bodies and unsolved murders as old as this city. We could be doing our actual job.”

“We don’t know for sure that Kevin Li isn’t our actual job.”

“I know. I know.” Tracy spun off her desk and into her chair, sinking her chin into her hands. “What if we find him, and he’s just happy to be someone else somewhere far away from his mom, in Vancouver or Los Angeles or Hong Kong?”

“Then we tell her that he’s alive and nothing more. If she persists past that, it becomes stalking.” Nick closed the manila folder in front of him and pushed back from his desk. “You’re right, Trace. We’re seeing this case too much through its paperwork. So all the scenes are hopelessly contaminated. So what? Let’s retrace his steps again. Let’s let him bring us to our answer.”

Tracy dropped her hands. She felt lighter.

But then Nick grimaced: “You might want to snag some of that pizza first, though. I promised Natalie that I’d come by her lab on my meal break and try something that she’s concocted . . . for my skin condition.”

“Like a lotion?”

“That would be a nice change. No, she usually puts it in a tea or protein shake. She had me on vitamin pills for a while, but I’m afraid that I kept, uh, forgetting to take them. The garlic capsules were the worst.” He shuddered.

“Weird.” Tracy leaned back in her chair and spread her arms. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, actually, ever since you vacuum-packed yourself just to ride to the Twenty-Seventh. We were already pretty far into autumn when Reese assigned us as partners. If it’s not too rude to ask, how do you manage long summer days?”

“Carefully.”

Tracy snorted.

Nick pressed his lips together. “It’s just something that I have to work around, Trace. I’ve been doing it a long time. My medical exemption is in my file; I have a laptop and a modem so that I can do paperwork from home. Schanke—” Nick hesitated. “Schanke and I had an understanding. In the winter, I did more footwork and he did more paperwork. In the summer, we swapped. That may have been part of why I flaked out on you for a while, there.”

This was the most Nick had ever confided in her about his condition. Tracy seized the moment. “Were you always allergic to sunlight?”

“No.” Nick closed his eyes. “No, I remember the sun.”

Tracy had to look away. The longing on his face was simultaneously none of her business and too much of her recent experience. “It’s hard to lose . . . things.”

“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” Nick quoted. He opened his eyes. “Knowing what I’m missing hurts. But who would I be if it didn’t?”

* * *

Tracy hung fresh towels and inhaled the artificial-pine scent of her bathroom with satisfaction. Every surface sparkled. Since getting home at dawn, she’d scrubbed, stocked and laundered within a centimeter of hospital standards. While it was past her bedtime and she’d probably regret it when her alarm buzzed, right now she felt as energized as if she’d just woken from a long sleep.

She returned to the pile of clean laundry on her bed and hummed as she folded. Last night, she and Nick had toured the routes between Kevin’s classes at and hangouts around York University. Tomorrow, they would visit each place that he’d been found when he’d run away as an adolescent, and finally they would examine his car and the parking lot where it had been discovered. She couldn’t wait.

Her mind full of the connection that she and Nick must find for Kevin and Anne-Marie Li, the clue that she had to believe had been there all along without surfacing for Bollinger and Freeman, Tracy finished her chores and got ready for bed without glimpsing a ghost in the mirror, catching her breath at a memory, or even looking at the guitar in the corner before sliding between her sheets.

When she woke in the middle of the day and remembered that Vachon was gone, it took her a long time to get back to sleep.

* * *

“You can park anywhere in here,” Tracy reminded Nick from the Caddy’s passenger seat. “Kevin’s car was found all the way in the back, up against those trees.”

The movie theater was not quite deserted in the small hours of this early weekday morning, but the few remaining cars sat close to the entrance. Tracy supposed that they belonged to the employees sweeping up the last spilled popcorn and mopping up the last spilled drinks; they would be gone soon, too. Had Kevin been here when the lot was empty like this, or during bustling prime time, or at all? She and Nick hadn’t been any more able than Bollinger and Freeman to conclusively place Kevin himself at the theater: just his car. No security camera footage, no credit card use, no witnesses.

Nick took a spot in the very center of the parking lot. Despite the many lampposts, both detectives pulled out their flashlights as they exited the car. Nick asked, “Have a preference?”

“Perimeter.” Tracy headed to where Kevin’s car had been found.

Separately, the detectives matched the strides they took now with meters measured months ago, and compared their own fields of vision to the evidence camera’s line of sight. The big, square lot ended at a fenced ravine boundary opposite the theater building, with a drainage ditch down one side and the road on the other. One pay phone stood outside the theater; Bollinger and Freeman’s records showed that it had been out of order the weekend Kevin had disappeared. A bus shelter perched on a low rise between the parking lot and the street.

Tracy peered through the trees at the steep drop into the ravine and located the break in the fencing that Bollinger and Freeman had tallied to generations of local high-schoolers. Tonight, through winter-bare brush, it wasn’t hard to see the narrow, scrambling, dirt footpath worn into the side and along the bottom. When Kevin had gone missing, colorful leaves would have hidden it. Had Kevin known this path? Toronto’s glacial ravine system was famously extensive, and while the regs didn’t require it for a non-endangered missing adult, Bollinger and Freeman had deployed uniforms and a K-9 unit to the nearby ravines, until their captain had had a word with them about budgets. Then Anne-Marie Li had recruited volunteers. None had ever found a trace.

After poking along around the edges, Tracy swung back and crossed the full length of the parking lot in a straight line toward the theater. At her normal stride, it took about three minutes. Would Kevin have been in a hurry? He almost had to have noticed that his car battery was dead, even if he were unaware of the other problems with his vehicle, but Tracy cautioned herself not to rush ahead of her few facts. Kevin could have left the car here long before the battery ran down, or the car could have been stolen from him elsewhere. Tracy picked up the pay phone. It was working now, as it wouldn’t have been for Kevin then.

What do you do if your car’s dead, you’re unable to fix it yourself, and there’s no phone to use to call for help? Tracy strolled along the curb toward Nick. Would you head to a gas station down the road? Sure, if you happen to know there is one, and it happens to be open. Working the night shift these past months had taught her never to take that for granted. Would you walk home to your dorm? It would be quite a hike. Hitchhike?

“Take a look at this,” Nick said as Tracy approached him at the bus shelter. He shone his flashlight up and down the pole displaying the numbers of the bus lines that picked up there.

Tracy didn’t happen to recognize any of the numbers, but the shelter also offered one of those framed posters with a schedule and map. She swung her flashlight to it. “They investigated all the routes that headed to campus or his mom’s place.”

“I know.” Nick kept staring at the bus route numbers, one on top of the other. He looked like he was seeing something else entirely, or listening to a voice far away. Tracy let him think. She stared back at the parking lot, herself, pondering the branching possibilities of Kevin’s choices. After a while, Nick shook his head and stepped firmly to the map. “Look here.” He trailed his fingers along a red line headed entirely the wrong direction.

“So?”

“So his best bet back to campus would have been the 19, up there.” Nick pointed. “Almost anyone at his university would have known that. But what if Kevin Li took the 91 by mistake?” Nick returned his fingertip to the southward line. “His car’s dead; the phone’s dead; he’s got homework and band practice and he’s missing a new episode of his favorite show. He’s stressed. He can’t concentrate. He looks at the numbers and they . . . flip. Could happen to anyone.”

“Especially someone with his type of dyslexia?” Tracy raised her eyebrows. “Okay, assuming that these routes were the same last fall, what then?”

“Kevin had to have realized that he was on the wrong bus by here,” Nick tapped the map, “and he probably got off at one of the stops in here.” Nick marked a stretch of the route between his hands. “If he headed north toward campus, he could have ended up along the Humber delta. If south, then in the thick of things at the waterfront or downtown. Either way, nowhere near any of the previous searches.”

“And then what?”

“I have no idea,” Nick admitted. “But it’s an unasked question.”

Tracy nodded. Only new questions could break them out of the spiral of old answers. It was time to move forward. “Do you suppose that the Police Commission’s PR budget would spring for a new search?”

* * *

Having slept in well past sunset on her night off, Tracy quickly tossed clothes into her gym bag. She was going to take care of herself for a change. After a workout and shower, she was meeting her favorite cousin at a restaurant. They’d catch up on Uncle Sonny’s medical care, the puppy that Tracy had given her cousin’s son for his birthday, how Tracy’s parents were dealing (okay, not dealing) with their divorce, and just generally have a good gossip the way that they used to when Tracy had worked the same hours as the rest of the world.

While she couldn’t mention everything that she’d been through with Vachon, Tracy had thought long and hard and was now pretty sure that she could mention a few things. This cousin wasn’t a detective primed to pry open cover stories. She was a full-time homemaker who loved Tracy, wanted the best for her, and would cry with her if she broke down about the man she’d loved and lost.

It would be normal. Normal, normal, normal.

Tracy slung her gym bag and purse over her shoulder. She felt really good about having tossed out one of the basic assumptions of the Li case the night before; checking the other bus route felt like a turning point. She’d feel even better after some exercise and company. She grabbed her keys, opened her apartment door and stepped out.

That’s when she saw Vachon.

Tracy froze. Another hallucination, she told herself. Another memory gone rogue. She had thought that she was past this. Black leather jacket. Jeans. Unruly brown hair. Faint smile. Just topping the stairs up into her floor’s hallway, arms crossed and leaning against the wall next to her door, as he had several times between when he’d changed her world and when he’d left it.

“Hey, Trace.” The smile widened. “I wondered whether you might have picked up my guitar.”

Tracy put her keys in her pocket. Slowly, she reached out her right hand. He took it. His thumb moved across her palm into her grip and then gently caressed her wrist. He was real. He was here.

Tracy withdrew her hand and slapped Vachon as hard as she could.

* * *

“You’re sure it’s Kevin?” Tracy asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Natalie Lambert confirmed, tapping her fingers on the pile of paperwork that Tracy had just transferred from her own inbox to Nick’s. “Finger tissue is too degraded for prints, but the teeth are a perfect match. No need to run DNA when it’s this clear-cut.”

“So what the heck happened to him?” Captain Reese asked from the opposite side of Nick and Tracy’s desks.

“I’ll leave that to your expertise.” Natalie spread her hands. “Catastrophic blunt-force trauma five months ago, give or take. It’s almost single-plane injury, which would definitely mean just one impact, but not quite. Could have been hit by a car and gone flying into a secondary surface, or fallen from a height and bounced against something on the way down. Probably not a beating, but I can’t rule out a couple of massive hits with something wide and fairly flat.” Natalie cocked her head. “How he ended up stashed in that gully afterward is your beat, not mine.”

“This is usually where we come in,” Nick said. “Is it still our case now that we have the body?”

Reese sighed. “I’ll get on the horn with the Twenty-Seventh and leave a message for Commissioner Vetter to make sure, but, yeah, keep running with it for now. What’re you thinking about notifications?”

Tracy and Nick exchanged a look. Someone had to tell Anne-Marie Li. It didn’t have to be them. It didn’t even have to be the police, for that matter. The Coroner’s Office delivered this kind of news in many situations. Homicide detectives usually notified families of loved ones’ deaths in person only when the detectives hoped that they might gain something by observing the reactions. Tracy couldn’t imagine that there was anything left to learn about this case from the victim’s mother, and nobody liked notifications. Oh, you felt the necessity and importance of the duty, but mostly, Tracy had long thought, you broke a little inside imagining your own family on the receiving end of such a visit someday.

Now, she’d bet that she’d also always wonder whether the identification were really so good that you didn’t need to run DNA, or whether a vampire were involved and playing by very different rules.

“What’s the Missing Persons squad’s SOP on notifications?” Tracy asked at last, suppressing an image of her mom being notified about herself or her dad. “After five months, maybe they could use the closure, if you know what I mean.”

“Bollinger and Freeman may want a shot at this one, Cap,” Nick said. “With everything they did, it’s only fair to let them bring it home.”

“Well, all right,” Reese said. “I’ll offer that to their captain. But if they want you two to ride along, or do it yourselves, or bring them jelly donuts and espresso, you’re there. We can’t afford any more damage to our relationships with other squads over this case. Those extra man-hours paid for by the Commission’s discretionary fund may smell pretty sweet here, but they stink to high heaven from two precincts away. Got it?” Reese returned to his office. Before shutting the door behind him to make the phone calls, he paused to look at each of the three in turn. “Good work, people.”

Nick tented his fingers. He had that abstracted look again, the one that Tracy was learning to recognize as a precursor to either a brilliant insight or a traffic infraction.

“Blunt-force trauma?” Tracy repeated what Natalie had said earlier. “That’s not a pretty end.”

Natalie lifted her eyebrows. “I hate to break it to you, Trace, but after five months, there is no ‘pretty.’”

“Yeah, of course— I was just thinking of Anne-Marie.” Tracy bit her lip. She was also thinking of herself. It was a little startling to find her own life giving her this kind of insight, but she supposed it was the sort of thing that should happen more and more as she grew older and more experienced, like Nick, regardless of supernatural complications, like Vachon. “Anne-Marie told us from the beginning that she believed that her son was dead, but I don’t think that actually makes this any easier. The possibilities are all still open for her right now, you know? Right until that body closes them. For her, no matter what she says, her son might still be alive, might someday graduate from college, have a career, a family . . . That will all end for her tonight. And she’s alone. No one should have to be so alone with that.”

Nick looked up, his gaze sharp.

“Do you think that you might ask Mrs. Schanke to drop in on Anne-Marie tonight?”

“That’s exactly what I’m thinking, actually.” Nick reached for his phone.

* * *

Halfway through her next night off, Tracy strode up to the Raven’s bar. She cut straight through the crowd and her ivory wool coat flapped behind her, open over a light blue blouse and gray slacks. She’d gone off black again; she didn’t care if that made her conspicuous in this place. She also didn’t care how many, if any, of the clubgoers were supernatural . . . besides the one with the black leather jacket, unruly brown hair and huge eyes that had seen so much.

Vampirism didn’t seem quite as big a deal as it used to.

Tracy laid her hand on Vachon’s sleeve and waited.

He’d moved into Screed’s place for a while, Vachon had told her at her apartment the other night. He’d forgotten how fast time moves for mortals. He hadn’t thought.

Now, Vachon released his red-filled wineglass and faced her. He searched her expression; she met his eyes. Vachon hadn’t dwelled on it, but Tracy knew that he’d been dealing with his own grief. Screed had been the fever’s first victim, dying in Vachon’s arms. Had that been why Vachon had sent her away at what they’d thought was the end? He’d refused to accept from her what he’d given to Screed himself. While she’d been mourning him and their budding intimacy, Vachon had been mourning a friendship of centuries, a companionship as profound as any she could imagine. These weeks, so long to her, had been an eyeblink to him.

Still, he just hadn’t thought.

Vachon’s faint smile appeared. That smile sped her pulse, as always, but it no longer slipped inside like coming home. Something had closed.

Vachon took her hand and stepped close. “Am I forgiven?”

“Yeah.” Tracy squeezed his hand. She couldn’t hold it against him that he wasn’t like her. She could be there for him as he hadn’t been there for her. “But I can’t forget, Vachon.”

“I know.” He tipped her chin slightly with the fingers of his other hand, as if positioning for a kiss.

Tracy removed his fingers and put her chin back where she’d had it. She signaled the bartender and ordered a glass of white wine. “So tell me about Screed.”

— end —