[If you have not already done so, you must
read the Introduction
Prologue 001-002 Chap 1 003-005 Chap 2 006 Chap 3 007-008
Chap 4 009-010 Chap 5 011-013 Chap 6 014-017 Chap 7 018-019
Chap 8 020-023 Chap 9 024-027 Chap 10 028-031 Chap 11 032-041
Chap 12 042-048 Chap 13 049-055 Chap 14 056-063 Chap 15 064-074
Revenge Should Have No Bounds (75-84)
Chapter 16: Investigation
Phoebe admitted to herself that she had long been curious about the Mercedes model year 2004 that Ulla drove. According to her check on blue-book values, a chassis like Ulla’s S-500 started at around eighty grand. Not bad for someone whose nominal salary was in the high forties, even if she was single. Somehow Phoebe had gotten it into her head that Sweden was a very egalitarian society and that anyone with more money than some governmentally approved average would have the excess taxed away faster than you could say ‘socialism’.
The suggestion that they take Ulla’s car might give her a chance to probe discreetly. In no way did she suspect the car indicated anything underhanded. She was simply curious about this eager, competent and darkly beautiful Nordic.
Ulla’s Mercedes was parked in the underground police garage, but not near the elevator. Their shoes, fashioned for walking comfort rather than style, made no echoes as they traversed the large garage and headed for a far corner. As they got near, Ulla whipped out her keychain and, pointing it at her car, clicked. There was a sharp beep and the interior lights of the vehicle turned on. Ulla peered into the back seat before opening the door on the driver’s side. “Here we are,” she said.
Ulla seemed very much at home in the driver’s seat of her Mercedes, and she handled the car smoothly in the rush-hour traffic.
“There’s a nice little Italian restaurant in the business district in Blaylock. Want to try it?”
“Sure,” Ulla said. “Just let me know when we get close.”
“Will do.” Phoebe looked around her at the interior luxury of the car. Ulla had a CD-player with what must have been quite expensive speakers, and she was playing some show tunes.”
“Nice sound,” Phoebe remarked.
“Cole Porter,” Ulla explained.
“Yes. I was thinking more of the acoustics. But yes, Cole Porter sounded great even on old 78s.” She hesitated. “Long before your time,” she laughed.
“But I know of them. My father still has his collection, that he got from my grandfather. Including Cole Porter. Sung by Ethel Merman.”
“Ah, I see you’re knowledgeable in the area.”
“I love American music,” Ulla said. “Always have. All Swedish kids do! It’s how I first started to learn English. But I’m more traditional. I like the stuff from the fifties and forties, and even the thirties. Family influence, I suppose.” She laughed lightly.
It seemed like a good place for Phoebe to jump in.
“What does your father do, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“Not much,” she said warily. “He lives in Spain.”
“Not in Sweden?”
“Very few wealthy Swedes live in Sweden.”
“That’s odd isn’t it?”
“No. Taxes.” A compendious as well as catholic explanation.
“I understand they are very high.”
“Confiscatory.” She nodded her head. “Not my word, but it’s accurate. Some official in the U.S. Treasury department once used it, and it made all the Swedish papers. The conservative ones were gleeful; the lefty press was outraged.”
“So if you don’t live in Sweden you avoid the high taxes?”
“Something like that. Sweden is a nation of tax-cheats. Only fools pay the full freight.” It was as self-evident as breathing to her.
“And your father?” Phoebe thought she’d give it one more try.
“He was in this and that, had important partners in the government. That helped. I never fully understood what it was all about. But he made a lot of money in the nineties and got out early 2000. And right away moved to Spain. Mallorca. He has an estate there.”
“I see,” Phoebe said. Now the Mercedes made sense, non-sinister sense.
She wondered if she should push a bit more.
“Can I ask you another question?”
“Do you and your father get along?”
Ulla did not answer right away. “We have … what do you call it these days … issues.”
“Issues. I don’t like the way he treated my mother when they got divorced. I’m not crazy about the way he treats me. I suppose he loves me, but with him that just seems to mean money.” She concentrated on her driving. “I shouldn’t complain. I’ll never have money worries. And that’s because of him.”
Phoebe sensed there was a big ‘but’ dangling on the end of the last sentence, but she let it slide. Why did so many young women have ‘issues’ with their fathers? Especially successful ones? It was rarely a matter of physical or sexual abuse. Maybe more a matter of clashing intelligences, adversarial wills. She thought vaguely of the young ladies Wang, Hsien, and Cao whose parents they were going to interview. Did they get along with their fathers? If she had lived, would Samuel and Melinda have stayed friends? Unfathomable mysteries.
They drove on in silence, the traffic thinning out as they left the downtown area and approached the broader suburban streets of the Blaylock area. Frank Sinatra was just starting to crank up ‘Let’s Do It’.
After a while Ulla turned briefly to Phoebe and asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“No, of course not.” She had an idea of what was coming.
“I know you’re married to a lawyer. That’s scuttlebutt I picked up early on. But I wonder, do you have any children?”
Phoebe felt a catch in her throat. She turned away from Ulla and looked out at the dark mansion passing by the side window of the car. “I have a son. Noah. He’s twenty-two.”
“What does he do? I mean, I don’t want to pry or anything.”
“No, I understand. Noah is a Down’s child. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes, I do.” Her voice was muted. She turned and put her hand on Phoebe’s arm. “I’m … I’m … I don’t know what to say, Phoebe.”
“It’s O.K., Ulla. I appreciate it.” She put her hand on top of Ulla’s. “He’s a sweet and gentle child, and he’s in a good place where they take care of him. Thank God we can afford it. But,” she sighed, “he’ll never be older than about five.”
They had entered Blaylock’s central business district. Suddenly Phoebe pointed off diagonally to the right. “There,” she said, “there’s the restaurant. See it? The red and green martini glass?”
“Got it,” Phoebe said, slowing down. “Now let me just find a parking place somewhere near here.”
While Ulla skillfully parked the big Mercedes, Phoebe kept asking herself why she had not mentioned Melinda when she’d been asked about her children.
When they emerged from the warmth of the car they both wrapped their coats tightly around themselves. It had gotten quite cold, and a hefty wind was blowing down the street. They hurried into the restaurant, which was cozy and filled with interesting aromas. For early on a Monday evening it was already busy.
“Looks like you picked a good place,” Ulla said to Phoebe as they hung their coats in a public closet off the vestibule.
“Samuel – that’s my husband – and I eat here fairly often. The food is really very good, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
The maître d’ knew Phoebe on sight. “Good evening, Detective,” he said. “Table for two tonight?”
“Thank you, Franklin. That would be good.”
He made a small bow. “This way, please.”
The women were seated at a corner table where they had a good view of the dining area. The restaurant was bright and cheery. The walls contained lots of light wood and the ceiling was a cupola affair that made the place seem a lot larger than it was. The place exuded a pleasant sense of relaxation. It was just what she needed, Ulla was thinking, after the heavy conversation in the car and the unpleasant task that awaited them after dinner. The perfect interlude.
They had anitpasto on ice and roasted peppers for appetizers. Ulla ordered the piccatta chicken, heavy on the capers, and Phoebe had Parmesan eggplant with clam sauce linguine. Crusty bread and real butter. No wine. Both drank club soda and had coffee without dessert. The talk was light and desultory, Phoebe reminiscing about her years on foot patrol when she first got started with the police department, and Ulla chiming in with her similar experiences doing foot patrols in central Stockholm and the increasingly violent subway system. As they headed further up into the residential area of Blaylock they both felt calm and composed, prepared for the first interview with the family of the Hsien woman.
“I know the area reasonably well,” Phoebe was saying, peering intently at the large homes set discreetly back from the street. “I think we’re going to hit a split ‘Y’ around the curve up here at the end of the next block. Take a left on Pine and then the second left again. That should be Sycamore Lane. It’s a cul-de-sac and I suspect number three is off the circular turn-around at the end.
Ulla took the right at the ‘Y’ and soon they were parked at 3 Sycamore Lane. It was a very large house, almost a mansion, and the place was brightly lit up. The driveway leading up to a four-car garage was neatly plowed, and the sidewalk to the front door had been shoveled with almost mathematical precision. Their shoes crunched on the deicing salt liberally sprinkled on the walk.
A young woman who was clearly Oriental answered the door when they rang the bell.
“Good evening,” Phoebe said. “I’m Detective Light,” she continued, showing the woman her badge, “and this is my partner, Detective Sundelius.” Ulla held up her badge, too. “I wonder if Mr. or Mrs. Hsien are available?”
The woman’s eyes grew very big and her hand had flown to her mouth.
“This is about Li Ming, isn’t it?” she said in a whisper.
“It is, yes,” Phoebe said gently. “I’m afraid it is.”
“Please, come in. I’ll get Dr. Hsien immediately.”
The two detectives were ushered into an entryway and shown to a room off to the left that was filled with ornate Chinese furniture and cabinets. Several beautiful scrolls with Chinese characters hung on two walls of the room.
While they were looking at these a voice behind them said, “Yes?”
They turned around. A tall gentleman probably in his early fifties was standing in the doorway, and right behind him stood a woman who was somewhat younger but almost as tall. Phoebe had once read somewhere that Chinese people do not like to touch strangers, so she did not offer to shake hands. Ulla followed suit.
“There is news of Li Ming?” the man said hopefully. He held the woman’s hand.
Phoebe and Ulla could both see the desperation and fear on their faces.
“We are not sure, sir,” Phoebe said. “We are interviewing some families who have reported young women missing.”
“Yes, our Li Ming … we reported her missing last … Monday.” The woman had stepped out from next to the man. Her English, like his, was without accent. They quickly exchanged words in what the detectives took to be Chinese. “No, I’m sorry,” the woman corrected herself, “it was last Tuesday. My husband just reminded me.” She shook her head. “It has been a terrible week.”
Then, as if suddenly realizing they were all standing, she said, “Please, please sit down. May we get you something to drink. Tea?”
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Phoebe answered. “We’ve just eaten.” Ulla silently agreed with a gesture of her head.
They all sat down.
Phoebe opened her small black valise. “If you would be willing, I have a picture that should make it clear if it is your daughter we have found.” Like the maid, the woman’s hand shot to her mouth and she gave a little gasp. The man’s eyes teared up but he said nothing. Phoebe handed the artist’s rendering of the dead woman’s face to Ulla, who was sitting closest to the parents. She handed it to the father.
He took it, gave a quick glance, and showed it to his wife. They both shook their heads. “No,” he said with great sadness, “that is not our Li Ming.” He paused. “I do not know if I should feel relief or not.”
His wife held the rendering in one hand and rubbed the surface lightly with the other. “She is so young,” she said softly. “And so beautiful.” She began to cry. “I hope she will soon be reunited with her parents.”
Ulla and Phoebe glanced at each other but kept quiet.
“I think she is probably … dead,” her husband said. “Otherwise I do not think the detectives would be here with pictures, Mei,” he said to her and put his arm around her shoulder.
“Yes, yes,” she nodded, “I see what you mean.” Her eyes questioned the detectives.
“I’m afraid your husband is right,” Ulla said slowly. “This young woman is … is dead.”
“Oh, how dreadful,” the mother said. “It is unthinkable.” She stared at the picture. “I am ashamed to be happy, for it gives us hope that Li Ming will come back to us.” Shaking her head, she handed the drawing back to her husband, who gave it to Ulla.
Phoebe stuck it back in her black bag. “I’m very sorry that your daughter has not been found yet, Mrs. Hsien,” she said.
“But you are looking?”
Phoebe decided to be honest. “I wish it were that simple, ma’am,” she said, her voice low. “Since the beginning of December we have had forty-eight reports of missing people. We do what we can, and we hope. If there is any news, any news at all, I assure you that the police will let you know immediately.”
Mrs. Hsien acknowledged Phoebe’s words with a sad look. “Yes. It is a strange world we live in, is it not?” She turned to her husband and spoke a few words in Chinese. He looked at his wife wordlessly and gave her shoulder a squeeze.
Ulla and Phoebe got up.
“Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Hsien, Mrs. Hsien. We apologize for intruding. And we extend our heartfelt sympathy for your loss. We hope Li Ming will soon return.”
Mrs. Hsien came forward. “Thank you, detective,” she said. “You are very kind. I am sorry you have such a job, asking parents about dead and missing children. It is a horrible job.”
Taking Phoebe utterly by surprise, Mrs. Hsien came close to her and gave her a hug, resting her head for a brief moment on Phoebe’s shoulder. “I can see in your eyes that you care. That is a good thing. I hope the parents of this poor child are strong.” She patted the valise, and held Phoebe at arms length before disengaging herself. Then she hugged Ulla.
“Yes,” Dr. Hsien agreed, a grave look on his face. “They must be strong.” Then he shook hands with both detectives. “Thank you for coming. We appreciate your work very much.” Then he added, “And your kindness.”
I guess, Phoebe thought, neither one of the Hsiens had read that knowledgeable article she had about Chinese people not touching strangers. Or displaying emotions in public!
Phoebe and Ulla moved in silence down the curving walk to the car by the curb.
Once belted in, Ulla cranked the ignition. “A horrible business. Those poor people.”
“Yes, you’re right. It shouldn’t have to happen.” She sighed deeply.
They drove out Sycamore Lane back to Pine.
“The Wangs live not far from here. On Palm Drive. Number three. Why don’t you go back down to the ‘Y’ and then hang a U and head back up the other street. That should be Fir. I think Palm is two or three street up, off to the right.”
She had a small map-book on her knee and was examining it with the help of a small penlight.
Ulla took the turn and shortly they pulled up in front of a massive house.
“Wow,” said Phoebe as she scanned the vast grounds and the brightness of the building, lit up like a small city. They got out of the car.
“’Wow’ is right,” Ulla breathed. “Makes the Hsien place look like servants’ quarters.”
The perimeter was also strongly lit, providing enough illumination that they could make out the expanses of snow-covered lawn, a long driveway lined with topiary sugared white by winter’s precipitation, and wide beds of flower plantings covered with protective hats. A high fence topped with barbed wire encircled the compound. Rotating cameras had been positioned about every thirty yards or so, and at the main gate an elaborate audio-speaker-video system had been installed in housing designed to keep it safe from bad weather. A large button in the center of an annunciator board was tagged PRESS. Phoebe pressed.
“Yes,” came back a young female voice. “Please state your business.”
A light came on above them and a whirring sound betrayed the movement of a camera turning its lens on them. They both looked up reflexively.
“I’m Detective Light and this is my partner, Detective Sundelius,” Phoebe said pointing to Ulla. The camera whirred.
“Please hold your badges up to the camera above you.”
The women took out their badges and lifted them. They could make out the tubular lens extending itself to focus in on their badges. “Please hold them there a minute. I need to copy down the numbers.”
Phoebe and Ulla looked at each other and shrugged.
After less than a minute the disembodied voice returned. “Thank you. Please wait while I verify your identities.”
They replaced the badges and shuffled their feet to stay warm. The wind was picking up, and it was not getting any warmer as the night wore on.
Suddenly the gate began to slide to the right. “Please drive up to the main entrance and I will meet you there. Thank you.” The speaker went dead.
“Let’s do it,” Phoebe said, clapping her arms around her body and breathing out clouds of condensation backlit by the intense illumination at the gate.
They got back into the warmth of the car and slowly drove through the gate. In the rearview mirror Ulla saw the gate start to slide back to the left as she drove slowly up the winding driveway. It has been thoroughly cleaned and orderly banks of plowed snow lined its sides. The large parking area in front of the house and the five-car garage off to the side had also been cleared of all snow. No cars were visible.
Cinching up, Phoebe and Ulla got out of the car and walked up to a great door with parquetry inlay of an intricate design. Just as Ulla was about to ring the bell, the door opened and spilled out warm shafts of light.
“Come in, please.”
She was an attractive young woman dressed in up-scale teen-style. Her face was friendly and she seemed at ease.
“Sorry about the routine at the gate,” she said. “My parents insist on it.”
“No problem,” Phoebe said, unbuttoning her coat. “It’s a smart thing to do. You can’t be too careful.”
“That’s exactly what my dad says too,” she chimed in. “I called police headquarters and your badge numbers checked out. And the way they described you was close enough to what I saw on the monitors.
“Here,” she went on, “let me take your coats.” After she’d hung them up in a closet the size of Ulla’s living room, she said, “Servants’ night out, I’m afraid.” She started into one of the rooms leading off from the huge foyer. “Let’s go in here. Can I get you anything to drink?”
Ulla and Phoebe both declined politely.
“And now,” their hostess asked, “what is all this about?” Suddenly she shot forward to the edge of the sofa she was sitting on and looked horrified. “Oh, my God,” she gasped, “it isn’t my parents, is it? An accident?”
The two detectives looked at each other in surprise. “No, no, nothing like that,” Phoebe said, rushing to allay the woman’s fear.
“Goodness, that’s a relief.” The tightness went out of her body and her shoulders sank together. A smile flashed across her face. “So, why are you here, then?”
“First, if you don’t mind, Miss, may we ask who you are?”
“Sure. That’s easy. I’m Sheena.”
“Sheena?” Ulla and Phoebe both blurted out at the same time.
“Yes, of course, Sheena. My Chinese name is Xin Qian.”
“And your parents are Mr. and Mrs. Wang?”
“Yes, of course.” She was starting to look a little confused. “Say, what’s going on here?”
Phoebe pulled out a photo of the dead woman and showed it to Sheena. “Do you know this woman.”
Sheena tucked her feet under her thighs and settled into the sofa. She studied the photos long and hard. Slowly she shook her head. “No. No, I’ve never seen her before.,” she said thoughtfully. She turned it over. “A beautiful woman. What’s the story on her?”
Phoebe bowed her head slightly at Ulla.
“We’re conducting a … a murder investigation,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we thought it might have been a photo of you.”
“Me?” Sheena was shocked. “Me murdered? Why? What ever gave you that idea?”
Her eyes were saucers and the black hair cascading down the sides of her head swayed back and forth like seaweed in a fast current.
“Our record show,” Ulla said, flipping open her little notepad and paging through it, “that your father reported you missing on the third of January. A Saturday. Nine days ago.”
“Oh, that!” Her eyes were directed at the elegant carpeting. “That was just a misunderstanding.” A peevish twist of the neck punctuated this explanation.
“Yes, I … I spent a couple nights with a … with a boyfriend … just a few days. I hadn’t seen him for almost a whole week. For Heaven’s sake! But my father absolutely freaked, if you can believe it.” Sheena obviously had a hard time believing it. “I mean, I’m over eighteen, an adult, right? And what I do on my own is my own business. Right?” The wry — maybe proud – smile on her face invited some complicitous gesture of understanding from the two older women.
None was forthcoming.
“Wha-at?” Sheena asked in a petulant huff.
“This is very serious business, Ms. Wang,” Phoebe began.
“Oh, really! Call me Sheena.
“All right, Sheena. The police should have been informed immediately when you turned up no longer missing.”
“Don’t look at me. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even know I was missing.” She was twisting one hand around the other. “You should probably talk to my father about that. I guess he just forgot.”
Her face took on a surly cast.
Then she started to cry. Big, wracking sobs.
Ulla rose and went over to sit next to the girl, and put her hand on a shoulder. “Is something wrong here?” she asked kindly.
Blubbering through the tears, Sheena raised her voice, “Wrong, wrong? Of course there is something wrong here. Why do you think I’m sitting at home on a perfectly good Monday evening. I’m missing all the good parties. School doesn’t start for another week. His house, he says, and I follow his rules. Or else. He grounded me.” Again, the tone brimmed with incredulity. “Grounded me! And I’m nineteen years old. Can you believe that?”
“’He’, that would be your father?” Phoebe interjected.
“Yes.” She yanked a kleenex packet out of a back pocket of her tailored Jordache jeans, angrily ripped out two tissues, and blew her nose loud and hard. As if to say, ‘Who else?’
“Would you excuse us for a minute, please?” Phoebe said.
Sheena waved a hand in dismissal. “Whatever!”
Ulla and Phoebe walked out into the foyer but kept Sheena in sight.
“I think we should …” Phoebe began.
“… make sure this really is Xin Qian Wang,” Ulla finished.
They returned to the comfortable room where they had been interviewing Sheena.
“Are you feeling better?” Ulla asked solicitously. “Are you O.K.”
“I’m fine.” Curt, businesslike.
“Do you mind answering a few questions for us?”
“Ask away.” Bored monotone.
“Well, now it’s our turn to verify your identity. Do you have any proof that you are who you are?”
Sheena’s mouth opened in astonishment.
“You mean you want me to prove I am who I am, and here I am in my own house?”
“You mean your father’s house, don’t you?”
A transitory smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“All right, my father’s house,” she conceded.
“And yes, we would appreciate it if you’d show us some kind of official I.D. Driver’s license, something like that.”
“Will a passport do? I don’t have a license. He won’t let me drive until I’m twenty-one,” she snorted. “Unbe-fucking-lievable!” The rapid twisting movements of her head set the beautiful hair swinging again. “Oops, excuse my Chinese.”
“A valid passport is fine.”
“It’s valid. I spent four days after Christmas skiing in Gstaad.”
“Where?” Phoebe said.
“Gstaad. Gee-ess-tee-double-a-dee. Gstaad.”
“It’s a fancy ski resort in the Swiss Alps,” Ulla volunteered.
“Hey, you got it,” Sheena said happily. “Ever been there?”
“A few times,” Ulla admitted.
“Greatest skiing in the world, right?”
“Pretty much.” Ulla felt uncomfortable in front of Phoebe.
“Well, now that we’ve bonded on that, maybe we can move on to the passport? O.K., Sheena?” Phoebe urged.
“Sure. No prob.” She got up. “It’s upstairs. I’ll get it and be right back.”
Phoebe decided to trust her on this one. “Fine. We’ll just wait here.”
They heard the muffled sound of her steps as she scurried up the carpeted stairway to the floor above.
The detective arched their eyebrows at each other and did a quick scan of the room.
By any standard it was large, and luxuriously appointed. Wall-to-wall carpeting in a light beige. Several sofa and chair sets, a couple of low-riding tables, cupboards, an armoire in dark red wood, a built-in bookshelf covering almost all of one wall. A number of paintings hung on two of the walls; they did not appear to be reproductions. Against the wall opposite the window a Trinitron with a large screen stood next to a stacked array of receivers, amplifiers, and several VCRs.
“Lots of bucks here,” Phoebe observed. “Just in this room.”
“Lots,” Ulla agreed.
“Here it is,” Sheena said, now full of upbeat cheer.
The detectives looked at the passport, comparing the photo with the girl in front of them. The passport was made out to Xi Quian Wang, born 19 April 1984 in La Jolla, California. There were several stamps on the inside pages, including a Swiss exit stamp dated 30 December 2003. Right below it there was an American entry stamp for 31 December 2003. Phoebe flipped through the pages again, and Ulla made a note of the passport number.
“Satisfied?” Sheen asked.
“Satisfied,” Phoebe said.
Ulla handed Sheena her passport. “Thank you.”
Sheena took it and shrugged.
Phoebe made a decision to segue straight into a closer examination of the background here. Was Sheena – and Phoebe was now certain this was Sheena — telling the whole story?
“I get the sense there are …” she cast Ulla a glance, “… issues between you and your father. Is that right?”
Sheena rolled her eyes.
“Issues!” she sniffed. “That’s the understatement of the new year.” She shook her head. “You guys see this huge house, and you look around this room. And you see me living a life of luxury, but it’s really a gilded cage. You have no idea what it’s like!
“My father’s very, very old fashioned. He won’t let me go. He won’t let me grow up. I can’t be myself. Both my parents are from mainland China. I won’t bore you with the details, but my father made it big in America. Really big.” She made a demonstrative sweep with her right arm. “I think he was very torn about letting me go off to the university.
“‘She will forget her roots,’ he says. Portentously. ‘She will become too American.’
“‘But I am American,’ I object.
“‘You are Chinese,’ he trumps me.
“‘I was born here, and besides, I’ve never even been to China,’ I counter.
“‘It is your destiny and you cannot deny your past,’ he corrects.
“‘But this is now, Daddy,’ I insist.
“‘I am your father,’ he trumps me.
“And so it went, on and on and round and round, him and me, locked in this generation dance that never ends and amuses and tires the rest of the family.
“In the end his profound belief in the necessity of education to prepare for the future prevailed over his deep conservatism regarding the past. As Mom pointed out on more than one occasion, it was because he himself foolishly saw himself as not genuinely Chinese enough that he harps endlessly about Chineseness. Fortunately Mom doesn’t have this obsession to always be validating her ethnicity. She’s not trapped in the past the way my father seems to be.
“He thinks I’m too independent, and it’s a difficult thing for him to deal with. It just wasn’t supposed to be like that. I’m too intractable – his word. I should be deferential and respectful to elders. No argument.
“See if you can believe this,” she continues, and her eyes get moist.
“‘Are your grades going to be better next semester?’ he asks me at dinner after I come home for Christmas after my first semester as a freshman.
“‘Better?’ I can’t believe my own ears! ‘How could they be any better than this past term?’
“‘Have you forgotten what you got?’ he asks. He is unhappy.
“‘No, of course not. All A’s,’ I tell him. And I’ll tell you I feel triumphant.
“‘One A minus.’
“‘I can’t believe this,” I say, and I’m about to start crying.
“‘Perhaps if you had not come home so late that Saturday night your last year in high school, you would have received an A in your biology class instead of an A minus.’
“‘In high school?’ I say, and now I am just flabbergasted.
“‘How can one hope to get into medical school at Harvard if one only gets an A minus in biology?’ he asks abstractly
“Mom is pouring some more soup into father’s cup, catching his eye. She moves her head back and forth. Enough. Leave the girl alone. They think I don’t notice.
“My father sighs and makes a lot of noise slurping down the hot beverage.
“‘It was different in my day,’ he says to nobody in particular.
“I feel that familiar coil of guilt throttling my chest. A big boa of guilt. Be myself, be my father’s me? An impossible tension! ‘I know that,’ Daddy, I say politely; I’m trying to mollify him. I know he’s hurt. Can’t he see that I’m hurt too? ‘I promise I will do better this term.’
“He looks at me. ‘A good daughter would not shame her parents, and her grandmother — again.’
Phoebe interrupts. “Are you sure you want to tell me all this?”
Sheena bobs her head up and down furiously. “I’d just like you guys to get some idea of what my life is really like. O.K.”
“Anyway, that appeal to the honor of ancestors always marks that point in our arguments when I know I’ve lost, and I accept defeat. I resign myself to silence. It always comes down to my guilt over his shame at my failure to attain unattainable perfection.”
She sighs, not without a certain practiced theatricality.
“And then what happens?”
“I weather the spring term, study my ass off, and come home in early June. I feel pretty good; I’ve gotten straight A’s in every course. Not a single A minus this time. My father will be proud. I’m actually looking forward to seeing him. I almost want to throw the grades in his face.”
Now the tears start rolling down her cheek.
“‘It is not bad, yes,’ he admits grudgingly.
“‘I thought you would like it,’ I say, and I’m beaming, absolutely beaming! Right? At last he is pleased.
“Well, guess again, if you can believe this one!
“‘But you should have earned at least one A plus,’ he scolds me.
“‘An A plus?’ The air is crushing my chest. I can scarcely get the words out.
“‘Of course. To make up for the A minus in the fall,’ he explains as if I’m somehow too dumb to understand the concept of a simple arithmetic average.
“I know if I talk, I’ll break down crying in front of my father. Or scream. Since I’ve sworn to myself that he will never see me broken by him, I hold my tongue.
“That summer – two years ago — was almost intolerable. My father didn’t want me to work but study and prepare for next fall instead.
“So here comes my sophomore year, right? Fall two-thousand-two. So now I’m busting my ass twice as a hard. I just gotta get and A+ in one of my course. I come home for Christmas, right? And we’re dancing the same old light fantastic with each other.
“‘Yes, it is true that you received an A plus. And that is quite good.’
“Now, I know my father almost better than myself, and all I feel is dread. Why? Because I know as sure as a bear shits in the wood that there’s this huge fucking ‘but’ hanging at the end of the last sentence.
“Are you guys ready for this?
“‘But it’s not quite good enough, is it?’ He reaffirms my faith in my ability to read him.
“‘Oh?’ is all I can safely squeeze out without going to pieces right there in front of him.
“‘How many credits was this course in English where you got the A plus.’
“‘Three.’ And then it suddenly dawns on me how I’ve failed once more, failed my father’s impossible expectations.
“‘And how many credits for the course with the A minus? The biology course?’
‘Four.’ I couldn’t look him in the eye.
“‘So you still do not have a four point, do you?’
“‘No.’ A quick mental calculation tells me of the forty-eight hours of credit I have so far, only one was in effect an A minus. It’s beyond dispute. I admit it.. “‘It must be just about a four point, though, isn’t it?’ I offer, hoping against hope.
“‘I believe not. It is only a …” he inspects the ceiling as he computes in his head, “… a three point nine nine four.’ He examines me, not unkindly. ‘I wonder if that will round up?’ he asks idly of the empty air.
“If I only had more courage! I would just walked the fuck away from him. Or driven back to campus? But where could I live? The dorms are closed till mid-January.
“So I’m trapped here at home for another miserable Christmas. As usual my father’s logic is unassailable.
“‘I can try to make it up in the spring,’ is the best I can do, but it sounds lame even to me. I’m in permanent catch-up mode.
“‘A good daughter would do just so,’ he says with finality, as if the necessary A plus is already an established part of my academic record and further discussion consequently superfluous. ‘I am of course thinking of the Admissions Committee at Harvard Medical School, as any responsible father would.’
“And he turns back to the Wall Street Journal.”
Up go her flailing hands and arms in utter resignation and the tears come coursing down. “I don’t even know why I bother anymore.” She blows her nose. “Now maybe you guys have some hint what my life is all about? I wish I had been the one in that picture. The dead girl.”
A new burst of crying, shoulders moving up and down in concert with big sobs.
Phoebe was shaking her head vigorously and got up from her seat. She went over and stood opposite Sheena. Squeezing her shoulders, she said in a grave voice, “I don’t want you ever to say that again.”
Sheena turned her face up to Phoebe, eyes still wet with tears. She sensed the seriousness in the detective’s voice.
“Never, ever again,” Phoebe underscored. “Do you understand me?”
Sheena nodded her head in agreement, but no words came out.
“I’ve been a homicide detective well over thirty years, and during those thirty odd years I think you can imagine the sorts of things I’ve run across. Not the nicest side of people. But one thing I never have come across was a parent who was happy over the death of a child.” She cupped Sheena’s chin. “Do you understand me?”
Sheena remained mute, but she understood. “It’s just that my father …”
“… and how would your mother like it if you were dead? Or your boyfriend?” Phoebe interrupted her.
Sheena started to bawl again. She shook her head.
“Listen to me, Sheena. Your father is hard on you. It certainly sounds that way. Do you think he does it because he hates you or loves you?”
“Loves me,” she answered meekly.
“I think so, too. He may seem impossible to you, but believe me when I tell you that there are many young women right in this city right now who would give a great deal to have a father, not to mention a father who was as concerned about his daughter and her future as your father is about you. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.”
Sheena appeared to reflect on this. Then she said, timidly, “I know.” She pulled out some more kleenex and blew her nose a couple of times. “I know in my heart that what you say is true. But it is so hard sometimes …”
“No more tears now,” Phoebe said, seeing Sheena’s eyes start to fill up and wishing to avert a new eruption. “Of course it’s hard. But it’s not final. That is what death is.” She motioned to Ulla to hand her the photo of the dead woman. “Look at her again, Sheena. For her it really is final. There is no future here.”
Sheena stared dumbly and ran her fingers lightly across the face. “And so beautiful,” she said to herself. “So beautiful.”
“What do you think her father will feel when he sees this picture?”
Sheena put her face in her hands but she did not cry. “I am very selfish,” she said.
“No, I wouldn’t put it that way,” Phoebe comforted her. “Maybe just a little confused. About yourself and your father, and the relationship the two of you have.”
“It’s not unheard of,” Ulla interjected sardonically.
Finally Sheena gave a tentative smile. “You’ve both been really phat about this whole thing. And you’ve given me some stuff to think about.” She stood. “I’m grateful.” She chuckled softly and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her gray cashmere sweater.
The detectives gathered up their notebooks and photos. Hands were shaken all around and you-take-care-s exchanged with some genuine feeling. “You be sure to tell your parents that we were here. Actually, I should cite your father for not canceling that missing person report, but I guess I can make an exception this once.” She smiled warmly at Sheena. “He was probably so happy to see you again he just forgot all about it. What do you think?”
Sheena bit her lip to stop from smiling. “Maybe,” she said.
Once back in Ulla’s Mercedes, Phoebe pulled out her cell phone and called Missing Persons. She identified herself and gave her badge number to the person on the other end of the line. “I’m canceling an MP on one Xin Qian Wang. That’s ex-eye-en stop que-eye-a-en stop double-u-a-en-gee. Female, aka Sheena, nineteen years old, three Palm Drive.” She listened to the read-back. “Yes, that’s correct. Thank you.”
Before she started the car, Ulla turned to Phoebe, who was just tucking the cell phone back into her bulky coat pocket.
“Don’t you think you were a little hard on her at the end there, showing her the photo?”
“Yes, I think I was. I was probably even cruel. But sometimes that is what’s called for to prevent a greater cruelty. Do you think the point got across?”
Ulla thought about that. “Yes,” she said, slowly signaling an affirmative with her head movement, “yes, I suppose you are right. And I do think she saw what you were getting at.” She sighed in the darkness. “What a mess!”
“No, I don’t believe that to be the case. It’s certainly not a case of any kind of physical or sexual abuse. Of that I’m positive. But the mess, as you call it, that’s just generations, just family! It’s the way families are. Messy. Even in the best of circumstances.
“And I suspect what you have in this instance is not even so much a matter of generational conflict as it is of a conflict of cultures. At my age, I’ve lived through enormous cultural changes just in America. Somebody born after 1960 just has no idea what the ethos was like in this country before that. The sixties changed everything, and except for the civil rights movement, which was long overdue, I think it was the most horrible and destructive decade of my life. America was never the same after that, and that wasn’t all for the good either.
“Now imagine someone coming from China to America. How old can her parents be? Her father was born probably some time in the forties, maybe even the thirties. Can you imagine the kind of world he grew up in and how that world compares to America in 2002? I can’t.”
“You have a point,” Ulla conceded pensively. “But that … that thing – for want of a better word – between fathers and daughters seem to be pretty universal,” she added, not entirely without a trace of acrimony.
Phoebe shot her a sharp glance. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the … the issues you said earlier you have with your own father, would it?”
“Of course it would,” Ulla said with resignation. “But I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve learned to live with.”
“But it just seems so sad, somehow, such a waste. Just like that young woman, I know she knows her father loves her.”
“Yes, she does.”
“She even admitted it herself.”
“True, but nineteen-year olds also love their boyfriends, maybe even more, they think, than their fathers. You’re not too old, are you, to remember how a good hormone rush can hijack your reason? I’ve got a lifetime on you, and I certainly haven’t forgotten.”
Ulla sighed. “That’s a graphic way to put it. And true. No. I remember only too clearly. Yes. And the father and daughter are still at each other.”
“It won’t always be that way.”
“Are you sure? I’d like to believe that. I’m ten years older than Sheena, and when she was talking about her father and that business with the grades I almost felt as if this was my story she was telling.” She snorted. “Let’s not talk about it.
“Where to next?”
Phoebe let it go.
She checked her notes with the penlight. “This should be the one. Third time’s a charm, and all that nonsense. No charm here, though, of course. Let’s see, the Caos live about seven blocks from here, closer to the center of the city. Why don’t you head back out to Fir and then hang a left. Go on down past that ‘Y’ in the road about five blocks. We’re looking for a Hyacinth Lane, off to the right. Number three-sixty-six.”
The Cao home was on a less magnificent scale than that of either the Hsiens or the Wangs, but it wasn’t hardship duty.
“Not too shabby,” Ulla commented.
“But down a notch or two in the house sweeps,” Phoebe added. She got herself ready. “Are we all set?”
“As set as ever. But I have the feeling this one is going to be painful. To say the least.”
“So, let’s do it.”
The car was parked next to a sidewalk from which a walk up to the door of the house sat at right angles. Shortly after the detectives got out of the car and slammed the doors shut, a strong light came on from above the house entrance. It cast an oblique illumination across the snow-covered lawn, which had taken on the craggy aspect of a moonscape. Distant, desolate, detached. Phoebe and Ulla looked at each other, eyebrows raised in uncomfortable anticipation.
As they approached the door it opened. A man who appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties peered out. His face was anxious.
“Yes?” he said.
“Good evening, sir,” Phoebe said. “I’m detective Light and this is my partner, Detective Sundelius.” Their ID badges hung around their necks and each held hers out for the man to read. A woman, equally anxious, came up the man’s side and inspected the badges.
“Mr. and Mrs. Cao?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice horribly knowing and defeated. “We have been expecting you.” The woman caught her breath. “The police, I mean,” he added. He glanced around outside at the forbidding sky. “It is best if you come inside. It is cold out here.”
He spoke with a noticeable accent.
The detectives entered a warm and cozy room brightly lit. They took off their coats and handed them to Mrs. Cao, who hung them in a small open closet.
Mr. Cao led them down a hallway to a large den with a television, sound off, the local weather on. Once they were all seated, he asked, “This is about Trinh, is it not?”
Phoebe took out the now familiar photo of the young woman’s face. “I’m afraid so. Sir,” she said, handing the picture to Mr. Cao, “is this Trinh?”
He hesitated before looking, looked, and then held it for his wife to look. The truth was written unmistakably on their grief-filled faces before any word was uttered. Neither one of them showed any other outward sign.
After about a minute of silent viewing, he handed the picture back to Phoebe. He took his wife’s hand in his own. Like his wife, he appeared dazed but not all that surprised.
“Yes,” he said with unfathomable sadness, “yes, this is our Trinh.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Cao whispered. “It is Trinh.” The wife too had a marked accent.
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. and Mrs. Cao,” Phoebe said with as much compassion as she could. “Very, very sorry.”
“Please accept my condolences, too,” Ulla said softly.
“May I bring you something to eat or drink?” Mrs. Cao inquired.
“No, no thank you,” Phoebe and Ulla said at the same time.
There was a brief lull as Phoebe placed the photo back in its envelope and put the envelope in her dark valise.
“Is there anything you can tell us, Detective?” Mr. Cao addressed himself to Phoebe.
Phoebe cleared her throat. “I’m afraid there really isn’t much that we know yet,” she said. “The body … Trinh’s body was only found early this morning. Out in the country north of the city near a little town called Dust.”
The Caos appeared quite puzzled, then looked at each other questioningly.
“I have never heard of this town,” Mrs. Cao said.
“And I have not,” the husband said. “What would Trinh be doing there?”
“We’re not sure, sir, that she was … was killed there. This is still under investigation.”
“I see,” he said.
Phoebe pushed on, however reluctantly. “The more we can learn about Trinh, as soon as possible, the more helpful it will be to our inquiry. Do you think you are up to answering some questions tonight, or would you rather wait until tomorrow?”
“Now is acceptable,” Mr. Trinh said.
Before Phoebe and Ulla could get started, Mrs. Cao spoke up, angrily, her eyes on her husband, “It is that man. That boyfriend of hers.” Her lips were tightly set. “I know it. I feel it in here.” She slammed her right fist against her chest.
“We don’t know anything at this point, Kieu,” Mr. Cao said in a soothing voice.
“But I do, Gia,” she answered him forcefully. “I have big suspicions.”
Phoebe and Ulla were somewhat taken aback by this more overt display of emotion.
Ulla inserted herself into their exchange. “Excuse me, Mrs. Cao. Are you saying that you know something about this or just that you suspect something?”
“I suspect,” she said. “But my heart knows.”
“I see,” Ulla said.
“Can you tell us about your suspicions?” Phoebe prompted.
Mrs. Cao caught her husband’s attention, and he gave her a nod of encouragement.
“Our Trinh was seeing an American man. She told me many times about him.”
“We tried to make her stop,” Mr. Cao continued. “But Trinh was twenty-four, and head-strong. She was a very bright girl. At the university. She was very strong in mathematics. Therefore she thought she knew everything about everything.”
“It was foolish for a girl who is … was so smart,” the mother added gloomily.
“She was a student here at the city university?”
“Yes. In the graduate program in mathematics.”
Both detectives were scribbling furiously in their notepads. “Excuse me,” Phoebe interrupted, “do you mind if we tape this conversation?”
“That is no problem,” Mr. Cao said.
Phoebe pulled out her little Panasonic, stuck a fresh tape in the window slot, shut it and pushed the start buttons. “Now, you mentioned this man Trinh was seeing. An American man.”
“Yes,” the mother confirmed.
“Someone at the university?”
“We do not think so,” Mr. Cao said.
“What did she say about him that made you think not?”
“He was older than she was. Maybe twenty-five years.”
“Could he have been a professor, maybe?” Ulla asked.
“We did not think so,” Mr. Cao answered.
“Any special reason?”
“Yes. He was a policeman.”
Ulla and Phoebe both stopped scratching at their pads simultaneously. The only sound in the sudden silence was the wavering hiss of the tape spooling in the Panasonic.
“Yes, that is what she said.”
“Did you ever meet this man?”
“He was not welcome here.”
“So you never actually saw him?”
“Yes. Once. He picked her up one Friday evening before Christmas and came to the door. It was awkward. We asked Trinh not to bring him to the house again,” Mr. Cao said.
“Could you identify him from a photo?”
“Yes,” the father said.
“And much older than Trinh.” The mother added in a whisper, needing something to say.
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you think it was serious between this man and Trinh?” Ulla asked.
“I think yes,” Mrs. Cao said.
“But there could never have been a marriage,” the husband added.
This last comment made Phoebe uncomfortable.
“Do you mind if I ask why?”
“He was already married.”
“I see,” Phoebe observed with some relief.
“How long had they been seeing each other?”
“For about three years,” Mrs. Cao explained. “Trinh told me they first met in early 2000. She was still an undergraduate then.”
“Is there anything else you can tell us about this man that might help us identify him? We would certainly like to talk to him.”
Mr. and Mrs. Cao eyed each other and shrugged their shoulders. “No, nothing. He was big.”
Phoebe did not think they were holding back on anything. They probably did know nothing more.
“When was the last time you saw your daughter?”
“Friday afternoon. Maybe around three o’clock. She went in to the university to do some work. At least that is what she said. Saturday morning she has not come back, and not slept in her bed. We call the police, but they say we must wait forty-eight hours to report a person missing. So we call again Sunday afternoon when she is still not back.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
Ulla flipped a page in her note book.
“Can you tell us more about Trinh?” She had qualms, but went on. “Anything that might help us find out what happened? Find out who killed Trinh?”
“Well,” Phoebe suggested, “please don’t take offense, but I notice that you both speak English with an accent. I assume you were brought up in Viet Nam.”
“That is correct,” Mr. Cao said. “We are not offended. What you say is true.”
“How long have you been in this country?”
“I came here in 1974,” Mr. Cao expained, “and Kieu-My in the same year. But we did not know each other then. We met here, in this country. And got married here. Two years later, in 1976.”
“According to the report you filed yesterday about your missing daughter, she was born in 1979.”
There was a hint of hesitation in his voice. Phoebe decided to circle back to it in a minute.
“In the city?”
“In Viet Nam.”
Both detectives stopped writing and looked up.
“Viet Nam? Did you return to Viet Nam.”
Both Caos shook their heads in vigorous denial.
“No. Trinh was adopted.”
“I see,” Phoebe said lamely, not seeing fully what was up.
“We … I … could… could not have children,” Mrs. Cao said meekly. Motivating this verbal flailing, Phoebe now suddenly intuited, were nightmarish narratives of sexual coercion and a monstrous methodology of interrogation by soulless compatriots. A distant era in a far land, a land of lushness whose unsurpassing beauty, like that of Mrs. Cao herself, had been serially violated, first by Chinese intruders bent on military subjugation, then by French colonizers avid with commercial greed, and finally by American liberators armed with good intentions that paved a road to hell. Phoebe elected to probe this dark and depressing personal history no further.
Mr. Cao came nimbly to his wife’s rescue. “We made contact with a Catholic agency in Viet Nam that places orphans, and in 1983 little Trinh came to us.”
“From God, I believe,” Mrs. Cao added quietly. Her husband took her hand, and Phoebe noticed his eyes getting shiny.
“Yes, from God,” he said. “And now God has taken back our beautiful little girl from us.”
Mrs. Cao’s self-discipline failed her at this point, and her eyes brimmed.
But they both quickly got themselves under control.
“What else, Detective?” Mr. Cao asked after blowing his nose in a large handkerchief he pulled from the side pocket of the vest he was wearing.
“I noticed that you hesitated briefly about Trinh’s year of birth.”
“Yes,” he said, half embarrassed, “nobody knew exactly when she was born, but at the time she was found they thought she might be three years old. So they said 1979.”
“And we made it July fourth when she came to this country and got citizenship. We love America and we are patriots. It seemed the right birth date.” Mrs. Cao said this with simple pride, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Do you know anything about any other friends she had?”
“She did not confide so much in us, except about this man. She was very American. She spoke Vietnamese but her English had no accent. Like ours. She was very American,” Mrs. Cao repeated.
“Why do you think she made an exception with this man?”
“I think she was worried. And she trusted me. I have always been open with her,” Mrs. Cao stated.
“Worried about the man, about her boyfriend?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Mrs. Cao gave the matter some thought. “I am not certain. Maybe about the man’s wife. I think she would have told me … in time … but now …” She trailed off, clasping her hands across her knees. “Now we will never know.”
Phoebe asked Ulla if there was anything else they should cover at this point. Ulla shook her head.
“I think we have what we need for now, Mr. and Mrs. Cao,” Phoebe said, turning off the Panasonic and making ready to leave.
As they were about to open the door, Mrs. Cao’s face lit up in recollection. “There was one other thing,” she said.
“Yes?” Ulla encouraged.
“Trinh used odd words about the man. She said he had ‘yellow fever’.”
Mrs. Cao blushed. “Yes, I am sorry. She meant that he liked Oriental women. Trinh told me his wife was also Asian. It is a small point, but it may be useful to you in your work. Please find out what happened to our Trinh.”
“I can promise you that we will work very hard on this case. And we will stay in touch with you.”
“There is one more thing. I’m sorry to have to ask you about this. We need a formal identification of the … of your daughter. Could one of you come to the morgue tomorrow? We can send a car.”
“We will both come,” the father said quickly. “A car would be appreciated. You are very kind.”
He looked at his wife, and she shook her head.
“Thank you for coming,” Mr. Cao said. “And thank you that you care about just a Vietnamese girl. We are very much in your debt.”
“She is not ‘just’ a Vietnamese girl, Mr. Cao,” Phoebe said evenly. “She is a human being who was killed. It is our duty to do our utmost to see justice done. That is personal for me.
“Again, I am deeply sorry for your loss.”
Phoebe and Ulla each gave Mr. Cao their cards and shook hands with both parents before walking out into the chill night and clambering into the car.
Ulla was driving. She was quiet, clearly reflecting on their final, sad interview with the Caos.
Phoebe was ambling off into a distant territory of her own. No parent should ever have to deal with the death of a child. Her thoughts drifted back to the fall of 1986 and Melinda’s sudden death. A vast emptiness had opened up inside her, and there had been moments when Phoebe thought she would never get over this loss. How could such a lean and lanky beauty, then on the verge of womanhood, ever come from a person like herself – short, chunky, certainly not a looker? Phoebe had been inconsolable, and that first year after Melinda’s death she would find herself spontaneously bursting into tears, sometimes triggered by a fleeting memory, sometimes because she saw someone or something that hooked into her memories, sometimes for no reason at all. She and Samuel would lie in bed, holding each other, weeping in the dark, looking at each other through the tears. They would whisper reminiscences to each other of their lost child: things she had said, things she had done, vacations they had taken, her loving way with her younger brother, Noah.
Melinda had recently begun her period and her breasts were no longer those of a child. Phoebe recalled the deep, almost primitive pride she had felt in talking to Melinda about menstruation and going to the store with her to buy pads and her first brassiere. Mother and daughter. But Melinda would never find her prince and never have children in her turn. How could a mother or a father endure such a loss? One heals. Melinda had continued to live vividly in Phoebe’s heart and still did, and the intensity of the pain had gradually loosened its paralyzing grip. But not entirely. You get on with life. It won’t wait for you.
But she felt a strong kinship with the Caos’ pain and wished somehow that she could help them through what her own sad experience assured her would be a very bad year or two for them. But she knew she couldn’t. It was a lonely horror they would have to face by themselves. Never again to hug your child, talk to her, hear her voice. Intolerable.
As they came in sight of the downtown skyline Ulla turned to Phoebe and said, “What do you make of all that?”
Phoebe mulled over the question. “Do you mean the parents or the case?”
“Unspeakable. Just unspeakable. What else can you say?”
“Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, I see what you mean.”
A few minutes later she asked, “And what about the case?”
“Well, we did get some threads we’re going pull hard on and see what unravels. I’m especially curious about this Darling character. The name rings a bell with me but I can’t put my finger on it. We’ll see.”
“Right,” Ulla said, still subdued. “We’ll see. I’d sure like to find the guy who did this!”
“Or the woman,” Phoebe reminded her.
“Or the woman.” She nodded her head in affirmation. “Yes, of course.”
As they approached headquarters, Phoebe suddenly said, “I wasn’t fully honest with you earlier tonight, Ulla.”
“Oh? How do you mean?”
“When you asked me if I had any children?”
“Yes?” She drew out the interrogative tone.
“I did have another child. Her name was Melinda. But she died in 1986. In a stupid accident, coming home from school. She would have been thirty now. Just about your age, if I recall correctly.”
“Yes, twenty-nine.” Demurely.
They had come to a stop next to Phoebe’s car in the underground garage, and Ulla killed the ignition. They sat in the car without speaking.
“I had no idea, Phoebe. I had no idea at all.” She shook her head slowly. “Life has … has dealt you some harsh … circumstances.”
Phoebe said nothing, but gave Ulla’s hand a squeeze.
“So this case … this Trinh Cao is … sort of personal?”
“Not really. The duty is a personal thing, as I said to Mr. Cao. I can’t allow myself as a professional to let it seep over into my private life. But I do know what those parents are going through and will be going through. I’m determined that we solve this one. They deserve that much, at the least.”
Ulla bobbed her head emphatically. “Phoebe, I agree totally. And I thank you that you told me things about yourself. I respect what you’ve said and I won’t gossip about any of this. I promise you.”
“You’re a kind person, Ulla. And generous. I’m glad we met. I’ll miss you when you return to Sweden.” She leaned over and fleetingly touched her cheek to Ulla’s.
“Good night, Phoebe.”
The beautiful Mercedes pulled away smoothly, the tires squealing lightly on the floor of the desolate garage.
Before inserting the ignition key in her own car, Phoebe gave herself a few minutes of silence in the front seat. She idly watched two maintenance men rolling a large cart and dumping garbage into it from the cans placed strategically throughout the garage, each under a large yellow sign that said, NO LITTERING, PLEASE – USE THIS GARBAGE CAN. Is that all Ulla and I are, she asked herself? Garbage collectors? For the Hsiens and the Caos of the world?
She reflected on her casual hypotheticals last Tuesday evening as she and Samuel had been ‘doing the garbage’ in the house (and refrigerator!), sorting and packing it, and carting it out in big plastic bags to the curb to await pickup Wednesday morning.
“What if the garbage people don’t come tomorrow? or next week? or the week after that? The dry garbage like cardboard and paper would, I suppose, just pile up until there was no more room in the garage. Ditto for glass, metal cans, and plastics. But what about perishable items like banana skins or uneaten carrots or orange peels, fish bones and grease drippings from such cooking as she and Samuel did, old oil paints and acrylics? Stench and growing fire hazard aside, how could she store all that? They’d have to haul it weekly to the local garbage dump, where they would have to duke it out with hundreds of thousands other irate householders bent on the same unpleasant but necessary mission.
“And if they didn’t get rid of it, how long before the rats invaded their home and, hitching a ride, the fleas and, still lower down the food chain, the plague bacilli?”
This really was not an unimaginable scenario but a nightmare of possibilities. But as things thankfully were, all she had to do was lug a few bags a few feet from her garage door to the curb.
And who would do her kind of garbage collecting if she and Ulla and the other police didn’t? Social chaos and anarchy would be the rats and bacilli in that case. Not too flattering, she realized, to imagine herself as a kind of garbage collector, was it?
Suddenly the long day caught up with her and she felt an infinite weariness.
And then the same old thought came to her again: still, she thought, after all these years. Still. The faces of Melinda and Trinh seemed to merge in her mind’s eye. Her shoulders quivered quietly as two rivulets of tears for dead and distressed daughters ran down her cheeks.
TO BE CONTINUED