Patrick Kincaid had a problem: he couldn’t say no.
Whatever was asked of him, he did it, usually without complaint. He was amicable that way, and his friends and family knew it. He didn’t mind helping out; if he could do something for someone, why not? He had a challenging job he liked, a family he loved, and a few good friends who had stuck around even during his two-year stint in the hospital sleeping off a coma. Life was too short to be stingy with it.
But this time, as he circled the arcane San Francisco streets, which seemed to have no methodology, looking for a parking place in a dense fog, he wished he’d said no.
He would have, if anyone else in the world had asked him to drive two hours out of his way (which took three because of the inclement weather) to hunt down a family friend he hadn’t seen since he graduated from high school, except at her father’s funeral. He’d have found an excuse or found a replacement. Except it was his mother who had called. And Patrick had never, not once, said no to his mom. His older brother Connor had told him—often—that he was Mom’s favorite because he was her yes-man.
His job was to bring Gabrielle Santana home for Christmas. Gabrielle Santana—the girl who’d staged a sit-in sophomore year in high school to protest the expulsion of three students who she thought hadn’t had a fair hearing with the school board. The girl who’d been arrested at seventeen for organizing a rave in an abandoned warehouse in downtown San Diego. The girl who’d been suspended for skinny-dipping in the high school pool. Patrick was three years older than Gabrielle, but she’d done more her freshman year—both good and bad—than he had his entire four years of high school.
It didn’t help that Patrick had dated Gabrielle’s older sister Veronica during their senior year and Gabrielle had often tagged along with Veronica to his baseball games and even on a couple of would-be dates.
The problem was that Gabrielle had called her mother two days ago and said something had come up at work and she couldn’t come home for Christmas. Now, she wasn’t returning her mother’s phone calls, or those from anyone else in her family. They were worried, and because the Santanas were worried, Rosa Kincaid was worried. And if Rosa Kincaid was worried and called on one of her children for help, the worry fell onto them. In this case, Patrick.
“You’re already in Sacramento,” his mother had said. “It’s not that far out of your way to help the Santanas.”
She had to have sensed the hesitation in his tone because she gave him the hard sell—and the guilt. Irish Catholic guilt compounded by the fact that he had a Cuban mother. No one said no to Rosa Kincaid.
After fifteen minutes of driving around in widening circles because there seemed to be no street parking in the vicinity, he finally squeezed the rental car into a spot four blocks from Gabrielle’s loft in a converted warehouse off Howard Street. At least he was driving in a flat area and not the insanely steep hills that made up so much of the city.
Patrick pulled up the collar of his jacket against the cold, damp air as he walked briskly down Howard. Lighted garlands wrapped around light posts were the only visible reminder of the holidays. This was a business district, and the thick fog made visibility next to nothing. Some of the apartments above storefronts were more jovially decorated—colored lights framing the windows and small, decorated trees, but Patrick had to strain his neck to look up, and honestly he wasn’t in the holiday spirit.
His phone vibrated in his pocket and he pulled it out reluctantly. He hadn’t brought gloves. He’d packed for San Diego—where it had been a respectable seventy-eight degrees today—not cold, wet San Francisco. He glanced at the text message from his sister Lucy.
Be glad you’re in Sacramento—we’re stuck in Denver. Airport shut down. Blizzard. Won’t get out until tomorrow night, if then. Love you! —Lucy
He responded that he was on an errand for their mom in San Francisco and would be delayed as well, then pocketed his phone and continued up the hill.
Maybe this side trip had a silver lining. He wouldn’t want to be the third wheel stuck in Denver with Lucy with her boyfriend, Sean. It would have been doubly awkward. While he’d grown to accept her relationship with his best friend and former partner, Sean Rogan, she was still his little sister. There were some things he didn’t want to think about.
The fog was so heavy a layer of moisture quickly coated his jacket. Driving here, he’d thought of all the reasons why Gabrielle could be incommunicado. Off with a boyfriend. Working. Drinking with her girlfriends. It was selfish and cruel not to respond to her mother’s calls for two days, but it didn’t mean anything was wrong. He’d already checked hospitals and called her employer. Nothing. The only odd thing was that her employer said she would be out of the office until after the holidays. Patrick couldn’t get any other details from the snippy receptionist.
Again, not being in the office didn’t mean something was wrong. In fact, that she’d informed her employer she would be out told Patrick there was nothing to worry about.
Except … he had to talk to her. Find out what she was doing and give Mrs. Santana peace of mind. Give Gabrielle a piece of his mind, too. He would never needlessly worry his mom; he hadn’t as a kid and not as an adult, either. He’d been a cop for more than a decade, and now worked for the private security firm Rogan-Caruso-Kincaid. When he was going to be unreachable for more than a day, he made sure his family knew his plans. It was common courtesy.
He rounded the corner of Gabrielle’s narrow street, not wider than an alley. One car could barely squeeze through. The buildings were a mix of very old and newly renovated. Mostly businesses with apartments upstairs. In Gabrielle’s converted warehouse, the heavy metal door was accessible only by a keypad. A sign indicated that the lobby was open from 6 A.M. until 6 P.M.
Patrick rang her buzzer. No answer. He tried her cell phone number—she didn’t have a landline in her name—again, no answer. He looked around for an external security camera and didn’t see any. He easily hacked the keypad and the door opened.
Sean had taught him a lot of tricks over the years, and the former cop in Patrick winced at breaking and entering. Though, as Sean would say, he wasn’t breaking anything.
It took Patrick a few moments to get his bearings. First, he was surprised at the quiet. Even the traffic from the interstate a few blocks away had dimmed once he stepped inside. Music faintly played from somewhere upstairs. The lobby was a small square with a flocked Christmas tree in the center covered with blue and green glass balls. It looked fake. Christmas had always been Patrick’s favorite time of the year because his parents went all-out. They didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but Christmas was the time for making presents, eating far more than was healthy, and spending time with family. Decorating the Kincaid family Christmas tree—which they cut down themselves every year—was a party in itself.
You’ll be home for Christmas. This is a just a small delay.
Sixteen mailboxes were built into the wall. Eight of them were larger boxes labeled with business names—a Realtor, an interior decorator, and similar white-collar professionals. The other eight were narrow and had last names only. Bruce. Carmichael. Santana, in unit 12.
Though the warehouse had been completely built out, the industrial feeling remained, cold and sterile, like the fake tree. The polished concrete floors and modern metal staircase might be seen as hip and trendy, but they contributed to the lobby’s icy interior. The building seemed lonely, if a building could feel anything.
On the second landing he found unit 12 in the far back corner. He knocked on the door and silently swore, shaking out his sore knuckles. Solid metal. He rang the bell.
No one answered.
Patrick tried the door, not expecting it to open, but it did. Gabrielle left her apartment unlocked? Even in a semisecure building, he’d never leave his door open—especially in the middle of a major city.
He pushed open the heavy door and glanced around before entering. The entry was small and narrow, only the light from the corridor casting a glow in the dark. He called out, “Gabrielle? Hello?” then felt along the wall and found a light switch. The entryway and living room brightened. A short staircase led to the large central room with lush, bright throw rugs tossed haphazardly over the cement floor. The exterior walls were brick; one was embedded with small, square warehouse windows; the other was dotted with bright and wild contemporary art. The raised, galley-style kitchen included a long, low bar with two benches. The ceiling was more than thirty feet high. A spiral staircase led to a loft above the kitchen. Small, but the towering ceiling and wall of windows made it seem much bigger.
Standing in the middle of Gabrielle Santana’s apartment, Patrick felt like an idiot. Nothing appeared out of place. Two mismatched couches that looked comfortable. Several bean bag chairs. Scuffed coffee table covered with books and magazines. He tilted his head. One side of the table was definitely shorter.
“Gabrielle?” he called out. “It’s Patrick Kincaid from San Diego. Your door was open.”
The living room was just that, no work or desk area. He smiled as he approached a small tree on a corner table. It was a Charlie Brown tree, spindly and half dead, a string of lights draped across and plugged into the wall, tinsel and a popcorn string. A star, too heavy for the tree, leaned precariously on the top.
He didn’t want to roam through Gabrielle’s home. He went into the kitchen and rummaged through a couple of drawers before he found a sales flyer. He turned it over, pulled a pen from his pocket, and started writing a note. What was he going to say? To phone home? To call him?
He jotted down his name and number and put it under a magnet for Chinese takeout on the refrigerator.
Still, the unlocked door made him nervous. He went upstairs to the loft to make sure there was no sign of foul play.
The loft was divided into two long, narrow rooms, both of which looked down into the living room at different angles, with a connecting bathroom. One was Gabrielle’s bedroom, one her office. Gabrielle’s bed was unmade, clothes strewn all over a chair in the corner, makeup and other girl things covering the long, scratched dresser. In the den was a couch. A pillow and sleeping bag were tossed to one end. Company?
But there was no blood, no sign of robbery, no sign of anything amiss.
He went back downstairs just as Gabrielle—wow, she’d gone from stunning to gorgeous, but he’d have recognized her anywhere—was running up the short staircase from the entryway. She glanced at him, dark eyes wide with shock, then turned and ran back out the front door.
“Gabrielle! It’s Patrick Kincaid!”
His words were cut off by the metal door sliding shut.
Damn, damn, damn! He’d scared her, and that made him feel like shit.
He ran after her.
As soon as he opened the door, something hit him on the side of his head, and he stumbled. Something hard pressed against his back.
On instinct born from years of training, he kicked his legs, rolled over, and flipped his attacker. His hand grabbed the wrist that held the weapon he knew wasn’t a gun.
It was a cell phone.
“Dammit, Gabrielle! It’s Patrick Kincaid.”
She stared at him blankly. He jumped up, holding out his hand for her. She didn’t take it.
“A cell phone will protect you better if you call nine-one-one.”
Recognition finally replaced her stunned expression. She got up on her own and grabbed her phone from his hand. “Patrick? Kincaid? What the hell are you doing here? In my apartment?”
“The door was unlocked.”
“So you just walked in?”
“Your mother sent me.”
He rolled his eyes and brushed off his slacks. “Can I come in?”
She glared at him. “You already have.” She turned and walked through the doorway. She started to slide the door shut, but he caught it with his hand and followed her inside, closing it behind him.
Gabrielle had always been pretty, like all the Santana girls. But Patrick remembered her as Veronica’s tagalong little sister—annoying, opinionated, and wild. She might still be opinionated and wild, but he no longer could think of her as a little sister. She was, simply, stunning. He had a hard time not staring.
“Gabrielle—I’m sorry, but—”
“Only my family calls me Gabrielle. As soon as I went to college, I changed my name. It’s Elle.”
“Like the letter l.”
“Like the last syllable of my name,” she snapped.
“Elle, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. Your mother was worried because she couldn’t reach you—”
“And you came all the way from San Diego? No—wait—you don’t live there anymore, do you?”
“I live in Washington, D.C., but I was in Sacramento for the week.”
“So you drove two hours just to check on me?”
“Your mother is worried—” he said again.
“Because I said I couldn’t come home for Christmas? Jeez!” She tossed her hands in the air, then scratched the back of her head as if she were still confused.
“Because,” Patrick continued, “she’s left a dozen messages and you haven’t called her back. And your employer said you took vacation time.”
“I’m thirty-two years old and my mother is sending a cop after me because I don’t answer my phone.”
“I’m not a cop anymore.”
“Tell her I’m fine. Thank you. Good-bye.”
Elle seemed agitated, over and beyond her irritation that Patrick had been in her apartment.
She gave him a puzzled look. “What’s wrong?”
“Why do you do that?”
“Deflect. I ask questions. You don’t answer them.”
“I have a lot going on, Patrick.” She spread her arms wide and spun in a circle. “Take a good look. Tell my mother I’m alive and well.”
She scrunched up her nose. “I haven’t seen you in, like, ten years, and you break into my apartment and order me to call my mother?” She laughed, but it sounded strained.
Patrick didn’t want to get in the middle of a family squabble, because he was getting the distinct impression that this was mostly about family, and family—even a close-knit clan like the Kincaids or the Santanas—could drive anyone crazy.
When she realized that he was serious and that she was still holding her phone, she made a production of punching the buttons. A moment later Patrick could hear a loud “Gabrielle!” on the other end of the line.
“Mama, I can’t believe you sent Patrick Kincaid to track me down. I am so embarrassed!”
She didn’t look embarrassed; she looked pissed.
“I told you, I have to work. It’s an important case, I can’t take time off.”
Patrick raised his eyebrows, but Elle wasn’t paying attention. She listened to her mother talk, then both of them started speaking rapidly in Spanish. Patrick wasn’t as fluent in the language as his younger sister, but he’d been raised by a Cuban mother and had a basic understanding. The conversation was rapidly deteriorating as Elle explained why she had to spend Christmas preparing for a case, and why it was important, and that she couldn’t do it in San Diego because she needed access to her law office.
And the entire time, Patrick had the strong impression that she was lying.
“I love you, too, Mama. I’m sorry—I’ll visit as soon as I can. I know it’s not the same as Christmas—I know it’s been two years—Mama, please, I feel bad already. Yes. I promise.” She hung up. “There,” she said to Patrick. “Satisfied?”
“I did my job,” he said. “But why did you lie to your mother?”
“What?” She blinked rapidly. She was an awful liar.
“Your law firm said you were on vacation.”
“I don’t need to explain myself to you—look, Patrick, I really have to go.”
“You just got home.”
“Because I needed to get some things.”
The buzzer rang and Elle briefly looked like a deer caught in headlights. She ran to her front door and pressed a button on the panel. A screen with a black-and-white image popped up. An Asian woman in jeans and a long wool coat was at the door. She rang the buzzer again.
“Shit, what’s she doing here?” Elle backed away from the door as if it were about to attack.
“Who is she?”
“A social worker. Damn, now I have to wait until she leaves. This is the worst day in my life!”
Patrick knew he was going to regret it, but he said, “Can I help?”
“What does she want?”
“Something I can’t give her.” Her cell phone rang and Elle looked at it. “She’s calling me now. Dammit!” She then glanced at Patrick and said, “Tell her we’re not here.”
“She’s going to ask about Kami. Tell her Kami and I went out and you don’t know when we’ll be back. Look, I can’t lie to her, but you can!” She tossed Patrick her phone.
Skeptical, and wholly uncomfortable with what Elle was asking him to do, he answered the phone. “Santana residence.”
“Is Elle Santana there?”
“I’m sorry, who’s calling?”
“Sandy Chin, I need to come up.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to let anyone inside when Gabrielle isn’t home.”
“Sandy Chin. I’m with the San Francisco Department of Child Welfare. I need to inspect the apartment, and Ms. Santana has been avoiding me. Where’s Kami?”
Elle had leaned close to him to hear both sides of the conversation better. Sandy Chin had a much softer voice than Elle’s mother.
“Not here, either.”
“And you are?”
“Ms. Santana didn’t inform us that a man was living with her.”
“I’m just visiting.”
“Tell Ms. Santana that I expect to hear from her by ten P.M., or Kami will be placed in custody until the hearing.” She cut off the call.
Patrick had no idea what that conversation was about. “Elle, what just happened?”
She glanced at her watch, then took her phone back from Patrick. “I have two hours to find Kami. I’ve been looking for her since noon.”
“A fifteen-year-old who’s in deep trouble and will be in deeper trouble if she doesn’t show up in court Wednesday morning. Something spooked her when I went out for groceries. She wouldn’t just leave. She knows how important this is!”
Elle ran into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and removed a can of coffee. But there was no coffee inside—only money. Roughly a thousand dollars in fives, tens, and twenties.
“I’ve never known anyone who keeps money in her freezer.”
“My mom,” she said. She counted out three hundred dollars, divided it between two different pockets, then put the can back. She ran upstairs and came back a minute later with a bag filled with clothes, and a heavy jacket with a hole in the elbow. “Thanks for covering with Sandy.”
Patrick was going to regret this. He said, “Let me help.”
She stared at him as if surprised by the offer. “Don’t you have someplace to be?”
“My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow.”
“It’s nice of you, but no one is going to trust you. You look—well, I know you’re not a cop anymore, but you look like one. I know where Kami hangs out. They don’t like cops. Especially cops who dress like rich kids from a prep school.”
Patrick glanced down at his khaki Dockers and leather loafers. Rich prep school kid? Really?
He said, “You’ve been looking for her all day and couldn’t find her.”
“I have to convince the right people that they can trust me.” She didn’t sound optimistic, just determined.
“You need help. I have the time. And the training.”
Her expression showed her inner battle as much as her fidgeting. The woman couldn’t keep still as she shifted her weight and played with a string on her jacket. Finally, she said, “Okay, fine, thanks. But just trust me out there, okay? Don’t do anything, well, coplike.”
“I’ll try.” They walked out. He motioned to the door. “Aren’t you going to lock it?”
“Kami has the downstairs door code, if she comes back she needs to be able to get in.” She waved her hand dismissively. “It’s not like I have anything valuable in there, except my computer.”
They walked down to the lobby. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on with this kid?”
“There’s nothing to tell. She’s a witness and I need to keep her safe until Wednesday morning.”
Warning bells rang in his head. “A witness? Why aren’t the cops watching her?”
“Because no one realizes that she could be in danger. They wanted to ‘protect’ her by putting her in juvenile hall, and that’s exactly where Lorenzo’s crew could get to her. I promised the judge that she’d be in court on Wednesday morning to testify—it’s required for her plea agreement—and everything was going great until this afternoon. I gave her a phone, but she’s not answering it.” Elle turned down a hallway opposite the front entrance and through a door marked FIRE EXIT. No alarms went off. “It’s disabled,” she said dismissively. “If Sandy is hanging around, I don’t want her to see me.”
Patrick realized then that something much, much bigger was going on. “Why not call the police? They can help.”
She spun around. “Look, you’re going to have to trust me on this. If I tell anyone she ran away, they’ll put a bench warrant out for her and she’ll not only go to jail before she testifies, but her plea deal is off. She’s fifteen. She’s been on and off the streets since she was eleven. I got her a great arrangement, and if she testifies she’ll be put in a group home that can protect her, send her to school, make sure she has a real shot at a future. And that’s why I’m not going to San Diego. Because her hearing is the day after Christmas, and she needs one person around who cares what happens to her.”
Patrick had a dozen questions: Was Kami a client of hers? What kind of law firm did she work for? Why would she agree to bring a client to live with her? Who was the girl testifying against? Had she left the apartment willingly? Had she been taken?
Elle led the way to a carport in the building next to hers. “I don’t have my own spot, but my best friend is a flight attendant and she’s gone half the time and lets me park in hers.” She glanced back at Patrick as she headed for her car. “I’m going to retrace my steps, but she’s probably hiding out in the Haight.”
“The infamous Haight Ashbury?”
Elle rolled her eyes as she stopped next to an older blue Honda Civic. The city’s salt air hadn’t done the paint any favors. She put the bag of clothes in the backseat, which was packed with blankets, boxes of granola bars, and Gatorade bottles. “Just get in.”
“Santana!” a voice shouted from behind them.
Patrick turned and saw two men running toward them.
“Get in!” She was already turning the key to the ignition before she’d closed her door.
Patrick did. “More social workers?”
A gunshot rang out.
“That’s a warning, bitch!”
Elle pulled out of the carport and sideswiped one of the guys. He shouted profanities at them and his partner fired another shot, this time at the car. It missed.
“How did they know where I live?” Elle glanced over her shoulder, eyes wide, knuckles white on the steering wheel. She turned onto Howard from the alley and sped up.
“Who are they?”
“I think they work for Richie Lorenzo.”
“Who the hell is that?” Patrick was getting testy, because he really hated being shot at—especially when he didn’t have his gun.
“A drug dealer. Kami used to work for him. That’s what got her in trouble with the police.”
“Is that who she’s testifying against?”
“No,” Elle said in a tone that made Patrick feel like he’d missed several conversations. But she didn’t clarify as she turned onto another street and started winding through hills.
“Elle, talk to me! Who is this kid testifying against? Who’s Lorenzo?”
“He’s a twenty-three-year-old punk who uses runaways to sell his trash.”
“And the case? The trial?”
Elle hesitated, then said, “Kami is testifying against a prominent businessman who Lorenzo sometimes works for. The bastard has a teen center over in Dogpatch, an area desperate for revitalization, and a factory a bit south of there, near the old Candlestick Park. He hires kids from the teen center to buy their loyalty. But he’s into serious shit. No one will speak against him. Without Kami, the guy walks.” She bit her lip and glanced at Patrick. Though there were tears in her eyes, her jaw was clenched in anger. “I have to find her, Patrick. I can’t lose another kid to those bastards.”
Copyright © 2013 by Allison Brennan