Latoya Benson parked on the street in front of a thin, two-story brownstone wedged into a row of other similar-looking homes. The ornately designed 1950’s architecture of the building faced a tree-lined park and caught the morning sun as it crested above the city skyline. Children played on the jungle gym equipment, sliding down the slide into cheerful piles of wood chips and ground bits of rubber. Mothers pushed strollers along the sidewalk. Birds chirped, interrupted only by the joyful yelps of the children running around the playground playing tag.
She sighed as she rang the doorbell.
A cute, short woman answered, nodded her head and welcomed her into the home.
Latoya removed her shoes and placed them in a wicker basket by the door. The woman wordlessly shook her hand and motioned for her to enter the center hallway toward the kitchen in the back of the floorplan.
“Ms. Benson,” said Shinjiro Naito, extending his hand toward her. “Thank you for coming. This is my wife, Haya. I am Shin.”
Haya nodded at the mention of her name, placed tea cups in front of her husband and her guest and poured hot black tea into each cup. Latoya thanked her, and she nodded again.
“We moved here only few weeks ago,” Shin continued. “Haya does not speak English and Amaya knows only very little. They worried about my work assignment that brought me here for one year.”
“I’m so sorry this happened Mr. Naito,” Latoya said.
“It was a very sad and scary moment for us,” he nodded. “And even more for Amaya.”
“How’s she doing?” Latoya asked.
“She is very grateful for you and the people from your department for their kindness in helping her.”
“Of course,” Latoya said, sipping her tea and gesturing to Haya in appreciation. “That’s why we do what we do.”
“And, she very much appreciates the nice woman who helped her during her ordeal,” Shin added. “She is a special person to be so caring to my daughter in her time of trouble.”
The conversation halted as Amaya descended the stairs. Her bright smile caused a warm sensation to fill Latoya’s face and travel down her body. The young girl threw her arms open and hugged Latoya around the hips, with her face pressed into her chest.
“How are you?” Latoya asked, crouching to Amaya’s eye-level.
“Yes,” she said, her tiny voice barely registering. “Yes, good. Yes.”
The girl smiled again and hugged Latoya one more time.
“She has not spoken of her experience,” said Shin.
Amaya walked to the refrigerator and plucked a picture from under a magnet. She handed her a drawing of a bright sun. Long rays extended from a smiling ball with eyes and a nose. Beneath the cloudless sky, several figures stood in a field, indicated by short vertical lines resembling blades of grass. The figures, all smiling widely, held hands in a line.
“Mama, papa,” she pointed at two of the taller figures, one with long, straight hair, like Haya and one with short, dark wavy hair like Shin.
Amaya pointed at another character with long hair, which curled at the bottom.
“Is that me?” Latoya asked, eliciting a fervent head nod. “And this one with the big curly hair must be your friend Winona. And, this one with the funny hair; that’s Cliff, isn’t it?”
Amaya giggled, unabashedly. Latoya noted how different; how much more comfortable she appeared in her own environment.
“As I said,” Shin continued. “She has not spoken of what happened or who abducted her. Even when we speak with her in Japanese, she just shakes her head and avoids the subject. We have a counselor in the Japanese school who works with her. She says it will take some time to help her understand what occurred.”
“We’d love to catch the people who did this,” Latoya said. “But, most importantly, we’re happy she’s safe. Take all the time she needs. I’m truly sorry this happened to her.”
Haya placed a tray of biscuits on the counter. Amaya picked it up and presented it to Latoya. Haya nodded for her to try one. Amaya beamed as Latoya placed one on the saucer beneath her tea cup and then raised it to take a bite.
“While she has not spoken of the incident,” Shin continued. “She has made several drawings that you might like to see.”
Shin nodded at his wife. Haya opened a drawer next to the refrigerator and handed her husband a small pile of loose computer paper.
In one picture, the sun had an angry face with clouds filling the sky. Two large figures with dark eyes and equally angry faces dominated the page. In another picture, there was no sun at all. Long horizontal lines emanated from dark, puffy clouds and surrounded the image of a car. Some of the raindrops bounced off the car. Above the car, a square and triangle implied a garage, only the garage had a long, thin pole or smoke stack extending into the sky.
“What’s this round circle on top of the car?” Latoya asked.
“That is the car’s lights,” Shin said.
“On top of the car?” Latoya asked. “Were the lights on top of the car?”
“She did not say.”
“Can you ask her?”
Shin spoke in Japanese to his daughter, who nodded sheepishly. Shin and Latoya looked at each other in recognition of the implication.
“I have to make a call,” she said, somewhat abruptly.
“I understand,” Shin said. “Thank you for coming to check on us. And thank you for all your work to help Amaya.”
“It’s what we do,” Latoya said, noticing a few other drawings.
She pulled out a detailed picture of a dragon with scales, claws and smoke emitting from its nostrils.
“Did she draw this one?”
“No,” Shin said. “She had that one in her jacket pocket when she returned. She said the nice man at the restaurant drew it for her.”
“I see,” said Latoya as she perused Amaya’s other pictures. “And, what about this one? What is this building?”
“I do not know,” Shin answered. “I asked her. She said only Kojo, which means factory.”
“Is the factory in the water?” Latoya asked, looking at the striped smoke stacks above the square building with what looked like rippled waves all around it. “This could be important.”
Shin asked Amaya in Japanese. She shook her head and withdrew. Latoya saw her transform from the bright, lively 11-year-old child to the wounded animal she found in Kipp’s television room and decided to back off.
“No worries,” Latoya said. “Tell her how smart and brave she is.”
Amaya smiled in recognition of the English words.
“And tell her she’s safe now,” Latoya crouched to give the girl one last hug. “We’re not going to let this happen to anyone else.”
Kumi rolled out of bed early, before the sun. A single light from an early fishing boat cast a rippled beam across the bay. She regarded the dark shoreline for signs that anyone else had arisen as early as her. But, the demarcation between the black, obsidian water and the equally dark landmass across the bay eluded her eyes.
Danny’s question rattled in her head and stopped her from sleeping restfully.
“What the hell was she doing in the back of that stolen car?”
She pulled video from as many traffic cameras as she could, but the spot under the bridge where they found the car could not be seen from any of the area cameras.
“Blind spot,” she muttered to herself as she sipped a cup of tea on her Pike Street balcony. “What’s the connection to the cops?”
A garbage truck rumbled by, three stories below. Another boat slowly crossed the bay. The Starbucks below her apartment opened for business and the first rays of the morning sun shed light from behind her balcony to the slowly brightening shore of swanky Bainbridge Island.
Kumi’s eyes brightened and she reached for her cell phone.
“You up?” she excitedly asked Danny.
“No, go away,” he replied.
“You asked the wrong question,” Kumi continued.
“I didn’t ask a question yet,” Danny muttered, his voice muffled by the movement of his bedsheets. “But if I did, my question would be ‘why the hell you calling me so early in the morning.’ Tell me you got something.”
“The question isn’t what was Amaya doing in the stolen car,” Kumi spoke quickly. “The question is what were Winona and her homeless friends doing there.”
“What do they have to do with Amaya, other than being the ones to find her?” Danny asked. “Did you find something, a pattern?”
“There’s a blind spot in the city’s eyes under the bridge,” she explained. “We can’t see where the car was found.”
“So, other stolen cars were found there as well?”
“No,” she replied. “None.”
“Just that one?”
“Right,” Kumi said, barely breathing between sentences. “But I don’t think we were supposed to find that car there.”
“Of course not,” Danny said. “That’s why they parked it in the blind spot. And, who would know where the blind spot is?”
“Hutch and Peters,”
“So, they’re stealing cars and smuggling girls?” Danny asked. “And we know this from the one car being in that spot?”
“No,” Kumi said. “We know it because of Winona and her friends.”
“You got your computer nearby?” Kumi asked. “Let me share my screen.”
Danny rattled around for a few minutes before telling her he was ready. After sending a link and entering a code, they both looked at Kumi’s map of Seattle with the symbols and data tables superimposed.
“So, what do our homeless witnesses have to do with the case?” Danny asked.
“They were in the car under the bridge.”
“What were they doing?” Kumi asked, playfully.
“According to the report, they were just hanging out trying to stay dry.”
“But what else?”
“I don’t know, the report just says they were occupying the vehicle.”
“What do you think?” Kumi asked. “Smoking pot.”
“Well, that goes without saying.”
“The report doesn’t actually say it,” she said. “But the impound records always describe the condition of the stolen car.”
“It was all dented up?”
“Yes,” but according to the impound condition report, “It reeked of pot.”
“Ok, but we knew that, because we knew Winona and the homeless dudes where in there. We assumed…”
“So, I cross checked against the other 23 stolen cars north of the bridge.”
“And you saw a pattern of cars stolen from that spot that also smelled like pot?”
“No,” Kumi said. “There were 24 cars stolen this year. They were recovered in all different locations. Last year there were 27. In the years before Hutch and Peters took the territory, there were a few less per year on average, 17, 20, 19 and 16 for the four years prior.”
“It’s early,” Danny said. “I don’t do numbers before lunchtime. Can you get to the punchline here? Do we know where to look?”
“I’m narrowing it down,” she said. “Of the 24 stolen cars this year, three were trucks and SUVs, eight were luxury cars - you know - two seaters, Porsches and Teslas, little cars like that with tiny trunks. There were another two compact cars and 11 mid-sized sedans.”
“All in Peters’ and Hutch’s beat?”
“Right,” Kumi said. “I ruled out the luxury vehicles and the makes and models that had smaller trunks. If you’re going to steal a car and kidnap a girl, you don’t want flashy wheels that attract attention and you don’t want a tiny trunk.”
“So, you narrowed it to the mid-sized sedans?”
“Yes,” she said. “And I cross-checked the impound manifests. All 11 of the sedans reported significant pot smells. What’s weird about that?”
“But I thought they weren’t all found in that one spot.” Danny said. “It’s a strange coincidence, but it doesn’t seem plausible that the same homeless people got high in each car if they were all found in different places. Plus, stolen cars often smell like pot, just due to the nature of…”
“That’s not what’s weird about it,” Kumi interrupted. “All 11 were recovered. Guess how many of the trucks, luxury cars and compacts were recovered?”
Kumi gave Danny less than a second to answer before answering for him.
“One,” she said. “Just one. They find all 11 sedans, all smelling like pot, and barely recover any other vehicles. And, even so, their 50% recovery rate doubles all other territories. And given this great success, they get to have lunch with the Chief to celebrate their accomplishment.”
“Jesus,” Danny said. “Interesting pattern, but what does it tell us?”
“I still don’t know for sure,” Kumi said, pausing to watch a gull fly across the street toward the bay. “The pattern holds from last year, with 27 cars stolen, 13 sedans recovered - all smelling like pot. And where there’s a pattern, there’s an answer. We’re meeting with Winona and Cliff tomorrow at Kipp’s place. I have some follow-up questions for them.”
“You think all 11 cars were at that spot under the Aurora at some point?”
“Yes, and all 13 the year before,” Kumi said, pausing a second for the dramatics of it. “Because, here’s the punchline, Danny; We’re missing 7 girls north of the bridge this year. We found three. Counting Amaya, that makes 11.”
“Eleven girls this year,” Danny repeated to himself. “Thirteen last year.”
“That’s right, 11 and 13 girls,” Kumi reiterate her point for effect. “Eleven sedans stolen and recovered this year, all smelling like pot.”
“Jesus,” Danny muttered.
“And, guess how many there were last year?”
Danny knew the answer, but Kumi beat him to the extended punchline.