Kipp Collina opened his front door and Alex, Summer, Winona, Cliff and Latoya all filed in. He smiled and welcomed Cliff and Winona with arms wide as if greeting family on a holiday. The house smelled of apples and cinnamon. He served a tray of shortbread cookies. Alex and Winona took several cookies each. Cliff and Summer stewed in the television room, apart from the rest of the group in the kitchen.
“Hell’s with him?” Alex asked his mother.
“Long story. I messed up,” she answered. “What’s with your girl?”
“Pissed off I was driving a car with a girl in the trunk,” Alex replied. “But I didn’t know. I thought it was just drugs and shit.”
Kipp took a seat next to Alex and Winona as Latoya took charge of the conversation.
“We could only stay at the hospital so long,” she told Kipp. “Looks like their friend’ll be ok. But the cops on-site at the hospital started asking questions we didn’t want to answer. With Captain Nichols backing Hutch and Peters, we don’t know how far or wide this goes and we don’t know who to trust. We had to get out of there.”
“Of course,” Kipp said. “You’re welcome at my house any time.”
“They’re going to keep him overnight,” Latoya added. “I’ll check on him tomorrow morning.”
Kipp guided Winona to the bathroom and offered her a towel. He laid out several of his wife’s dresses on the bed and asked her to pick another one to wear after she finished her shower.
“I have two extra bedrooms,” he said, emerging from the hallway as the sound of the water echoed across his stucco walls. “They can stay here as long as they like.”
“Not me,” Summer called into the kitchen from the front room. “Soon as I give my statement, I’m outta here back to my sister’s.”
“Me too,” Cliff said. “Too much excitement here. I’m going to hitch my way down to San Fran and see my daughter.”
Latoya marked a note in her notepad and checked her phone for a text from Kumi.
“We don’t know how long they’ll be,” Latoya said. “We’re going to stay here until we hear from them.”
Cliff scoffed and lay back on the couch, closing his eyes. Within minutes, his breathing evened and his chest heaved slowly. The sleep he achieved on Kipp’s couch was the deepest he had experienced in years. He awoke to the sound of Danny’s truck screeching to a stop in Kipp’s driveway followed by the slamming of two doors and their loud energy as they blustered into the house.
Winona emerged from the kitchen, wearing a navy-blue dress. Like the last time she showered at Kipp’s house, her hair glistened in the rays of the afternoon sun that beamed through Kipp’s bay window.
“Did you find De La Cruz?” Latoya jumped up from the kitchen table.
“Dead,” Kumi intoned.
“Hutch and Peters,” Danny added. “They had him cornered. We got there as soon as we heard it over the radio. But it was too late by then.”
“According to the chatter,” Kumi said. “They tried to take him peacefully, but he came out shooting.”
“Peters got nicked in the shoulder,” Danny continued. “So, they dropped him.”
“Jesus,” Latoya held her hand over her mouth. “What now?”
“Apparently they found enough evidence to link him to all the girls taken from the area over the past two years,” Danny said.
“What evidence?” Latoya asked.
“Burner phones,” Kumi replied. “Detailing calls and texts to his connection with Harsh Garlag, the leader of the Crips, who we’re also looking for. Apparently, it’s all there. Enough to pin the entire operation on them.”
“No,” Winona shouted. “No. That ain’t right.”
“We know they’re dickheads,” Kumi said. “But we don’t have any evidence that they’re dirty.”
“How about they fucking threw me in their car, drove me out to the old power station and threatened to kill me if I made a statement about them.”
“They what?” Danny asked.
“Mom,” Alex said. “The fuck.”
“That’s right,” Winona said, her blue dress hugging her figure and catching the last rays of the day. “They told me they was taking these girls and sending them off to be sacrificed.”
“What’d they say, exactly?” Kumi asked. “This could be very important.”
“I don’t know,” Winona said. “I don’t remember every word. But they made it pretty clear they were protecting the city by sending girls down to this gang leader to keep them happy. They had an agreement not to come up to this part of the city, long as they got the girls sent down to them.”
“And, they said they were kidnapping the girls?” Kumi asked. “Did they specifically admit to that?”
“I don’t know,” Winona replied. “They said a lot. I don’t remember it all word by word. But it was some sick, twisted shit.”
Kumi took out a yellow note pad, slid it across the table and asked Winona to write every detail in a signed affidavit. Cliff rounded the corner into the kitchen, sat at the table across from Winona and asked for a piece of paper.
“They did the same with me,” he said. “Took me down to a quiet spot along the side of the bay and beat the crap out of me too.”
Cliff wrote his statement in neat, lucid handwriting, five crisp paragraphs and his executive-looking signature at the bottom of the page. He wrote about how he hid Amaya from Hutch and Peters on that first night after jumping off the bridge. He included the account of how Hutch and Peters picked him up and drove him to a remote stretch along the channel to threaten his life. He revealed that Hutch and Peters expected him to meet them under the Aurora bridge at 10pm Sunday to share with them anything and everything he hears from the investigators looking into the case. He slid his statement across the table to Kumi.
Kipp boiled water for spaghetti and sliced a long, thin French bread into half inch rounds. After quietly writing his statement, without acknowledging Winona, Cliff sat, with Summer in the other room.
“Do you know what time you observed Amaya in the trunk for the first time?” Kumi wrote on a yellow notepad as she asked Winona.
“I don’t know?” Winona said. “I don’t have no sense of time. And, I ain’t worn a watch in years.”
“Hutch and Peters spoke with you twice?” Kumi asked, her loopy writing filling the page.
“Once when they first got there and again when all the other officers were standing around.”
“And, they were just standing around,” Kumi pressed. “This is very important. Were they looking for anything? Did they seem to be worried about finding Amaya?”
“Nah, just standing there, drinking coffee like a bunch a state workers with nothing better to do.”
“They weren’t shining flashlights around the area?” Kumi asked again. “They didn’t seem to know Amaya was missing? No dogs? And, yet, Hutch and Peters were asking about her?”
“They didn’t exactly ask if we seen a girl,” Winona replied. “But they were definitely agitated. And Amaya was dead afraid of them.”
Kumi turned to Alex and flipped the page.
“What did you know about the drugs?” she asked.
“I didn’t know nothing about no drugs,” he replied. “They told me where to pick up the cars and where to leave them. That’s all I did. I did what they told me.”
“And you never thought to question that?” Danny asked.
“I didn’t care,” he said. “I got a hundred bucks up front and another hundred on delivery. It was just good, quick money, that’s all. They told me specifically not to look in the trunk and I didn’t.”
“And it didn’t occur to you that there could be drugs or anything else illegal going on?”
“Look man,” Alex said. “I didn’t give it a thought. I just did what they asked. No questions.”
“Jesus, Alex,” Summer called from the other room. “You coulda had some little girl in the back of one of those cars.”
“Do you have phone records of your instructions?” Kumi asked. “E-Mails? Texts? Details? Dates? Makes and models?”
No,” Alex looked down at his hands. “They came to the restaurant and told me what to do verbally.”
“Damnit,” Danny smacked the table. “We don’t have a timeline. We don’t have a paper trail. We’re not sure if they confessed or not. We got everything on De La Cruz and nothing on the cops.”
“They’ve been around the neighborhood,” Kipp said. “They’ve been asking residents what they know about stolen cars and kidnapped girls. I didn’t tell anyone about all this.”
The doorbell rang. Kipp dusted breadcrumbs from his shirt. Danny jumped up with his hand on his belt by his gun. Kipp looked through the peep hole with Danny standing just behind him. He nodded and opened the door while Kumi continued to ply Alex and Winona for as much detail as she could.
“I was in the area,” Cliff heard the familiar voice of Doctor Kushnick. “Officer Oshiro gave me the address. I wanted to share an update on Elmer Gans.”
Winona moved from the kitchen to greet the doctor in the foyer. He noticed Cliff and waved.
“How’s the ankle?” he asked. “I’d be happy to check it out. I thought I might see you. I’ve got a softer brace in the car. We can take off that boot.”
“What about Elmer?” Winona asked.
“He was subjected to a significant jolt of electricity,” he replied. “He had a heart attack. Not a massive one, but not a minor one either.”
“He gonna be alright?”
“Your father’s going to recover. He was asking about you. Wanted to make sure you were safe. He sure had a lot to say. Hard to follow his stories. He’s going to stay at the hospital overnight. I’m going to take him in for observation for another day at my clinic.”
“That old guy’s your father?” Alex asked. “My grandfather?”
“No hon,” Winona replied. “He just thinks he is. It settles him to think of me that way - makes him happy. So, I just go along with it. My parents are buried up in Crown Heights. I’ll take you up there someday.”
Summer stood from the couch, pocketed her phone, brushed past Alex. She asked Kumi if she could leave. Doctor Kushnick inspected Cliff’s ankle, removing the boot and feeling along both sides of his foot.
“Just write your statement,” Kumi told Summer. “Give us everything you saw and you’re free to go. We know you were just a spectator and we’re not pressing charges against you.”
“Fine,” she said, looking over her shoulder at Alex. “Then, I’m outta here. I texted my sister. She’s gonna pick me up at the corner.”
“This goes for all of you,” Kumi projected her voice between the kitchen and television room. “Don’t go too far. As of now, the case looks like it will close with De La Cruz as the fall guy – especially depending on what the other two have to say. We’re still looking for Harsh Garlag, the leader of the Crips. We have the girls in the back of stolen cars sent south to the Crips and the drugs sent back up to De La Cruz, Edeyo and Rulan as a simple one-for-one transaction. If there’s a connection to Hutch and Peters, we’ll try to find it. But, as of now, they are not considered suspects.”
“Is it safe?” Winona asked.
“We don’t know,” Danny replied. “We’re going to look into getting you into a safe house. But, without an open investigation, it’s hard to get that approved.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Kipp said. “It sounds like we don’t even know if we can trust a police safe house. They should stay here.”
“Not me,” Summer said, signing her name to her statement. “I’d rather hang with my sister and her shithead boyfriend than with a kidnapper who helps take little girls from their homes.”
Alex stood. Anger mixed with sadness and confusion. He tried to speak, but didn’t seem to know what to say.
“Goodbye Alex,” she said as she walked out of the kitchen.
“You know I didn’t know,” Alex followed her toward the door.
“You should have.”
“You came with me.”
“I shouldn’t have,” she looked at him, a twinge of sadness crossing her eyes. “It was fun.”
“Don’t go,” Alex pleaded.
“Take care of yourself,” she said, closing the door behind her.