Danny rested his elbow on the lift gate to the SUV. He hunched to look into the back, towering over Kumi, who stood next to him with her notepad fluttering in the wind. A four-foot by four-foot cork board took up the entire rear of the vehicle. A giant map of the city, printed on an industrial-sized large-format printer filled the cork board from corner to corner. Kumi pinned pictures of all their suspects and victims on either side of the Aurora bridge, depending on their role in the case.
“We’ve got Julio De La Cruz calling the shots and running the operation up north,” she said, pinning him to a space between the Aurora bridge and the Woodland Hills Zoo. “We’ve got Edeyo Okeke running logistics and telling Rulon Jones which cars to drive south. Rulon picks up the cars at the blind spot. The girls are in the trunks of the cars already, which means, De La Cruz and Okeke, know they’ve been abducted. We’ll go with Alex’s assertion that neither he nor Rulon Jones knew about the girls.”
“So, either De La Cruz or Jones do the kidnapping,” Danny said, pinning their pictures next to Julio’s.
“If so,” Kumi said, fishing through a folder full of pictures. “It would have to be both of them together. Victim number 13, Jenny Cho described her abductors as ‘two men’. So, we know they work in pairs.”
She pinned the picture of Jenny to the board near the hospital where she was reported missing.
“According to Alex, we have Okeke, Jones and De La Cruz at the pizza restaurant between 10-11am on the morning Cho was reported missing. The doesn’t line up. It couldn’t be at both places at the same time.”
“Alex is mistaken on his timeline?”
“Unlikely,” Kumi said, looking at her notes. “His timeframe is corroborated by Winona, who arrived at the restaurant between 9:00 and 9:30 and Cliff who says they returned a little before noon. So, if they were there, it would have had to have been the time range Alex gave.”
“Which conflicts with the time of the 13th abduction,” Danny said. “So, it’s a different set of kidnappers than Julio and his crew?”
“That’s our working theory.”
“Jones drives the girls down to the garage,” Danny continued, pinning a blue string stretching from the Aurora bridge to the SeaTac International Airport. “Let’s say unbeknownst to him.”
“He drops the car off and splits,” Kumi continued. “Balseca rolls up in the van, swaps the girl for the brick of drugs and leaves the car for Alex to pick up and take back to Fremont.”
“Harsh Garlag, leads the Crips and runs the operation in the south,” Danny said as he affixed pictures of him and Romeo Balseca to the area near the airport. “They rent out a storage garage with a stolen credit card number, damage the security camera and use the private space to transfer the girls to wherever they take them to be sold.”
Kumi scrunched her face as she reviewed her notes. Danny pinned a red string leading from the airport to the Aurora bridge.
“Here’s the disconnect for me,” she said. “There’s clearly a communication that has to happen between the operation in the north and the operation in the south.”
Danny cut another black string from the spool and pinned it from the Aurora bridge to the airport. The three strings ran parallel to each other forming a multi-colored straight line.
“We have the burner phones with all the evidence,” Danny said. “It’s pretty clear cut. De La Cruz and Garlag were the connection points.”
Kumi turned to face the hum of Aurora Avenue a few streets over from Kipp’s quiet lane. The breeze played with her short dark hair. She squinted against the morning sun as if searching for an answer across the horizon.
“The guys down in forensics told me something that made me think,” she said. “They said the prints on the phone were crystal clear.”
“It just feels too simple,” she said. “No smudges. No overlaid prints. It was like his fingers only touched each key once.”
“You only use a burner phone once,” Danny said. “That’s the whole point of a single-use device.”
“But you have to hit each key numerous times to send a text,” Kumi said. “Especially with the old fashioned tactile three-digit keyboard. There should have been partial prints on top of other partial prints. It’s like the phone was wiped clean and then a fresh set applied.”
“You mean like after he was killed?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Kumi said. “We’re missing something. Hutch and Peters play a role here, but I don’t know what it is yet.”
“We know they recover the stolen cars,” Danny said, stretching a black string from the bridge to the precinct, east of the university.
“That’s where the story gets muddy to me,” Kumi said. “For some reason, someone communicates to Hutch and Peters to inform them of where the stolen cars are dumped. Why do they do that? What’s in it for them?”
“Immunity from arrest?” Danny asked. “A deal between the cops and the gangs?”
“And, what about the picture that Amaya drew with the big light on top of the car?” Kumi continued. “So far, Latoya’s visited her twice. But she’s only referred to a fat one and a skinny one. That could be Hutch and Peters.”
“Balseca’s pretty fit and from what I hear, Garlag doesn’t miss a meal,” Danny played Devil’s Advocate. “Edeyo’s thin and De La Cruz was pretty stacked. They can easily deflect that one. She really didn’t get a look at their faces?”
“Grabbed her from behind,” Kumi said. “Bag over her head. The works.”
“But she recognized them under the bridge?”
“Toya’s trying to get there, but she’s still working through the trauma,” Kumi answered. “Apparently, she recognized their voices.”
“I gotta get to this meeting,” Danny said pulling out the board, handing it to Kumi and closing the lift gate. “Bottom line; Hutch and Peters can make the case they were just picking up anonymous tips on stolen cars. If so, they skate.”
“Give Nichol’s my love,” she said. “Tell him I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to see his smugly face.”
The ride to Amaya’s brownstone took nearly an hour. The 8:30am traffic inched along like molasses running through the clogged veins of the city.
Amaya let go of her father’s hand, ran a hundred feet across the sidewalk and greeted her with an unabashed hug. She wore her forest green school uniform with her bright white shoes. Her hair extended from either side of the top of her head in short, stiff pig tails.
In addition to her coffee and his green tea, Latoya ordered a chocolate croissant for herself, an almond croissant for Shinjiro and a ginger scone for Amaya. Shin carried the hot beverages to the table. Latoya handed the bag of pastries to Amaya who placed them at the center of the table and opened the bag to serve Latoya.
They discussed her adjustment to returning to school after remaining home for a few days to clear her head. Latoya asked Amaya about her friends and the games they like to play at school. Amaya showed a picture of the school that she had drawn the previous day. It depicted her smiley teacher and several of her friends on the swings and the slide.
“She seems to have either forgotten or blocked out much of what happened,” Shin said, sipping his tea. “She’s readjusted nicely and doesn’t have nightmares or bad memories. She’s quite back to normal, thank God.”
“Do you mind if I ask her to try and recall who abducted her?”
“Amaya,” Latoya said, slowly. “I know it’s scary to think about this, but it would be very helpful to me if you could tell me any details about the night you met your friend Winona - the night you were in the back of the car.”
Amaya looked out the window. Her eyes glazed and she shook her head.
“I know it’s hard,” Latoya continued. “We have good, smart, police watching over you. And you’re safe with your mom and dad now. But it would be very helpful if you could tell me anything you remember about the people that took you that night.”
Amaya inhaled deeply. She took a bite of her croissant and suddenly looked into Latoya’s brown eyes.
“The big and the little,” she said. “Big one and little one. Small one.”
“Yes, you told me that last time,” she clarified. “There was a bigger person and a smaller person. But this is important; Did they wear uniforms? Police uniforms?”
Amaya looked blankly at her. Latoya stood and addressed her father.
“I hate to ask you this,” she said.
“You want to show her the pictures I assume?” Shin said. “You can try. I don’t know if she will respond”
“I don’t want to traumatize her or scare her,” she said. “But we have to know.”
Shin nodded. Latoya slid a picture of Hutch and Peters from a folder in her bag. Shin spoke to her in Japanese, causing her to snap back with a sharp string of words Latoya couldn’t understand. She shook her head vehemently and stepped away from Latoya.
“It’s alright,” Latoya said, sliding the photos back into the folder.
“No,” Shin said, crouching to Amaya’s eye level. He spoke softly to her. At first, she shook her head in fear. But he explained to her the importance of helping the police catch the people who tried to harm her so they couldn’t do it to any other girls. She nodded in a tentative up and down motion.
Latoya slid the photos and gently placed them on the table. Amaya leaned in. Her face lost color. Her eyes welled. She jerked her head away and spoke in rapid Japanese to her father. He nodded, gave her a long, tight hug and kissed her.
“She won’t be able to testify in a court,” he said. “But those are the men that tried to abduct her. She is sure of it.”