Katz was surprised to discover that the address book belonged to Liz Bahti, but did his best to conceal this surprise from Charles. Getting it translated was as easy as a quick visit to an acquaintance, and they had a list of names, some in Los Angeles and some in Michigan. Nikki’s name was also in the book, but Charles said the address was the one she’d run away from two years ago, so that contact was no good.
A quick canvassing of the Los Angeles contacts proved to be worthless. Katz changed clothes, combing his hair back and doffing the coat for some pegged jeans and a black Legendary Pink Dots t-shirt that easily quadrupled his street cred. He left Charles in the car so he could do the talking without the big intimidating lawyer hanging over him, and discovered that none of Liz’ friends had seen her for a month or more. Two had heard that she’d died, a bit of gossip which panicked Katz until he called Liz’ mother. Midori Bahti was curt and didn’t give him any idea of her daughter’s whereabouts, but made it clear that they had at least spoken recently. A call to Liz’ father, in Michigan, confirmed it–she was in Michigan. They’d missed her by three weeks. Ted Bahti wanted to know if Liz owed Katz money, and made it clear that if she did, he ought to consider the marker defaulted and swallow his loss. The guy sounded like he was capable of doing something about it, too.
Katz expected to have to sell Charles on the notion that Liz was heading back toward where Nikki had disappeared, but the lawyer seemed to make the connection on his own, and paid for both their plane tickets. Katz overheard him on the phone to his woman, telling her he’d taken a leave of absence from work to pursue this. That was a good sign; Charles didn’t intend to bail any time soon, which was a good thing. Katz had a feeling it was going to get a lot stranger before it was over, and his feelings about these things were rarely wrong.
He made more phone calls on the way to the airport, and considered next steps during the flight. Charles was quiet, reading through some papers he’d brought from his office, and Katz didn’t bother him. When they landed they went to the rental car desk without a word, and it wasn’t until they driven to a suite-hotel in Ann Arbor and gotten a room that Charles asked, “What’s the plan?”
“Figured you would’ve asked that a while ago.”
A long, silent look was followed by, “I’m trusting your instincts.”
He nodded, acknowledging the vote of confidence. “I have Elizabeth Bahti’s address. We go there, and see where she goes. If she’s best friends with your sister, she’ll either lead us to her, or we’ll get an idea of where she might be.”
“You really think Nikki’s here? The bank was in Colorado.”
“I don’t know. I can tap Ms. Bahti’s phone–“
“Don’t,” Charles said wearily. “Please. Let’s keep this as legal as we can.” He was already trying to think of a way to find out if Nikki was in contact with this woman without stalking her.
Katz held his hands up and smiled his Columbo smile. “No problem. We’ll play it by ear. That’s what I do best. It’s after four. Let’s go down to Ypsilanti in a few minutes, and find this girl’s apartment.”
“Do you mind if I call my fiancée first?” he replied, with just a touch of sarcasm.
“Be my guest,” Katz replied, bowing out of the room to give Charles some privacy.
He called his fiancée Andrea at work, since it was three hours earlier in San Francisco. She was happy to hear from him. “Just wanted to let you know we made it in okay, ahead of the snow,” he said.
“Does it look promising?” Andrea asked. She had a rich Irish accent; she’d grown up there. Something about her voice made Charles feel at home, and his annoyance with Katz receded accordingly.
“Better than it has been.”
“You mean he might know where Nikki is? You made him out to be something of a clown.”
Charles glanced in the direction of the doorway. “He is. But I think he’s got something. The private eye I hired before didn’t even manage to reach her friends. The wonders of the Internet, I suppose. Anyway, I’m going to try to talk to some of her friends, see if maybe they know where she went, or if she’s been in contact with them.”
“You’re not getting your hopes up too high again, are you Charles?”
He smiled. “Maybe. But she’s alive. I told you about the photos. And he says there’s more, once he susses out the meaning.”
“That’s true,” Andrea replied. “What are you going to do if you find her?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I reach it. Oh, I’ve rented a suite; I’m going to give this a month, if I don’t strangle Katz any sooner than that. I’m going to have some things from the office faxed out here, so I’m not completely on vacation. Let me give you the number, too.” Charles gave her the number and they made a somewhat drawn-out goodbye. Andrea was worried about him; she didn’t like seeing his hopes dashed.
Katz was ready to go. Charles had rented a big Buick for the duration, and they left right away. The luxury car was a reminder that he was footing much of the bill for this endeavor, and as a result he was feeling even less patient with Katz’ tendency to talk down to him after the short drive to Ypsilanti. The address was one of several battered-looking apartment buildings a short walk from the Eastern Michigan University campus, obviously populated mainly by students.
“Is she a student?” Charles asked.
Katz’ attention was outside the car. “She’s not registered as one. Look around for a 1987 Subaru XT coupe, license plate LLY 642. That’s her car.”
“Right,” he replied dubiously, keeping an eye on traffic. There was about an inch of snow on the ground, and the weather report had called for at least another inch overnight. Charles found a space on the street across from the complex.
“There it is,” Katz said, pointing to a dirty car among the other dirty cars in the lot. “She should be here.”
“We wait. If she leaves, we see where she goes. If not, we’ll be here all night.”
“Some plan,” Charles replied.
As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait long; within ten minutes a tall woman with Asian features came out of the apartment building, got into the car they were watching, and pulled out of the lot. She was dressed rather thinly for the weather, except for a red and white woolen hat. She didn’t even have gloves, as far as they could see.
“Is that her?” Charles asked.
“Too far away to tell,” Katz replied. “The only picture’s from a DUI arrest, it’s not going to be much good. Follow her anyway.”
“I have to voice my disapproval of our stalking this woman,” he said as they pulled out into traffic. “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
“As soon as you think of one, you let me know,” Katz said, somewhat smugly. Trusting Charles to follow the old Subaru, he was looking through the day’s newspaper, indifferent to the failing light.
Left to his thoughts, he imagined Nikki, who had disappeared into the foster care system after their family had died almost four years ago. Charles had been stationed in Germany at the time, and a vindictive CO had kept the news bouncing around the ether for almost twelve months before telling him that his parents had been killed and his little sister had no one to watch over her. The CO had taken both legal and extra-legal lumps, and Charles had rushed home only to find that Nikki had run away from the distant cousins she’d been placed with. She’d vanished without a trace, as so many kids her age did. She had been seventeen, and she’d be almost twenty now. Charles had moved to the Bay Area and stepped into the law practice his military-funded education had been preparing him for, and mostly given up hope of finding Nikki.
They followed the car through town, to a martial arts studio that lay sandwiched among the pawn shops, used car dealers, and thrift stores that made up the east side of town. Charles eased into a space in the lot, and they watched their quarry go inside, her shoulders hunched against the cold.
“Let me guess,” Charles said. “We wait out here, until she comes out. Maybe if we’re really lucky, she comes out with Nikki in tow.”
“You got it,” Katz said. “We’ll be sitting here a while. Want a cup of coffee?”
Charles glared at him for a long moment, then shut the car off, took the keys, and headed for the studio’s door.
“Hey!” Katz barked as Charles got out of the car. “You can’t tell her who you are, you dumb son of a bitch!” It was no use, of course; the lawyer was already gone. “At least leave me the damn keys! It’s cold!”