Naomi Sandburg focused all her attention on the blue and white truck several car lengths ahead of her. She knew the principles of successfully following vehicles -- her son was a police officer, after all, and she now found herself much more interested in detective programs, when she wasn't meditating or visiting friends around the world. Blair had tried to tell her that the programs weren't accurate but, accurate or not, she found the information she had gleaned to be extremely helpful as she wound through the city streets behind the classic truck. It was a shame the battery in her cell phone had failed. She would have so enjoyed giving Jim and Blair a turn-by-turn report.
"Where are you going, Mr. Rude?" she muttered as she cranked the steering wheel to the right to follow a sudden turn from the vehicle ahead of her. "That truck belongs to my son's best friend and I'll be darned if I'm going to let you get away from me!" Naomi vowed, making a sharp left in the truck's wake.
The pair rambled through the streets of Cascade for nearly twenty minutes, the truck's driver taking an apparently deliberately circuitous route and Naomi doggedly following, alternating biting her lip in concentration and singing along with oldies songs on the radio. Finally, the blue and white Ford drew to a halt outside a warehouse in a particularly seedy area of the waterfront. Realizing that they had reached their destination, Naomi quickly maneuvered her compact car behind a stack of wooden pallets, parked, got out of the car and ran around to peer through the spaces between the slats. She had a clear view of Jim's truck and the warehouse, and once again rued the demise of her cell phone battery.
'Mr. Rude' slid unconcernedly from the truck and strode confidently to a metal door at the end of the nearest wall. Pausing, he reached into his jacket and drew a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a bright green lighter from an inside pocket. He placed the cigarette between his lips, flicked the lighter's flint wheel and touched the resulting flame to the tip of the cigarette. Drawing a deep breath, he smiled in obvious contentment as the smoke filled his lungs.
Naomi wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Doesn't he know what he's doing to his body?" she muttered, shaking her head.
Rude turned and rapped sharply on the door, looking around disinterestedly as he waited for a response to his knock. Although she knew she was well hidden, Naomi withdrew farther into the shadows behind the pallets.
After a moment, the warehouse door opened and Mr. Rude spoke briefly, gesturing at the truck behind him. The door closed and, as Rude strode back to the truck, a large overhead door began to slide smoothly up the wall. The thief slid into the cab of Jim's truck and cranked the engine once more.
"Jim will be furious when he smells that smoke in his truck!" Naomi declared angrily.
Rude pulled the old Ford into the warehouse through the now-open door, which immediately rolled down to close behind the bumper.
Blair was frantic, pacing from one end of the bullpen to the other, oblivious to the sympathetic looks from his co-workers. They had returned from their various tasks to find Jim and Blair animatedly 'discussing' the merits of dashing off in search of Naomi Sandburg, Jim apparently trying to be the voice of reason. A quick update from the senior detective had brought them all up to speed and they were pitching in to help in the search for Blair's mother.
Ellison was on the phone with the department's tech services department. They were trying to backtrack through the telephone switch's massive incoming calls log in an effort to ferret out Naomi's cell phone number. With that number, Ellison hoped to contact the cell phone company and determine which repeater tower had routed the call. It would only give them a general area to search, but at least it was a start.
Rafe had been delegated the task of compiling a list of all the PDQ Cars locations in Cascade. PDQ Cars operated a chain of successful used car dealerships across Washington and Jim knew of at least three locations within the Cascade city limits alone. Naomi had said she was on the outskirts of Cascade, so the addresses of the outer locations, combined with the cell phone repeater tower location, might help to narrow the search criteria.
Watching his partner pace, Ellison was startled when the telecom tech came back on the line with the last number routed to Sandburg's extension. He jotted it down and hung up with a quick thanks and an "I owe you big time, Rick." to the tech.
"Jim, man, we're wasting time!" Blair exclaimed, raking his fingers through his unbound hair. The leather strap Blair usually wore during work hours hadn't survived the junior detective's first nervous swipe and now lay discarded on his desk. Blair's pacing took him past his partner's desk and he paused to regard him fearfully.
Jim fully understood his partner's anxiety and once again patiently explained, "Blair, running around town looking for her without a clue where to start is wasting time. We've got to have a starting point. I know you're worried, buddy. So am I. But the best way to help your mom right now is to keep our heads and gather as much information as we can."
Blair seemed to deflate, sinking into a chair next to his partner's desk and dropping his head into his hands. "My head knows all that, Jim," he admitted miserably. "It's just that my heart keeps telling me to do something!"
"Well, here's something for your brain to do, Chief. Rick in Tech Services accessed the phone switch and came up with the last number routed to your extension. He says it's a Sprint cell number. Get on the horn with Sprint and see if they can tell you what repeater tower her last call routed through." He handed his partner the paper and reached out to accept the list of PDQ Cars locations Rafe had finished compiling. "Chief," he said, grasping his partner's arm as he rose to make his way back to his own desk to call the cell phone company, "don't worry. She's a smart lady." Most of the time. "She won't do anything stupid."
This is stupid, Naomi chastised herself as she crept slowly toward the warehouse. It had been fifteen minutes since Mr. Rude and Jim's truck had disappeared behind the warehouse door and Naomi's curiosity was getting the better of her. She knew the wise thing to do would be to find a telephone and call Blair and Jim. However, no matter how well things had turned out after the unintentional release of Blair's dissertation and how many times Blair and Jim had assured her that all was forgiven, Naomi still felt responsible for wreaking havoc on the two most important men in her life. So, the guilt-ridden part of her was pushing her forward to learn more about the theft of Jim's truck.
A casual passerby, if any could have been found in the seedy waterfront district, would have been struck by the incongruity of an attractive, middle-aged redhead in a bright blue blouse and a wildly colorful ankle-length print skirt skulking between the colorless stacks of empty wooden pallets. Focused intently on her task, Naomi had no time to worry about her lack of camouflage.
Reaching the edge of her tin-walled fortification, Naomi had to make a decision -- risk crossing the open space between the two buildings, or do the prudent thing and find a telephone. Gathering the folds of her voluminous skirt into both hands, Naomi took a deep breath, searched unsuccessfully for a calming mantra, and darted across the driveway between the warehouses. Crouching once again behind a collection of barrels emblazoned unreassuringly with a series of hazardous materials warnings, Naomi sought to calm her pounding heart. Okay, so the private investigators on TV make this look a lot easier than it really is!
She scanned the building beside her and was disappointed to find no windows through which to peer. A quick check behind her revealed a maintenance ladder leading to the roof of the building. Decision time again. Silently berating herself for not taking the prudent path, Naomi slithered along the wall to the base of the maintenance ladder, swearing softly when she snagged her skirt on a sharp piece of tin. First you steal Jim's truck, and now you make me tear my favorite skirt chasing after you! You are seriously destroying your karma, Mr. Rude! At the bottom of the ladder, Naomi sighed, reached between her ankles, grasped the back hem of her skirt and pulled it up to tuck it into her waistband in front. If the heroines in old westerns could ride a horse like this, then I can climb a ladder. She placed her foot on the first rung, grasped the handrails, and began her ascent.
Sandburg impatiently tapped his pencil on his desk pad as he waited for the Sprint customer service representative to enter his badge information and request into their computer. He had to literally bite his tongue not to shout at the man, who he realized was only trying to do his job -- at a snail's pace. After all, it wasn't his mother who was missing somewhere in the wilds of Cascade, hot on the heels of a truck thief! Just as he was getting ready to toss caution to the wind and begin shouting at the rep, the man came back on the line. "Our records show that number registered to a Naomi Sandburg."
"Yes! That's right!" Blair confirmed excitedly. "Can you tell me where she was when she made her last call?"
"I can't tell you precisely, Detective, but I can at least tell you which repeater tower the call was routed through. However, I gotta tell you that calls sometimes get routed through towers pretty far away from their actual location."
"I understand." Blair tried to quell his rising excitement. "But it gives us something to go on, at least. I'll need the exact location of the tower, please." He gave his partner the high sign and Jim pushed to his feet, scooping up the map he'd been using to plot the PDQ Cars locations Rafe had acquired.
Mentally adding a pair of ruined sandals to Mr. Rude's growing inventory of negative karma, Naomi quietly splashed through accumulated rain water on the warehouse roof, intent on reaching the access door on the far side. No skylight, she noted in disappointment. They always get to observe the bad guys through a skylight on TV!
She reached the door and, praying to whatever gods might be listening that the door was unlocked and the hinges well oiled, Naomi turned the knob. She almost fainted in relief when the knob turned easily and the door swung open soundlessly. Taking a quick peek inside to make sure the coast was clear, she stepped swiftly onto the landing inside the door. She closed it silently behind her, praying that no light had filtered down to be observed by anyone below. She heard no indications that her entry had been noticed, so she inched forward to assess her location. As far as Naomi could tell, the warehouse had three levels. The topmost level, on which she stood, was about twenty feet wide and ran the width of the building. All but the first floor were abbreviated, with metal stairways leading up to each level. The second level appeared to be a small, glassed-in office area -- thankfully devoid of life, as far as she could tell from her awkward position. Even hiding almost in the rafters, she felt horribly exposed. The lower floor was nothing more than a wide open, concrete floor dotted with cars and trucks, presumably stolen. Besides the door on which Mr. Rude had knocked and the large rolling garage door though which he'd driven Jim's truck, the only other doors were marked Men and Women. Restrooms. No rear exit was immediately visible.
Naomi dropped to her knees and crawled carefully to the edge of the third-level platform, grasping the safety railing for security, and peered over at the activity below her.
The hoods of two of the cars were raised, as was the hood of Jim's truck, which sat well toward the back of the building. Three men, including Mr. Rude, were working beneath the hood and Naomi feared they were already stripping Jim's beloved truck. But she could see no tools in their hands and no truck parts littered the floor yet. Then, almost as one, the men drew back from the truck and one reached up to close the hood with a startling bang that reverberated through the large metal building. Risking detection, Naomi scooted closer to the platform's edge to get a better angle. After a few moments of brief discussion, the men moved as a group toward the exit. Naomi held her breath and flattened herself to the floor as one of the men hesitated at the door and intently scanned the warehouse. She didn't look up again until several seconds after she heard the door close and the lock engage.
The warehouse was now silent, apparently empty. Pushing herself carefully and quietly to her feet, Naomi moved toward the stairway leading to the lower level. She took a tentative step then froze, expecting an angry shout of exposure. Silence. She stepped down once more and waited. Gaining more confidence, but cognizant of the thieves' possible return, Naomi increased her speed down the stairs. At least on the ground floor she might find somewhere to hide if need be.
She made it to the ground floor without incident and ducked behind the bumper of a green Chevy Nova that pleasantly reminded her of Chuck Wallace, an intense but short-lived romance from her youth. Although convinced the warehouse was indeed empty, Naomi crawled along the wall, from vehicle to vehicle, using the bumpers as camouflage until she reached the front of the building. As she crouched beside the door, she strained to hear signs that the thieves were nearby. Her heart pounded as she caught snippets of conversation -- were they coming back? She released the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding when she heard three car doors slam, an engine turn over and then the noise fade as the car moved away from the building. Although she was frightened, Naomi was also experiencing an unexpected adrenaline rush. I guess now I can understand why Blair would be drawn to the excitement of police work, she reflected with a smile.
Then, knowing she had to act quickly, Naomi dashed across the warehouse to Jim's truck.
"There!" Jim stabbed at the map in front of them to emphasize his point. "The repeater tower is here, and the nearest PDQ Cars is here. She's got to be somewhere in this area." He turned to his partner, who was returning his telephone receiver to its cradle with a shake of his head. "Any luck, Chief?"
"No," he sighed. "But I knew it was a long shot. I just keep getting a recording telling me she's either out of the calling area or has her phone turned off. I swear, when we find her, I'm going to buy her ten of those damn batteries!"
"Well, let's get rolling, partner." Jim smiled encouragingly as he folded up the map, "I think we've nailed the area of town she was calling from -- Morton Hills. Let's pay a visit to their local PDQ Cars and see if we can pick up her trail from there."
Blair leapt to his feet and snatched the map from his partner's grasp, striding through the doors toward the elevator. Ellison quickly followed, certain Blair would leave without him if he failed to keep up.
When they reached the parking garage, Jim grabbed the keys from Blair's hand. "I'll drive, Chief." He forestalled Blair's protest by explaining, "You're more familiar with Naomi's car than I am. You'll spot her long before I do -- enhanced sight or not. I may be the sentinel here, buddy, but this time I need my guide's eyes."
Reassured by his partner's logic, Blair nodded and moved toward the passenger side of the Mustang while Ellison opened the driver's door. The classic car's engine roared to life at the turn of the key and Ellison quickly but carefully backed out of the space. He expertly navigated the tight turns as they spiraled their way from the lower levels of the parking garage, tires squealing the message of the detective's haste.
Blair's fingers tapped a nervous rhythm on his knee, and the sentinel could detect his partner's elevated heart rate in anticipation of their search.
At the entrance to the parking garage, Jim braked slightly and quickly craned his neck to check traffic. Then he froze. "What the hell...?"
"Jim, what's wrong?" Blair asked, returning from wherever his thoughts had taken him.
"It's my truck!" Jim exclaimed as he cranked the wheel to the left, accelerated out of the parking garage and then skidded to a stop behind his blue and white Ford truck. Throwing open their doors, both men leapt from the Mustang, guns drawn. It briefly occurred to Blair that if the thief was stupid enough to bring the stolen truck to the police station, they probably didn't really need their weapons to apprehend him.
"Cascade Police! Outta the truck!" Jim bellowed, advancing slowly from the rear of the truck, his service revolver aimed unwaiveringly toward the driver's side door, his senses attuned to possible attack. Blair hung back slightly, weapon at the ready to defend his partner if necessary. He tensed as the driver's door opened and the occupant popped into view, waving merrily and pointing happily at Jim's truck.
"Jim! Look what I found!" Naomi Sandburg shouted happily, beaming proudly.