Former sergeant Scott MacIntyre strolled through Los Angeles International Airport. He was still getting used to the idea of being a civilian, though his high and tight haircut marked him as not civilian enough. Pulling his rolling deployment bag, with a hanging bag over his shoulder, the crowd parted around his six foot two inch, muscled frame.
Scott caught one of the airport's rental car shuttles. He chose a window seat and watched people around him. Returning to California was difficult for him. He'd been five, almost six-years-old, when his parents were murdered. The scene of that crime sat an hour's drive from the airport, at least in LA traffic. He'd often wondered whether the modest bungalow in Altadena had been a happy home. He had no memories of it.
The Marine Corps had brought him back to California, first to San Diego where boys became men. Combat training had returned him twice more, once to nearby Twentynine Palms and another trip to learn the ways of mountain warfare in the Sierras. Twentynine Palms had been tantalizingly close to the desert spot where the madman, Craig Carson, had buried his parents and Scott's young body in a sandy hole north of Barstow. During training, he'd made the excuse that time was not his own, the Marines determined where and when he should be.
This trip was personal. He could no longer avoid his past. A blast from the shuttle's air brakes alerted him that it was time to go. He grabbed his bags and made his way to the rental counter.
What a crazy country, he thought, as he stood in line. Two combat tours in Afghanistan, blood and tears shed for his country, and only now was he old enough to rent a car without hassle. He extracted his Navy Credit Union debit card from his wallet and handed it to the rental agent.
He could have hired a car with the other card hidden in his wallet, but he wanted to maintain the illusion of normalcy for a little while longer.
The midsized sedan suited his purpose. Navigating his way from LAX, he marveled at the blighted sprawl of Southern California. How anyone could stand it was beyond his comprehension. Sure, the weather was great, but how did Californians keep their sanity? He laid into the horn as an idiot yakking on a cell phone started to drift into his lane. Maybe they're all crazy, he mused.
He fought traffic all the way to San Bernardino. The city had changed. He didn't like the way his combat senses tingled as he drove around. Gang graffiti and empty storefronts, it wasn't the San Bernardino he remembered from the brief months in its foster-care system.
The hotel room was clean and serviceable. Scott removed the service uniform from the hanging bag and hung it from the bathroom door. He inspected the cloth with a practiced eye. A little steam from the shower would help relax any wrinkles the uniform had picked up from his travels.
For a second, he considered tapping his abilities. A quick nudge and the uniform would be as crisp as if it had come from the cleaners. He tamped that thought down.
What had happened to him in the desert grave, buried in sand, with the bodies of his murdered parents had changed him. His life before that moment--erased. The doctors said it was trauma, but Scott wasn't so sure. He'd emerged from that hole a blank slate and with no explanations for how truly unusual he was.
He'd been naïve, but the Corps burned that away. Scott dug into the plastic baggie holding his ribbons and marksmanship badges. He pinned them to the cloth with honed precision. He took a soft cloth and ran it over his polished shoes. He was authorized to wear the uniform while en route his home of record and he wanted to look sharp for the appointment.
After a shower, he decided to hit a sandwich shop near the hotel. Outside the shop, one of California's ubiquitous street people was begging for money. The bedraggled man showed his tattered sign to Scott, 'War Vet – Please Help.'
Scott knelt and looked at the rummy eyes and dirty face. "Where'd you serve?"
"Nam," the man replied.
"Bullshit!" Scott barked. He forced his hands to unclench. "If I see that sign when I come back, I'll make you eat it." "Hey man," the vagrant said. "Agent Orange gave me that PTSD."
"Fuck you," Scott said, "don't be here when I get back." Some middle aged addict trying to pass himself off as a Vietnam era veteran. It pissed him off. He clamped down on his anger and went to find some food.
Midmorning the next day, Scott found a parking garage near his downtown destination. He stepped out of the sedan and fixed his cover in place. The nerves surprised him and he took a calming breath.
The walk to the government center was short. The building was like a thousand other government offices, drab but functional. He passed through the security station in the lobby and uniformed officers from city and county departments nodded politely at him. He took the elevator to the third floor and approached the reception desk.
"Good morning," the receptionist said. "May I help you?"
"I have an appointment with Susan Miller."
"Name?" the woman asked.
"One moment please."
She placed a phone call and smiled at him. After a short wait, a security door opened. The years had been kind to Susan Miller. Except for a few wrinkles and a touch of gray, she was unchanged and he'd have recognized her anywhere. A uniformed sheriff's deputy accompanied her and gave him the once-over.
"Sergeant MacIntyre," Susan said, "you asked for this meeting. What can I do for you?"
"It's been a long time, Detective Miller."
"Lieutenant Miller," she said, "and you'll forgive me sergeant, but what connection do you have to an old case of mine? Your message was intriguing, but I checked my notes and ran your name through the computer. You're not listed as witness or suspect connected to any of my old cases."
Ah, he realized the deputy was for security. She had no idea who he was. The thought amused him.
Her brow furrowed.
"December 1997," he said, "you put me aboard an airplane in Barstow."
Her mouth opened but nothing came out.
"Could we talk? Perhaps somewhere more, private?" he asked.
"Certainly," she said, shaking her head. "I'm surprised ... my god, it's really you?" She turned to the deputy, "Reed, you can return to your duties."
The deputy was not happy, "Are you sure, ma'am?"
"I'm fine," she replied. "Thank you. The sergeant is an old friend." She pointed to the door. "Sergeant MacIntyre, we can talk in my office."
The Lieutenant swiped her identity card over the door reader and waited for the click. "What should I call you?"
"Scott's fine, lieutenant."
"If you'll call me Susan."
She smiled and led him through a twisting warren of offices and cubicles. "I'm in administration now. It's good duty." She showed him to her office. "Do you remember Tom Nettle?"
"Would you mind if I called him? We married and he works nearby."
"Please do," Scott said. "I had hoped to get a chance to see Tom and your partner, Detective Alvarez. I was sorry to learn the detective had passed."
She picked up the phone. "John was a good man. He retired, but died a couple of years later. Happens too often in this job." She punched a button and held up a couple of fingers as she spoke into the phone. "Tom, you'll never guess who's in my office..."
Scott tuned out the conversation and looked around the office. The walls were decorated with photographs and plaques commemorating Susan's law enforcement career. His first memories were of these people; Tom Nettle, the deputy who found him in the desert, and detectives Susan Miller and John Alvarez who investigated the case. He remembered them as young, but serious people genuinely concerned for him. Tom and Susan had been especially kind, visiting him in the hospital and in foster care as he recovered from his wounds. Scott unconsciously reached for the scar under his right arm, but forced himself to relax.
He was happy that Tom and Susan married. Something good had come from his case.
The three officers had gone to the airport with him that December day and what followed wasn't their fault. They had no idea the machinations put in play by a billionaire who felt wealth excused him from the bounds of law, who stopped at nothing to protect the Carson family fortune and name.
Susan ended the call and stood. "Tom can meet us at a nearby diner, if you don't mind an early lunch?"
Susan wrote a quick note and put it on her day calendar. "Tom's retired from the department," she said, "and works as an investigator for the prosecutors' office. He can't wait to see you."
They met Tom outside the diner. The impossibly tall, cowboy hat wearing man of Scott's memories was now a balding, middle-aged gentleman with a broad smile. The smile Scott remembered. He stuck out his hand.
"My god," Tom Nettle said, extending his own hand. "The uniform looks good on you. We've wondered over the years. Tried looking, but you were a ghost."
"They did a good job hiding me," Scott said. "I was expecting a cowboy hat."
"I still wear one sometimes. You hungry? Susan's got me on a diet. Then she tells me we're eating at my favorite diner. Does that seem fair to you?"
The trio took a quiet booth in the back of the diner and ordered. They were early for the lunch crowd.
Scott sipped from a glass of ice water and examined the couple. He realized they were both so eager to ask questions that they didn't know where to start. He broke the ice, "How do you like the prosecutor's office?"
"It's good work," Tom said, "keeps me out of trouble until Susan retires next year."
"What will you do then?"
"We're moving to Idaho," Susan said.
"A lot of law-enforcement retirees have moved there," Tom said. "You can't beat the neighborhood watch."
"I can imagine."
"What about you, Scott?" Susan asked. "Where are you stationed?"
"I signed my discharge papers two days ago," he said. "I'm heading home to Texas to finish college."
"Texas?" she said. She grew wistful. "Your folks were from there weren't they?"
He nodded. "I wouldn't like my location getting around."
"Understandable," she said. "The press still writes articles about the case, especially on the big anniversaries."
"I read one a few years ago," Scott said. "Odd to read about it like that."
"A reporter," Tom said, "started poking around last year. An old police beat character. He wanted to write a book, but I don't think it went anywhere."
"Tell him why," Susan said.
Tom scratched an ear. "Did you know the case records were sealed?"
"When I started with the prosecutor's office, I used my access to poke around. Sealed doesn't mean inaccessible. It's a sad fact, but plenty of people are willing to slip a reporter a restricted file."
"That's not comforting," Scott said.
"Here's the thing," Tom replied. "The sealed records are gone. Vanished. Nobody knows who took them."
Scott had a few ideas.
Tom continued, "All that's left are the personal notes maintained by the investigators."
"That's right," Susan said, "and John Alvarez's widow gave me his files, so I've got the only substantive records that still exist ... would you like them?"
Scott's reply was interrupted by the delivery of their meals. Tom Nettle used the distraction to steal a french fry from his wife's plate, which earned him reproachful slap from Susan.
"Do you have a piece of paper?" Scott asked.
Susan handed him a slip of paper and a pen from her purse.
Scott wrote an address and handed it back. "Could you send copies to my lawyer?"
"Lawyer?" Susan asked.
Scott lowered his voice and leaned forward, "She extracted a chunk of money out of old man Carson for me."
"Good for you!" Susan said. She read the address and folded the note. "I'm not going to need the originals. I'll send them to your lawyer."
"Where is Fort Stockton?"
"West Texas," Scott replied. "Not a bad place to grow up."
"Were the MacIntyres good people?" Tom asked.
Scott hesitated. There weren't any MacIntyres, not for him. He didn't know how the name had been picked. He didn't want to lie to the couple, but he didn't want them feeling like they'd failed him either. "I had a good life and friends that I value. I've no complaints."
"And the Marines?" Susan asked.
"Best decision I ever made."
"Was it rough?"
"Some yelling, but nothing too tough."
"Honey," Tom said, "don't let him fool you. They didn't pin a Purple Heart on him because somebody yelled at him."
"You were injured?" she asked.
He looked at Tom who shrugged.
"Took a fragment in the thigh during my first tour in Afghanistan. I was lucky."
"Tom was in the first Gulf War."
"Army," Tom added.
"We can't all be perfect," Scott replied.
They shared a smile. The military service branches enjoyed a respectful rivalry.
"I'm happy that I got to see the two of you. It's something I've wanted for a long time."
"Are there any questions we can answer for you?" Susan asked. "You must have some."
He thought about it. "Did you ever see him?"
"Craig Carson you mean?"
"After the shootout with the Highway Patrol and he was captured," Susan said, "John Alvarez and I interviewed him twice in the jail's hospital ward. His father's lawyers got involved, but Carson didn't want to go to trial. He was terrified of the death penalty and negotiated a plea."
Tom Nettle grumbled. "As if anyone on death row in this state won't die of old age."
"Carson got life," Susan said, "but he didn't last long on the inside. One of the drug cartels caught him and expressed their displeasure."
"Good riddance," Scott said.
"I'll drink to that," Tom said, raising his water glass.
They toasted the murderer's demise.
They talked until Susan had to return to work. Scott was glad he'd taken the time to reconnect before his business in California concluded. The couple promised to stay in touch and he hoped they would.