It came in the darkness, in the middle of the night, a faint metal-on-metal tapping, knocking, drumming, riding an echo through the empty building.
Even faint as it was, it awoke Rachel. She thought it was just one of the street people, gone a bit nuts—such things happen around downtown Los Angeles—someone rapping with a spoon or something on one of the doors to the parking garage below her apartment. She didn’t want to hike all the way down to the street level in her nightshirt to find the cause. Nor did she want to call the cops about some, probably harmless, poor soul and make an already unlucky life worse. So she turned over and went back to sleep.
# # #
The following morning arrived fresh, sunny and clear. In a few days it would be October. The heat was gone, the smog fading. Rachel had quite forgot the night’s disturbance.
Having overslept, she was still licking the crumbs of a break- fast of bagel and cream cheese from her lips when she strode down the ramps to her glass cubicle on the parking garage’s street level. Walking through the parking levels gave her the chance to check on things like burned-out lights, litter, wall damage, and what vehicles had been left overnight—which was okay as long as they belonged to regular clients and weren’t left there too long.
She was surprised to see a dirty white van parked behind one of the big cement pillars in the area generally reserved for fleet cars belonging to InterUrban Water Agency. But the agency’s cars were all black sedans. Had the van been there a while and she just hadn’t noticed? She wasn’t sure.
The garage didn’t cater to public parking, the signs outside the building said so. Rachel’s spaces were leased by nearby businesses, but every now and then some interloper got in. The occasional freeloader was the price of avoiding the expense of installing machines and gate arms and issuing cards.
She had been operating the garage for several years. Inheriting it from her grandfather had more or less saved her life by point- ing it in a fresh direction.
Did the van belong to someone at one of the businesses that leased space? Hard to know. The places cars parked had more to do with when they arrived than where their drivers worked. Still, most people noted the Reserved signs in the areas held for fleet cars and didn’t intrude.
Running a few minutes behind, Rachel hurried to get the garage open for the early arrivals. She’d have to check on the van after the morning rush. With any luck, someone would pick it up by then and she could forget about it.
She unlocked the huge doors, and watched as they rose, crunching and creaking, above the driving lanes. Next were the doors to the sidewalk, the people doors. Remembering now the sounds in the night, she examined them for marks. She had painted those doors a few months ago. Dark red. She admired the way they looked in the white brick wall. No chipped paint, no sign of damage, no indication that anyone had banged on them with a metal instrument of some sort.
Opening rituals done, she took up her post in the cubicle as the early cars began to swarm in like bees hunting for the best flower. Rachel liked to be on hand in case someone had a dead cell phone, a flat tire, a defunct battery, whatever. Happy clients would keep her garage, and herself, financially afloat. No small trick these days.
Catching sight of her reflection in the glass of the cubicle, she turned her head from side to side. Hank had persuaded her to let her hair grow longer. She hadn’t wanted to at first, but examining her image now, she found she liked the change—straight hair, almost to the shoulder and parted in the middle. Her eyebrows were still too level, chin too strong—her mother had called it stubborn. Continual plucking might force her brows into an arch, but Rachel knew she wouldn’t have the patience to keep it up.
Her father thought the new hairstyle made her look too Chicana.
“But you’re half Mexican,” she told him. “That makes me part Mexican. I shouldn’t look it?”
For the first time she wondered if her father was anti-Mexican. That would be tough. How could you be anti-part-of-yourself? If that was the case, it might be because her mother’s parents were sort of anti-Mexican.
Marty Chavez would have done absolutely anything to keep Rachel’s mother happy; even stop being Mexican. But Madeleine had slipped away from both Marty and Rachel after being thrown from a horse.
No. The horse accident was only part of it. Madeleine might have recovered from that. She died after Rachel had taken time off from caring for her invalid mom, and left their farm in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for a shopping trip to San Francisco. She had long ago forgot why she wanted to go shopping or what she had bought. What she couldn’t forget was that she had brought back a very nasty virus.
It seemed a lifetime ago but Rachel still could hardly bear to think of it. Neither she nor Marty were ever the same again. The nightmare of it all had sent them skidding down a slippery slope with nothing to break their fall. Madeleine had been the one who gave their little family stability.
# # #
The time was heading toward eleven when Rachel remembered the van.
She found its dusty sides wedged between two black Cadillac fleet cars that had parked a bit over their lines. The rear plate on the van was Arizona. That might not mean anything. Newly transplanted California residents often waited as long as possible before paying the taxes and doing whatever it took to pass the emissions test and register and tag their cars. This particular van looked more like a panel truck than a passenger vehicle.
Was it abandoned? Stolen? Damn. That would be a pain in the butt. It happened a couple times a year, and Rachel was less than fond of dealing with cops.
There was that record of her DWI and possession arrest up north after her mom died. And there was the incident that had put her on a collision course with the power players in California’s water politics. The CEO of InterUrban Water District had been killed by someone driving a company car, and Rachel had found the guilty car in her garage. Bad headed for worse and she’d had to report her own part in the grisly mess, undergo interrogation and the interminable waiting, wondering if she would be charged with murder.
In the end, she wasn’t charged. And the ordeal did have a silver lining. It had brought her Hank, a water resources engineer at InterUrban.
She tried the rear door of the van. Locked. Not surprising. The inside of the rear windows had been sloppily painted white. Turning sideways, she slid between the van and its neighbor. The window in the driver’s door was heavily tinted.
When that door proved locked, she moved to the front window. Now she could see brown plush front seats, worn and empty except for a couple of squashed beer cans and some crumpled balls of paper on the passenger side. An abandoned vehicle? Maybe stolen and dumped after serving some shady purpose.
Rachel was sliding back along the front fender when her eye caught on something behind the front seats. A metal grill of some sort.
Cupping her hands above her eyes, she peered through the windshield. Was that a cage? With something inside? She pounded the window with her fist. If someone had left a dog locked up here, she would personally hunt them down and turn them over to the authorities.
She strained to make out the image in the shadows behind the seat.
It wasn’t a dog.
She was looking at a small, thin hand.