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Under other circumstances, Rachel Byers might have enjoyed being invited to a party by a couple of guys. Especially great-looking guys with guns.
Unfortunately, her buddies at the Villazon, California, police department thought of her as one of the boys, with maybe a few minor differences.
Take this request from Detective Hale Crandall, the beer-bash host: "Yo, Rache, how about bringing a DVD tomorrow night? A chick flick would be fine. Like the kind with mud wrestling."
Fine. As long as he didn't expect her to do the mud wrestling. Speaking of wrestling, she could pin Hale as often as not, and he knew it.
That might be, she supposed, part of her problem. "Bring a couple of girlfriends, too," suggested Officer Derek Reed, a Brad Pitt clone whose womanizing reputation had earned him the nickname Sergeant Hit and Run from the nurses at the local hospital. "You know my type. Big blond hair, big." he made a descriptive gesture with his hands "you get the picture."
"If I had girlfriends like that, I wouldn't let them anywhere near you clowns," Rachel returned. "Excuse me. Some of us have to patrol. We can't all work sissy desk jobs."
Hale snorted. Derek, who seemed less than thrilled about his recent assignment as head of community relations and public information, scowled.
Rachel would hate flying a desk. She loved wearing a uniform and a gun, and enjoyed a little physical action now and then to set the juices flowing.
Too bad she wasn't getting any physical action in her personal life. At five foot eleven, she either intimidated men or inspired themto invite her to join their softball team. If she ever met Mr. Right, she'd have to arrest him to reach first base.
Wait. Scratch the reference to first base. "I wish you wouldn't encourage them," muttered Elise Masterson, the other woman on the swing shift. "They're sexist enough as it is." She fell into step beside Rachel as they walked toward the back of the building.
"Were they being sexist?" Rachel had difficulty figuring out the finer points of political correctness.
She sympathized with Elise, whose efforts to skin back her blond hair in a bun did little to discourage the masculine attention she considered so annoying. Men had an amazing ability to detect curves even beneath a Kevlar vest.
"Never mind," Elise answered. "We have more important things to focus on. Finding that lost kid, for instance."
They'd been advised during briefing to watch for a threeyear-old girl named Nina Franco who'd wandered away from her parents a few hours earlier.An intensive search was in progress around the park where she'd vanished.
With luck, some well-meaning civilian would bring Nina in before dark. The disappearance of a child was unusual in the Los Angeles suburb of Villazon. Although it had its share of burglaries and domestic assaults, by and large residents felt safe.
Outside, Elise strode off across the rain-dampened parking lot. A couple of male colleagues paused en route to their cars to study the sway of her butt, graceful despite the heavy lace-up boots.
In high school, Rachel had submitted to dance classes in an attempt to refine her own clunky strut. After she accidentally kicked a classmate and pulled the barre loose from the wall, the teacher had advised her to try the wrestling team. Good suggestion.
Glamour still evaded Rachel with a vengeance. A few months earlier, hoping to update her style, she'd dyed her brown hair to what was supposed to be auburn. It had emerged a brassy red that was still growing out.
Well, she had the right build and temperament for her dream job. What more could a girl ask?
The air smelled of wet asphalt, a testament to the February rains that had soaked Southern California for the past few weeks. Rachel tried not to think about the sodden slope behind her condominium or the risk of its collapsing. Out of her control, so why worry?
Her assigned car was a different matter. Rachel took nothing for granted. Before getting in, she checked the gas level and the tires, tested the lights and oil level, made a survey for any unreported dents and poked around the backseat to make sure some arrestee on an earlier shift hadn't stashed contraband.
Satisfied, she stowed a gear-filled bag in the trunk and, beside her, secured a metal box containing paperwork and forms. She didn't want stuff sent flying during a pursuit.
Then, strapping herself into the driver's seat and switching on the two-way radio and the small computer screen known as a mobile data terminal, she called dispatch to report that she was in service.
Rolling out on patrol provided the usual burst of energy. Rachel treasured the independence and the challenge. On the street, she became her own boss.
Her assigned patrol area today encompassed the central section of Villazon. There was nothing flashy about Rachel's hometown, she mused as she merged into the flow of traffic, her windows rolled down so she could monitor street noises. Despite its location within a dozen or so miles of Hollywood, movie stars never set foot here unless they got lost fleeing the paparazzi.
The community of fifty thousand offered a mix of shops and office buildings in its core area, along with blocks of Craftsman cottages dating back to the twenties and thirties. Cruising past yards filled with rosebushes and tricycles, Rachel enjoyed the town's old-fashioned feel. Even its special events had an endearing corniness, she reflected.
Each May, the Pickle Parade celebrated the town's former claim to fame as the site of a large pickling plant that had processed cucumbers from surrounding fields. The fields were gone, and the pickle factory survived as a farmer's market that imported most of its produce from either Imperial County, California, or Mexico. Rachel wasn't sentimental, though. She liked shopping for gifts at In a Pickle.
As she wove a random pattern through the neighborhoods and listened to the radio chatter, she kept watch for Nina. Three feet tall, twenty-five pounds, straight dark locks and brown eyes that smiled from the photo clipped to Rachel's visor. Last seen wearing blue pants and a pink top with a white bunny on the front.
The searchers near the park hadn't found her. One witness reported a child of a similar description entering a car driven by a gray-haired man. As Rachel noted the information, her heart squeezed. Kids that age were so helpless and trusting. The possibility of someone harming a child aroused a deeper anger in her than any other crime.
Rachel didn't remember much from her own life at that age, and what she did recall, she preferred to forget. An alcoholic mother, absent father Luckily she'd been adopted by a new family who provided as much love and support as a child could ask.
Nina's image stayed at the forefront of Rachel's thoughts. After pulling over and citing a gray-haired driver who'd run a red light, she visually inspected the car's interior and asked him to open his trunk. He complied willingly once she explained the reason, and revealed nothing more threatening than a bag of groceries.
Later, she backed up another officer checking on an elderly woman whose daughter couldn't reach her by phone. Rachel scanned the children who gathered outside to gawk at the squad car, but none resembled Nina. Indoors, they found the woman with a broken hip and requested an ambulance.
As Rachel returned to her car, early-winter twilight was closing in. On the radio, the exchanges about the search acquired a grim tone. With this lengthy an absence, the possibility of foul play increased.
Still, the story of the gray-haired motorist might be a red herring. If an older child had found Nina and invited her to play, perhaps they'd headed for a playground near the civic center.
Rachel checked out the nearest one, but the slides and climbing equipment stood empty. It was nearly six o'clock. If any children had been there earlier, they were long gone.
Frustrated, she cruised an alley behind the library, passed the post office and crossed the boulevard to the town's medical complex. This late on a Friday, the doctors'building beside the Mesa View Medical Center would be deserted, but she decided to make a circuit of the parking structure just the same. You never knew when you'd come across a stolen car listed on one of the hot sheets from briefing.
On the second level, past a support pillar, she glimpsed something that made her mouth go dry. A little girl, the bunny on her T-shirt smeared with dirt, sat on a car bumper while a man knelt on the concrete floor. He'd pulled up one leg of her blue pants and was holding her ankle.
All Rachel could observe of him was a tailored suit and powerful shoulders. Then, evidently hearing her approach, he glanced back. The flat overhead lighting showed nearly black hair graying around the temples.
As Rachel braked facing the suspect, adrenaline surged. She notified dispatch about the girl, the man and the location, and emerged ready for action.
First priority was to ensure the girl's safety. Second, to secure the suspect. Mr. Power Suit had an inch or two on her, and judging by his muscular frame, he'd be no slouch in a fight. He might also be armed.
Releasing his grip on the girl, the man rose to greet Rachel. He made no sudden moves, but she noted tear tracks on Nina's cheeks and a torn knee on her pants.
"Step away from the child, sir. Move to your right." Although she strongly considered reaching for her gun, several recent scandals and a tarnished public image had inspired a departmental policy urging caution when confronting citizens.
That kind of caution could get cops killed. Still, Rachel restrained the impulse.
The man shifted a couple of steps, but irritation flashed in his slate-blue eyes. "I found her wandering in the garage, Officer. She said she hurt her knee."
He gave the words a convincing, gruff inflection. The guy was attractive with a personable air. Well-dressed and accustomed to giving orders, not taking them, she judged.
To her, that made him all the more loathsome if he'd endangered the child.
"Sweetheart, come stand next to me," she told Nina.
"He gave me candy," the girl replied earnestly.
That didn't surprise Rachel. "Is that why you got in his car?"
"Wait a minute!" the suspect snapped. "She was never in my car." He glanced at child. "It's okay, honey. No one's going to hurt you."
The youngster eased toward him, holding out a hand. That was too much for Rachel. "Move away from him, Nina!"
"Oh, for Pete's sake, you're scaring her!"
The girl had drawn close enough to be grabbed. Despite the shrill of an approaching siren, Rachel couldn't wait for backup.
"On the ground!" she shouted. When the man failed to respond, she lunged forward, spun him around and slammed him against the vehicle. Before he could recover, she wrenched his arms back and reached for her cuffs.
With a shocked cry, the little girl retreated. "You've upset her! Keep those things off me!" The man's twisting motion threw Rachel against the pillar and sent a jolt of pain through her hip.
Breathing hard, the suspect held his position. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Officer, but nobody pushes me around."
Rachel drew her gun. "Hands overhead. Face the car." Reluctantly he complied. When he glanced over as the screech of tires announced her backup's arrival, he didn't appear the least bit frightened.
Elise Masterson exited the cruiser. "Need help?" "Officer, would you please talk sense to Ms. Byers?" The suspect must have read Rachel's nametag. "I was walking to my car when I found this little girl."
Nina merely stared at the three of them, eyes round as pepperoni slices. Rachel kept her weapon trained on the man. "He assaulted me."
"That's not true!" he answered tightly. "Besides, you had no business shoving me into the car."
The matter wasn't up for debate. "Hands behind your back!"
He looked to Elise, who produced her cuffs. "Do it," she confirmed.
Resentment darkened his gaze. Mr. Power Suit was definitely used to running the show, Rachel mused. He'd better recognize who was in charge. In one more second, two policewomen were going to take him down.
The rumble of another car reached her ears. Good. Then she heard a whole bevy of car engines, until the structure echoed like the parking lot of the Villazon Doughnut Emporium during a two-for-one sale. Which reminded her of another unwelcome change in her turf" under the new chief's regime, officers were no longer allowed to accept free doughnuts.
As Elise clicked the cuffs into place, the cars bumped into view around a curve of the ramp. In the lead, Chief Willard Lyons halted his unmarked sedan. With the suspect under control, Rachel holstered her gun.
Behind the chief came a patrol unit, followed by a station wagon she recognized as belonging to Tracy Johnson, editor and lead reporter for the weekly Villazon Voice. In its wake rolled a van bearing the logo of an L.A. TV news program.
Busybodies from the press"ugh. Rachel loathed the spotlight, and she couldn't allow them to talk to Nina, who had to be interviewed and driven to the hospital for an exam.
The suspect shook his head in disgust, as if the newcomers simply compounded an already obnoxious situation. For once, she and he agreed on something.
When the child sniffled, Rachel took her hand. It felt small and moist. "You'll be fine, sweetie."
"They sure are."
"I'll escort her to the hospital," Elise said.
"Thanks." Reluctantly Rachel surrendered her charge. She had work to complete here. Booking this suspect was going to be a pleasure.
Elise helped the tot into the cruiser. They had only half a block to drive, so with luck the girl would be reunited with her parents soon.
Chief Willard Lyons stepped out of his car. An imposing, barrel-chested figure with a thin mustache and close-cropped brown hair, he'd been hired the previous year, six months after the former chief retired under a cloud. Several embarrassing incidents had hurt the department's reputation, and Lyons's job description called for cleaning things up.
He crossed to Rachel and the suspect. "Who do we have here?"
"I haven't had a chance to check ID," she responded.
"My wallet's in my jacket," said Mr. Power Suit. "Upper left!" A frown. "I can tell it's not there. I must have put it in my pants."