Proof of Life by Madeline McEwen
Proof of Life by Madeline McEwen
Car horns honked as Myra Sykes awoke in her Taurus-cum-office parked on Koch Lane in Willow Glen, an upscale neighborhood of San Jose. She peered, bleary-eyed over the dashboard into the bright Californian sunshine after another uneventful night observing the Cape Cod house with the blue trimmed bay window. After three years of delving into other people’s lives, her bank balance told her to quit, and the credit cards if asked, would agree.
Two lines of traffic clogged the street, the drivers angry at the jaywalkers. An old guy, scruffy and wizened, yelled at the cars. He dragged a kid, dressed head to toe in cotton candy pink, over the road toward Myrtleberry Elementary as the bell tolled the start of another school day. Myra had hated school from the start. The kid had her sympathy. The drivers in their spotless Tesla, Lexus, and Infiniti cars, did not.
Meanwhile, Myra focused on her client’s quest. Ideally, Mrs. Valencia wanted video proof of her son’s continued existence on the planet. Or, failing that, other photographic evidence with a time stamp. Either way, she had raised the ransom money in cash, used bills. No fuss, no frills, and no police. Kyle’s survival, unharmed, was paramount.
Kyle, an asthmatic only child, was a week away from his twenty-first birthday. Mrs. Valencia was determined to light each of those candles next Sunday. Myra needed the $5000 finder’s fee for her parking tickets, student loan, renew her expired license and the penalty for lateness. Her career as a private investigator teetered on the edge of a precipice. March had left her broke, and the fresh start of April gave her hope. Did that make her a fool?
Silicon Valley’s white collar crime didn’t interest her, not since her dad was jailed for securities fraud. Instead, Myra worked on a steady stream of adulterers, custody disputes, neighborhood vendettas, and beloved lost pets. Those clients paid potatoes, but Myra needed gravy.
She drove via the gas station for a fill-up, past The Resurrection Funereal Home, then back to Koch Lane and MacDonald’s.
Dropping change in the homeless shelter donation box, she took weak coffee and a sandwich to an empty table. From her position in a corner booth near the exit, she had an unfettered view of the Cape Cod house with the blue-trimmed bay window. Was Kyle still inside, and was he alive?
She slouched in her blue jeans and gray hoodie over her desultory breakfast. Without jewelry, tatts, piercings, or make-up, Myra could pass for a teenage boy, androgynous and angular, not unlike Kyle.
On her phone, Myra re-examined Kyle’s graduation portrait–why nothing more recent? His willowy vulnerability was an ideal target for bullies if Mrs. Valencia’s account of his school life was correct. What was he doing with his time for the last three years? His solemn brown-eyes were at odds with his broad smile.
Kyle’s vital statistics–bushy dark hair, 170 pounds, six-foot-one–and other details provided by his mom didn’t match the resume he’d posted online in January at the WorkFromHome website.
In a sense, Myra worked from home too. She knew the comforts of the family cocoon, and refused to dwell on Mom’s suicide. Myra tried hard not blame her, and yet she did. Why had Mom given up and given in, bulldozed into oblivion?
Kyle had given up too, staying at home instead of pursuing college seemed like a regressive choice. Didn’t he want his independence? Sure, rent was exorbitant, but working from home wouldn’t pay enough to earn his freedom. Even more so at present with a spate of carjackings and home invasions targeting Willow Glen. Conspicuous wealth lured the envious, the opportunists, and the magpies. Was Kyle protecting his mother or was he too fearful to enter the adult world?
An increased police presence followed the media hype – Willow Glen under Siege. The TV and radio outlets interviewed the mayor and police chief to placate the locals. Myra watched a video clip of an irate homeowner clutching a picture of a miniature dog – I don’t care about the car, but please return our puppy, Bouncer. A deluge of tweets on Twitter kept Generation Z hungry for clickbait and their moment of fame.
Kyle hadn’t used his phone for five days. Since his abduction at noon on Monday, Mrs. Valencia continued to work in downtown San Jose. Mr. Valencia had abandoned his family decades ago so the ransom demand landed on Mrs. Valencia’s personal phone – $50,000 by Saturday – a gargantuan obstacle for most, but a financial inconvenience for Mrs. Valencia, who owned and operated a chain of food trucks. Self-made, self-employed, and environmentally sustainable, Valley Vegans nurtured the slick, chic, techies of Silicon Valley five days a week.
Myra turned toward the old guy without his cotton candy sidekick. She’d seen him at a distance every morning crossing the street, and afterward at McDonald’s on the far side of the restaurant. This was the first time she’d heard his voice, if ignoring the traffic cussing, which she did.
“You a spy?” He stood near the Formica tabletop slicked by a smear of pungent disinfectant. “You watching my granddaughter? You a stalker or a pedo or a psycho?”
Myra crossed her legs, a knee brushing against the nut hard wads of bubble gum on the underside of the table, and sipped her tepid coffee.
“If I see you parked up there again, I’m gonna report you.”
“I wore pink when I was her age.” Myra slipped off her hoodie, hung it over the back of the seat, squared her narrow shoulders, and raised her ribcage. Without her camouflage, she melted into femininity. “Little girls grow up so fast, don’t they?”
“Sorry.” He stepped back flustered, quick to acknowledge his mistake. “Didn’t mean no offense, Miss. I’m Mr. Lu, Jo Lu. Let me buy you a fresh cup of coffee.”
Jo returned with two coffees and sat opposite Myra.
“Mind if I join you?”
“You got something against using the crosswalk?”
“Ha!” He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “That kid! Getting her to school is the toughest job I ever had, but I like females who have spirit. Don’t want to break her just contain her, know what I mean? These days, girls can go wrong as easy as boys. Everything’s a game to her. I’m getting too old.”
“I don’t have the patience for kids.”
“Neither do I, but it’s different when it’s your own kin, you’ll see.”
Myra kept half an eye on the bay window’s drapes across the street. How much did Jo know about his neighbors? What, if anything, would he share with a stranger? She let his loneliness speak for him.
“Kimmy, that’s her name, she’s deaf too, you know?” He grimaced, ruminating, “I mean, hard of hearing. She’s in a special class at Myrtleberry, and they’re helping her some.”
“That’s good. Lucky you live close to the school.” Myra tapped the window. “You’re next door to that Cape Cod house?”
“Right. It’s tight in our cottage, but my son and daughter-in-law work five jobs between them to pay the mortgage.”
“Yeah. It’s all about zip codes. If you want the best services, you got to pay for the good neighborhood.”
“Not so good right now. Last few nights it’s been a racetrack out there. Kids come round first. They’ve got these devices to detect Wifi signals, phones and laptops in the trunk. Then, they pass on vehicles’ information to the next guys. They’re targeting fancy cars.”
“From what I heard on the news, sounds like they’re stealing cars to order. The kids already have a buyer lined up. They’re targeting high value models, especially white Lexuses. You drive one?”
“What about your neighbors? The guys with the blue trim. Their house could do with some fresh paint. Don’t look like Lexus owners to me.”
“You’d better believe it. Students. Yapping dogs. Roommates. Coming and going all times of the day and night. Vodka bottles, and I’ve seen needles on the sidewalk. Kids! More money than sense, and none of them work for a living.”
“What about you, your line of work?”
“I retired early. My wife was sick. Didn’t know what to do after she died. Figured I could help out here. Gives me something to do, pretend I’m useful.”
He pulled out his phone to answer a call.
“Got to go.” He stood, and stuffed the phone in his pocket.
“School. Kimmy had another meltdown. This is what it’s like, I’m on duty 24-7. She’s like a homing-pigeon, in and out of that school a dozen times a week.”
Myra didn’t challenge his math skills. She watched him hurtle out the door without a backward glance at ten past nine in the morning. The sound of the school bell signaling the end of the first period was timed to taunt him. Kimmy had barely managed an hour in class. What kind of meltdown-tantrum-gave the kid a free pass from school? And taking her home, giving into her demands, what did that teach her?
Mrs. Valencia opened the back door and stuffed a wad of damp tissues into her sequined pocket. She was as welcoming as a slab of freeze-dried tofu, dressed in a cream-colored Kimono, and her curly hair, gray at the temples, wrestled into a choke-hold ponytail.
“Any progress? Come in.”
Myra threw back her hood, and followed her hostess into a spacious living room shrouded by floor-to-ceiling roman blinds, a massive L-shaped sectional, and an abundant collection of curios in a backlit display case. Trash or treasure, Myra could only guess.
“We agreed to daily updates,” Mrs. Valencia said, “but you’ve done nothing.”
“That’s why I’m here, plus I have a few additional questions.”
Myra’s research had paid off. To date, she had a solid set of facts. The two of them, mother and son, had rattled around in this family home, mortgage-free for well over a decade. Mrs. Valencia wanted for nothing, and neither did her son. Kyle’s juvenile cases were sealed, but trouble followed him like muskrat lure into adulthood. He had a weak credit history and a long list of sketchy part-time, short-term, and ultimately dead-end jobs.
Myra had also identified the registered owner of the car covered with a tarpaulin and parked behind the hostage house.
“What can you tell me about Chloe Werther?”
“How do you know about Chloe?”
Answering a question with a question gave Myra pause. She tapped the record button on her phone in her pocket.
“Social media,” Myra said. “Lots of selfies, and a status update said she’s single.”
Chloe, a hollow cheeked wraith with Bambi eyes, had uploaded her life onto Facebook: glamor shots, and a slew of other pictures of pint-sized dogs. One pup named Mr. Cupcake, no bigger than a couple of tennis balls, featured frequently. His photographs were staged, head poking out from Chloe’s many designer handbags.
“You know how they are at that age.” Mrs. Valencia’s frown vanished from her face. “When there’s a breakup, it’s the end of the world for them, or rather it was for Kyle. He was devastated when she dumped him.”
“She ended the relationship?”
“Yes. Chloe’s a lucky girl from a good family. The Werthers recommended you, gave me your card, even though you didn’t find their dog. They’re generous too, gave Chloe a Lexus for her twenty-first. They’re also in the catering trade.”
Mrs. Valencia cast a critical eye over Myra. “Is your father a cop? What do your parents think of your career choice?”
“My parents are dead, but I have a hotline to heaven and they gave me their blessing.”
“Are you married?”
“Boyfriend? Or girlfriend?”
“My personal life is not relevant, Mrs. Valencia. What can you tell me about Chloe?”
“Unfortunately, our kids were not a great match. Chloe dropped out of school too–not a beneficial influence or positive role model for Kyle. Neither of them, sadly, are interested in pursuing a career in catering or even,” Mrs. Valencia’s voice rose in a moment of incredulity, “the hospitality trade! With all their advantages, why do they have to make their lives so difficult?”
“I had hoped that Kyle would take over the business in due course. He’s grown up around catering, absorbed the trade without effort. This would be such an easy transition, but no. And Chloe rejected her parents’ similar offer. However, Chloe had her own agenda.”
“What is her agenda?”
Mrs. Valencia flicked her wrist. “Drinking, parties, who knows or cares? Kyle’s too soft-hearted, easily led, and she’s a manipulative madam. She must have dragged him into a dozen get-rich-quick schemes, anything other than hunkering down for some honest hard work.”
After watching Chloe’s You Tube videos, Myra agreed, but the footage confirmed a number of issues including Chloe’s Cinderella complex. She was the kind of young woman who needed other people to take care of her, both friends and boyfriends. She’d left the family home after Christmas and her parents no longer supported her financially.
“Have you heard from her since the abduction?”
“No, she’s too busy breeding those little dogs – as if they’re going to make her fortune–her latest craze. We’ve never had pets because of Kyle’s allergies and asthma, but Chloe didn’t care. Who wants to buy a dog the size of a teacup? Besides, I disapprove of puppy mills, they’re so inhuman.”
Myra stifled a smirk, and asked, “Do you know the name of the breed?”
“Pomsky. They’re a cross between a Husky and a Pomeranian. She thinks she can sell them for $3,000 a pop.”
“Do her parents approve? Puppies cause of lot of mess and damage. Are you in touch with them?”
“I want to talk to her. Do you have her number?”
“Yes. No. I mean, I have her number, but you mustn’t speak to her. The kidnappers said!”
“Don’t concern yourself, Mrs. Valencia, I’m both discrete and inconspicuous. Women often are, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Valencia gave a rueful guffaw and hauled a capacious tote bag onto her lap. She rummaged inside. Pulling out two phones and a pair of reading glasses, she examined both screens side by side.
“I’m texting her contact card to you, but it’s never worked for me. I suspect she’s blocked my number.”
“Is that so? Why would Chloe block you, her boyfriend’s mother? You’d think she’d want to get into your good books.”
“Not Chloe. She’s single-handedly done more damage to Kyle’s self-esteem than any of the bullying incidents at school. She’s toxic that girl, pure poison.”
Prior to that meeting, Myra had begun her nightly vigil outside the blue-trimmed window, but not before making a closer inspection of the property at three in the morning: no lights, no people, no signs of life.
Despite Mr. Lu’s complaints about the antics of his wild neighbors, Myra witnessed a different scene. After the moon rose, she noticed three things. Firstly, an old solitary dog; his skin was stretched taut over his gaunt frame as he skulked along the sidewalk close to the wall half-hidden by the shadows. Secondly, the wailing sobs from the cottage next door, a light, and a flurry of activity to sooth Kimmy’s nightmares. No wonder Mr. Lu was cranky, the guy had no peace from inside or outside his home. Lastly, nearby, maybe a mile north, a pack of joyriders ripped around the streets for almost half an hour.
Myra approached the blue trimmed property on foot. The neglected yard had no plants. A gnarled fig tree battled for existence on a straw lawn pockmarked by blackened figs and dog feces. The scene reminded her of previous theft cases: pedigree dogs for breeding, big dogs for fights, and little dogs for bait.
Plastic bins, brittled and weathered, were piled against the front door partially blocking a cat door. Nearby, several humane cat traps and a few rusty carry crates vied for space on the narrow broken down porch. A fifty-pound bag of kibble had split spilling the contents across the wooden deck. She grabbed a handful and stuffed them in her back pocket.
A narrow alley on the side of the house, led to a driveway and a vehicle hidden from street view. She lifted the tarp covering a car, and took a photo of the license plate on the white Lexus.
At the back of the property, a dilapidated sunroom clung to the building. Several panes of glass were missing and replaced with a patchwork of cardboard, duct tape, and plywood. The backdoor had received the same five-star treatment. The loose handle dangled downwards. She nudged the door open. A deadbolt and mortice lock had been tossed near a pile of broken flower pots, driftwood, and a sack of compost. The room was caked in a layer of grime, but with a clear pathway of footprints marched through the middle from one door to the next. How long had this place been abandoned? Weeks or months?
She approached the moth-eaten welcome mat and a second cat door. A chorus of yapping was silenced by a warning growl emanated from the inside of the house. Wise, someone had left a dog on patrol. Housesitting or guarding Kyle? Lifting the cat door with the toe of her boot, she let a few pieces of kibble drop to the floor. A sizable muzzle, nostrils flared, peppered with gray hairs, appeared through the hole. A drooling tongue swept the treats from view. Next time, she’d bring better bait, higher value, but for now she retreated to her car.
After hunkering down into a comfortable position in the driver’s seat, she thought back to her first impressions of Mrs. Valencia and her plight.
On the face-to-face visit with Mrs. Valencia, Myra had checked out Kyle’s room. Furnished in bold if dull plaid fabrics, it came across as both masculine and impersonal. No posters, no mess, and none of the human detritus she expected to find. A thread of mist rose from a heavy duty humidifier. She flipped the comforter and clean sheet back. Underneath, lines and folds were still visible on the bottom sheet from when it was ironed. How often did Kyle sleep at home? She ran a hand under the pillow and mattress, but found nothing. She opened the nightstand drawer: tissues, inhaler, and a pair of used earplugs. No porn, not in this digital age, but no condoms either.
Turning to the walk-in closet, the clothes were ordered with the precision of a mannequin’s valet. Myra had no interest in fashion, but she recognized some of the aspirational logos. Chosen, bought, and maintained by Mrs. Valencia? What role did Kyle play in their acquisition if any? At what age did a child take charge of their own clothing? For some reason, an image of candy-cane Kimmy popped into her mind. That girl controlled her choices and had total dominion over her home and school life, but for how much longer? When would the tantrums turn into rebellion? Switch to black rags and fishnets? Refuse to use sign language and cut communication ties with her parents?
Myra stopped day-drifting, and glanced upward.
Above the racks of folded sweaters was a wrap-around storage shelf holding an assortment of outsized items: cardboard boxes, ski boots, linens and quilts in vacuum-sealed bags, an old humidifier, and a wide gap. Something was missing from that three-foot space. A gym bag? An overnight bag or a suitcase for a lengthier trip? Was Kyle the kind of kid who rebelled? And even if he was, would he run away from this caliber of luxury?
An air purifier hummed and oscillated in the corner of the room.
Mrs. Valencia’s account of Kyle’s abduction raised a number of questions for Myra: where was he abducted from, time of abduction, method? According to Mrs. Valencia, Kyle had spent Sunday night in his bedroom, although she hadn’t checked on him or seen him, either then, or the following morning when she left for work at six in the morning. Like many families with busy lives, their paths had last crossed on Friday evening when Kyle left home to watch a movie with unspecified friends at the mall.
After a quick canvas of Kyle’s friends, as reported by Mrs. Valencia, no one corroborated his claim. And Myra, after reviewing the movie listings – Angry Birds 2, Toy Story 4, and The Lion King – doubted Kyle’s mother-proof excuse. So, where had he gone and with whom?
Dawn approached on Friday morning, and the sky took on a salmon-pink tinge. Myra drank a slug of tepid water and scoured the long shadows cast across the street. The lights were already turned on in Mr. Lu’s house, but next door remained dark. At some time during the early morning hours, someone had removed one of the crates from the front porch. Myra cursed and ground her knuckles into her eye sockets. Why had she fallen asleep and for how long? Stretching, she snapped the knots out of her shoulders, and then sunk low in the seat. What else had she missed?
Just after seven, Chloe, skimpily dressed in spaghetti-strapped chiffon, tiptoed into view along the sidewalk, head down focused on her screen with a tote bag pinned under one arm. She glanced right and left, before ducking into the blue-trimmed house. Her arrival triggered a cacophony of yipping, yapping, and barking. What kind of menagerie did they have in there?
Checking her phone, Myra read three texts from her contact, a guy with the knowledge and skill to access the dark web. He confirmed that five, twelve-week-old Pomskies were available for adoption for $3000 per pup.
Myra texted Mrs. Valencia on both her numbers, and some while later, around eight, Myra watched Mr. Lu struggle across the street, Kimmy wailed in his wake, and the school bell rang out above the din of the honking cars. By nine, most of the commuter traffic had cleared. By ten, the road was an empty stage.
When the front door opened, Myra tapped the record button. A tartan-clad disembodied arm emerged, grabbed a crate, and hauled it inside. The door slammed shut, and Myra paused the video. She doubted if Chloe ever wore long sleeves and was never a fan of plaid.
Leaving the car, Myra ran over the road as the school bell announced break time, slipped through the side yard to the back of the house, and flattened herself against the wall with a clear view of the car. Her throat felt dry. A weak coffee with Mr. Lu at MacDonald’s seemed far more attractive somehow rather than facing the impending standoff ahead. If Chloe and Kyle had hidden out this long, they weren’t about to give in any time soon.
She heard banging, clattering, and raised voices, one male, one female. As a screen door screeched, the couple emerged, Kyle carried a dog crate, Chloe lugged a second crate through the dust, and Myra videoed them both.
Kyle wrenched off the cover from the car. The tarp billowed and fell to the ground like an abandoned parachute. The lock chirruped while the dogs yipped and clawed at the crates’ grilles. Opening the rear door, Kyle shoved the crate onto the back seat. Chloe stood aside, and Kyle added the second crate jostling the fluffy creatures who howled their protest.
Myra kept her tone calm when she stepped away from the wall.
“There’s nowhere to run to Kyle. And Chloe, this has to stop.”
Myra had already forwarded several video clips to Mrs. Valencia, to her personal number, the one she only shared with her closest friends, family, and Kyle. Anyone else, a stranger or kidnapper would have used Mrs. Valencia’s business number publicly displayed on her website.
Kyle rested his arms, folded, on the roof of the car, and a smile spread across his face.
“Nice to finally meet you, Myra. I’ll say this for you, you’re dogged and diligent, but you’ll never make the cut in the major leagues. Where did you study? The Scooby-Doo spy school?”
“Give yourself up. Maybe you can patch things up with your mom.” Her voice had conviction as if she spoke the truth. And, for Mrs. Valencia, her son could do no wrong. In her world, Kyle was the victim led astray by a vixen.
“Get back in your junker and give us a head start,” Kyle said, “and you’ll get another $5000 for your silence.”
“Thanks, but your mom’s fee is fine for me. Right now, this is just a hoax gone wrong. You’ve got some wriggle room on the kidnapping. And there’re legal issues regarding consent, insufficient movement of the victim. Money hasn’t changed hands, so you’ll walk on extortion. The law’s on your side, and your mom will hire the best lawyers. You can end this prank. It’s not too late.”
The kids, Chloe and Kyle, dove into the Lexus.
Myra backed out of the yard and edged toward the public sidewalk. She had kept the video running in case Kyle had any last words of wisdom. Plus, she needed proof of her persuasive efforts to make Kyle choose a different course.
Kyle, in the driving seat of his girlfriend’s twenty-first birthday present, backed up the car. Reversing, the wheels spat gravel. He revved the engine a couple of times while Chloe leaned over the crates securing them with seatbelts. Kyle shouted from the open window, “Tell Mom, ‘sorry.’ Things didn’t pan out.”
Chloe kissed Kyle. She bounced in her seat like an over-excited kid fizzing before a party.
“I never wanted to hurt Mom,” Kyle said. He draped an arm around Chloe’s shoulders, pulling her close, swamped by their great adventure. “This wasn’t the plan.”
Myra doubted if either of them had devised any kind of a plan let alone a detailed strategy. They hadn’t even covered the basics – their escape. Chloe’s license plate would be easy to trace. They wouldn’t get far. Mrs. Valencia could keep her ransom money, and might get her son back in the bargain once he ran out of cash. What she did with him then, a slap on the wrist or, more likely, a few minutes sitting on the naughty chair, that was up to her.
The Lexus bolted out of the yard into the street. A cloud of dust tore into the air. The Lexus cut off another vehicle, and veered into the right-hand lane, tyres screaming.
Myra glanced up from her video screen. A familiar figure, cotton candy, writhing at the curbside. Kimmy broke free from Mr. Lu’s grasp. The Lexus swerved a second too late, plowed headlong into a utility pole, and stopped dead. The shattered windscreen was spattered with blood. Myra raced across the street to where Mr. Lu knelt next to Kimmy’s broken body. Her eyes were open, unblinking, and her hands were locked tight in fists of rage.
Touching Kimmy’s wrist, Myra felt no pulse. She called 911. No doubt, the other people in the crowd had also called 911 as the street began to fill with strangers, witnesses, and onlookers hoping for proof of life.
Copyright Madeline McEwen 2021