Amy looked around at the scenery as Wes pointed the dark grey Ford Explorer down the windy roads of the back canyons of the San Gabriel Mountain range. Normally, she preferred to drive but Wes claimed, or rather whined the whole elevator ride down to the parking depot that he gets car sick. She'd rolled her eyes, but reluctantly agreed to drive. If she was being honest with herself she needed a few minutes to re-center herself. She, they, had all been going nonstop since Gus's body was discovered and it was beginning to take its toll. Looking over at Wes, she could see the strain in his face too. She pulled out two Luna bars from her bag and tossed him one, "Here, eat."
Wes read the label and raised his eyebrow at her, "What this? This is for girls."
Amy teared opened the chocolate and peppermint stick flavored bar and took a bite full, "Yeah, you have a problem with eating what girls eat?" She gave him her meanest big sister I'll kick your ass stare down.
He quickly shook his head, "Nah, I happen to love tasting things made for girls," he barely kept a straight face as the highly inappropriate words spilled out of his mouth.
"I'm sure you do Casanova. You know I think we should give you Flynn's old nickname I hear that he was a legendary playboy back in the day. You might just give him a run for his money," she took another bite and closed her eyes enjoying a small piece of heaven. She hadn't eaten much in the last several hours aside from stale coffee and half a banana nut muffin she found laying on her desk this morning. The chocolate peppermint stick hit the spot, albeit healthy it was nonetheless fuel for the mind and body.
Wes gave her an odd look, "Flynn a playboy. I don't buy it. The way he dotes on the Commander, follows her around. The guy's as whipped as they come." He pushed his knee up against the steer wheel for a brief second and tore open the dark blue package before putting half the bar into his mouth. "This isn't bad," he murmured between chews.
Amy smirked, "Imagine that, women making something that tastes good. It really is a crazy, crazy world out there isn't it."
Wes took a few swallows to clear his mouth, "Hey, you know I lived in Nazi land for quite awhile. I wouldn't know what was good if it hit me upside the head."
Thwack. "What was that for?" Wes shouted rubbing the back of his head.
She turned her half-eaten bar over to eat the peppermint side, "Letting you know what's good. Did it work?"
He saw the little icons drawn on her bar and then looked down at his, "How come I got the fruity one and you kept the chocolate all to yourself?"
She shrugged her shoulders, "Woman's prerogative. Besides they were my bars." She took another bite into the delicious peppermint coating. Before Wes could argue with her any further about the unfairness of the road trip snack distribution she saw a sign indicating they were getting close, "Looks like our turn is up ahead in 1.5 miles."
The playful tone that had once filled the car was gone, and the reminder of the job they had to do took its place. They both let the quiet energy help them to focus. Within a few seconds Wes began braking to turn off Hwy 2 and deeper into the canyon. It didn't take long for them to reach a very small, narrow bridge that only fit one car at a time across. Ahead were three sheriff vehicles and a forest ranger truck. Amy wasn't sure whether this was enough people if Stroh really was up here, if Rusty was being kept here. They would surveil the area with the drone and hope to get a better idea before traveling too far into the camp.
There was a low hum in the murder room. Her team was gone, well most of them were out and it made the place feel empty even though there were plenty of support staff around. As she turned the corner towards her office she spotted Andy, hunched over his desk pouring over sheets of paper. She reached up and placed a hand to his neck and let out a light hum to keep from startlingly him.
"I've been studying Sharon's financial records," he said with a furrowed brow his eyes going cross-eyed from staring at these numbers. Twenty years ago he'd never imagine that he'd be the one that was the go-to financial guy. But here he was, pouring over whatever he could get his hands on, eager to find a break in the case somewhere between a comma and a decimal point. He knew this case was never about the money, which made it even more frustrating for him, there was so little for him to do — that he was allowed to do.
"I thought we already went over all of that, when she first up and disappeared," she turned leaning against his desk, legs touching his with a little bump getting him to look up at her. She needed to see his eyes, to get a read on him. More importantly she craved that connection, they couldn't hug right now. She couldn't lean back into his warm, supportive embrace an embrace she so desperately needed. For now a touch from covered legs would have to do.
He rubbed the back of his neck trying to release some of the stiff tension building up, "Yeah we did, but I wanted to double-check something." He handed her a sheet with a few highlighted lines, "Here" he pointed, "we know this charge belongs to her. She filled her car up with gas before her shift at the nail salon. Presumably because she was going to leave there straight for LA."
"Right," Sharon studied the document in her hands trying to see if there was anything that might jump out to her. As good as she was with balancing the budget at home and paying attention to the details at work, this really was Andy's domain, his area of expertise. She doubted that she'd catch something that he'd missed.
"So then these other charges, what are we to make of these?" He pointed to three other lines that reflected charges during the time in which no one had seen her.
"Do we know what they are?" She asked, knowing that they may not have dug fully into those charges initially, because at the time she wasn't a missing person.
"Everything has an abbreviation, but I've been decoding them. This looks like one here," he pointed to the second from the bottom, "HMDPT, I think it might be Home Depot. I looked it up and there are nine in Los Angeles which is the city listed after the charge. I'm wondering if we might be able to get surveillance video of Sharon at the store, a list of what she or whoever is using her card bought."
Sharon studied the list and nodded in agreement, "It's a reasonable guess, and it doesn't hurt to call the stores and see what you can find out. What about the other ones?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," he slumped back in his chair trying not to feel defeated. "It's like playing that game you got the boys last Christmas."
She thought back for a minute to Christmas, it brought an immediate smile to her face and filled her heart with warmth. It felt more like a real first Christmas together as an official couple, with a blending of the families. The year before that Andy had only just been released from the hospital and they were still trying to sort out how to be together. That year they'd opted to do a his and hers Christmas that year, Christmas Eve with her and all his family and Christmas Day with him and all her family. Last year they'd planned on bringing everyone together for a big meal. At the time she'd started planning it — July of course — she thought they'd have a new house with plenty of space. That of course had fallen through like many best-laid plans, but in the end the post-Christmas, pre-New Years brunch out with everyone was perfect. Even Andy's flake of a son showed up.
Andy watched her face as he knew she'd been thinking about their last Christmas together and let her enjoy the happy memory for a moment, she needed it.
Sharon caught Andy's eye and shook her head realizing she hadn't given him an answer. Her eyes darted back and forth trying to recall which gift he was referring to, "Scrabble?" She threw out.
"Yeah that's the one! With all the miss-mass of letters," he sighed with annoyance. He was far better at chess.
Sharon tried to stifle a laugh, "I guess it's a little like that. I'll take these and see what I can come up with while you chase down the other possibility."
"Where are you?" Provenza stood in the aisle of storage lockers waiving his hands erratically. The sun was beating down on him, the air was stiflingly hot and the concrete rows of storage units only served to insulate him like a turkey on thanksgiving. He tugged down on his white fishing cap that was starting to fray around the edges, in an effort to block is sensitive skin from the bold rays of sun.
"Parking," Cami barely stopped to throw the car into park before she jumped out of her car. She felt disappointed in herself, she really thought she was on to something with the county jail connection. Maybe if she had more time, but that was one thing they didn't have enough of, so she held her tongue when she got the text from the Lieutenant redirecting her to MacArthur park.
"Well hurry up already, we don't have all day!" He glared at the manager holding the bolt cutters who was certainly annoyed about being taken away from reruns of some wedding dress nonsense. The idea of weddings made him even more pissed off, he had a best man speech to write and a bachelor party to throw — assuming all of this didn't change what happened with his best friend and the Commander. He shook his head in an effort to push the thoughts aside, anything aside from a "not-a-mark-on-him" rescue of Rusty would be unsatisfactory.
Detective Paige picked up the pace, "What's the unit number again?" She said pulling her jacket closer to her chest as she strode down the aisles looking for the right spot.
"212-A," he repeated to his would-be young apprentice. He wondered if he thought Sykes was more annoying in the beginning, it was too close to call he decided.
"Ah ok," she looked up and saw the letters going up and knew she was headed in the right direction. She picked up the pace until she hit the row with a bright orange A on the side and turned the corner to see Provenza and some woman in her forties standing outside on of the units. She clicked her phone off as she ran up to him.
"About time," he muttered and turned to the woman, "Here's the warrant," he grabbed the paper from Cami's hands, "now cut off the locks." He shook his hands in front of the brass deadbolt, the final barrier between him and possibly finding Rusty.
The middle-aged woman in frumpy clothes opened the cutters and placed them between the lock and with a surprising about of strength for someone her size it sliced through the metal in one attempt. If Provenza hadn't been so irritated and singularly focused he might have been impressed, instead once the lock clamored to the pavement he waved her aside, "Go back to your office, we'll holler if we need anything."
The woman seemed to be familiar with these kinds of situations and merely shrugged her shoulders before climbing into the small electric cart and driving down the aisle Cami had just come up. Once she'd turned the corner Provenza gestured to Cami, both pulling their weapons from their holsters. He mouthed, "One, Two, Three," before pushing up the rolling door exposing the locker to them for the first time.
Cami was the first to enter, pointing her weapon around each corner of the room shouting "clear" once she reached the back of the locker. The space was dark, but it was easy to tell it was very clean. He felt around until he found the light switched Provenza wasn't sure what he expected. He knew what he'd expected, he let out a sigh, an alive and well Rusty.
Amy and Wes took the left side while the Sheriff deputies took the other, as they trekked up the steep terrain towards the cabin. They'd instructed the forest service guy to hang back with the trucks for now, until the secured the area.
Amy caught Wes' eye as he pointed and gestured as they silently moved forward. They could just see the cabin between the birch trees, a creek babbled loudly down the hill separating them from the deputies. Simultaneously, the pairs surrounded the small structure on all sides. There appeared to be only one entrance and exit, with just a few small windows two of which were boarded up. The Deputy gave the nod and then pounded on the door, "LA County Sheriff's Office open up!" He repeated the order two more times in quick succession, but they were met with silence. He nodded over his shoulder at the other Deputy carrying the battering ram, and gestured to the K-9 unit behind him to be ready.
With a wave of his hand, two officers pulled the ram back and slammed it into the door. It didn't take much force to knock in the old pine door.
"Come out with your hands up, or we will release the dog," he yelled inside the small building as dust spilled out of the cabin. Everyone remained fixed at the ready, with guns trained on any potential exit.
The Deputy repeated the order and was once again met with silence. He gave a nod to the K-9 unit who came charging forward. He released the three year old Belgian Malinois as he shouted commands, "Do not resist. The dog will bite." After a few tense moments the dog bounded out of the cabin and back to his trainer, nothing, there was no one inside.
Amy and Wes approached the inside of the cabin with caution, even though the dog made it clear that no one was home. The room was covered in thick layers of dust, it appeared that no one had used the cabin in years.
Wes picked up some newspapers on the kitchen table, "1982," he said remorsefully. It wasn't what they were hoping for. No sign of Rusty. No sign of Stroh.
"Anyone that might have been using this place, left a long time ago," Amy muttered into the thick air of the cabin.
Andy gave his knuckles a tap on Sharon's door before entering, "So I just got off the phone with the Home Depot off Figueroa and I think I may have something." He moved further into her office, but didn't shut the door.
"Oh," Sharon said looking up at him while taking off her glasses.
"Apparently, the hashtag and numbers that appear after the abbreviation correspond to the store number. Why none of the other four stores could have mentioned that," he let out a groan but continued on with his point, "Anyway, we don't have a receipt with a timestamp to know exactly when she was there, but that is our store. I've asked them to email me the video from the registers so we can comb through it."
"That's great," she stood up and crossed the room. It wasn't a huge breakthrough but it was a morsel, a lead and she'd take it.
"As soon as it comes in I'll get some of the tech guys from downstairs to help me go through it since time is of the essence," he moved closer to her but refrained from pulling her in for a hug, now wasn't the time. "Any luck on the other charges?"
She frowned at him, "No, not yet, but I'll keep digging into it. Why don't you get Mike to help you too?"
"Oh, he's busy. Something about data points and maps," he waved his hands in the air as if to fill in his lack of knowledge in the technobabble is colleague had given him a half an hour ago when he popped his head in and offered to refill his coffee.
"Hmm," she knew that whenever Mike dug in deep on some analytical project that it would be best to give him sometime to sort it all out before interrupting. "Okay, well I'll check in on that in a bit."
"Any word from Provenza," he asked.
"Not yet," she looked at her phone. "Amy checked in a little while ago. They made it to the cabin and were about to start their search."
"Good, good," he muttered knowing that it was both good and bad news because it meant they still hadn't found Rusty. He wasn't sure how much longer either one of them could manage to stay sane without something firmer to go on. Andy watched Sharon nervously tap her fingernails on the desk as she'd returned her attention to the files on her desk. She didn't do it often, but he'd learned that she would do it when she felt too much energy building up inside, wanting to get out. He wasn't going to be able to keep her here, at PAB, safe, for much longer. Even if she didn't know where to look she was going to reach a point where the mother bear instincts were going to finally overrule the cool and collected police commander. The nail tapping was a sign that it was getting closer and closer to that tipping point.
Everything in the storage unit was clean and well organized, a far cry from the units that Provenza raided in the past. Those units looked like hoarders-r-us by comparison to Stroh's unit. On the far wall was a bulletin board with a map of the US pinned up, "What are these pins for?" He turned to Cami as he pointed to blue pins poking out of various cities.
"Places he wants to go, or has been?" She threw out as a suggestion, but it was as much a shot in the dark as anything else. She snapped a picture of it and sent it off to Tao.
Provenza started opening drawers, "I don't think this place has been used in awhile." He noted the thick layer of dust that detracted from the otherwise clean space.
"Are we sure this is his unit? I mean it was in his mother's name. Maybe it's her storage locker?" Cami replied as she put her gun into its holster and slipped on a pair of nitrile gloves.
"Yes, but why would Mommy Stroh keep a locker out by her son's university?" He quickly countered.
"Maybe it was just convenient, moved out of an apartment and stowed stuff here," she started rummaging around looking for anything that might point them in some direction.
"Well if she was keeping it for herself, she might need to explain these," he held up a stack of fake passports. The photos were all of Phillip Stroh, but they looked a few years old. He flipped through them, he had glasses on in some and not in others, a mix of beards and goatees, there was even one with blond hair. He handed them over to Cami, "Still think this unit is just for her?"
Cami shrugged, unconvinced, "She could have had these made up for him, if she knew what he was up to and was trying to cover it up."
"Oh, I have no doubt that Mommy knew what little Phillip was doing, and probably yes would have aided and abided his escape, but I don't think she personally stocked this getaway kit for him," he replied moving on to another drawer.
Cami set the passports down atop a large bench that sat below the bulletin board with the map of pins and looked around the rest of the unit. Her eyes caught something up above Provenza's head, "What's that?"
Before Provenza could turnaround, Cami was already dragging a small crate to the center of the room and climbing up. She balanced on the unstable makeshift step and reached up, trying to loop her middle finger around a leather handle.
"Why don't you let me do that before you hurt yourself," Provenza surprisingly and uncharacteristically volunteered.
"I've almost got it, besides I'm taller than you. Not by much, but enough," she looked down at him, "And you don't climb remember."
He rolled his eyes at her, "Well hurry up then," he barked back.
"Almost," she stretched her arm as straight as it would go, and just barely got the tip of her finger under the loop, and gave it a small tug, the case moved a bit closer. She stretched again and this time was able to get her top knuckle just barely looped around the handle and pulled again, "Got it!" She exclaimed as the case came down onto the floor with a thud, just narrowly missing Provenza's head.
Julio stood in what he imagined to be a young Phillip Stroh's bedroom. He knew it was a figment of his imagination, but he genuinely felt the room drop ten degrees when we stepped inside. The room looked like many he'd seen before, the way parents kept the room's the same as the day their child disappeared, died. It would become a shrine to the dead. In this case though, there was no reason for it to be a memorial. He crossed the room and looked at the trophies on the wall. They were from chess tournaments. Based on the little bit that Julio had overheard from Rusty over the years, Stroh had been good, really good. He set one of the junior chess champion plaques back on the shelf and stared at a painting on the wall. It was quite good, looked like a cabin perched up in the woods somewhere. He pulled out his phone and took a quick picture of it sending it to Amy, wondering if it might be the same place.
He doubted that there would be anything of use in this room. Stroh hadn't lived here in decades and from what he could garner he hadn't been back to visit either. Some cops thought it helped them be better investigators if they understood the whole person, where they came from and how they lived, but Julio tended to disagree. It was about their actions in the here and now. His mind drifted to Mark, not everyone had to defined by their past.
His phone dinged, it was Amy. Same cabin. He looked at the picture she sent, of the actual cabin and it was identical to the one he was looking at on the bedroom wall. He flicked the screen over and clicked on Commander.
"Ma'am," he said when Sharon picked up.
"Anything?" She asked, hopeful.
"Nothing new, I'm going to drive out to Pasadena and speak to the step-brother and see what I can find out from him." He began walking back down the hall towards the stairway.
"Okay, keep me posted," she replied.
"Yes ma'am." He clicked the phone off and slipped it back in his pocket.
He paused at the bottom of the stairs and debated about whether he should say anything to the nurse or try and speak to Mrs. Stroh again. Something in his gut nagged at him and pulled him back into the room. The nurse approached, "Leaving?" She asked softly.
"Yes, I'm heading out. The techs will continue processing the house, but they should be wrapping up soon," he looked over her shoulder at the older woman watching them, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience."
"I don't think she knows to be honest," the nurse looked back at Gwendolyn.
Julio nodded and walked over to her, but before he could say anything she opened her mouth to speak.
"You're here about Phillip aren't you?" She asked nervously.
Julio was surprised at her sudden lucidity, "Yes ma'am we are."
"I knew you'd come one day," she sighed, "I suppose you found her then, Emily. Emily West?"
"Ma'am?" He questioned not knowing who she was talking about.
As quickly as the mental awareness had returned it left and the shining eyes of someone who didn't know what year it was met his, "Are you the gardener?"
He gave her hand a pat and stood up. As soon as he was out of the room he called Mike. "I need to you to look into the name Emily West. She may have been one of Stroh's early victims."
Mike set aside the project he'd started on an hour ago, not long after Provenza left. Something was nagging at him and he needed to visualize it before suggesting it to the rest of the team. He shrugged off the feeling and re-read the notes he'd taken from Julio's call a few minutes earlier. He wasn't entirely sure what a potential victim, and probably an old one, might have to do with the case now, but at this point he wasn't going to argue with new information. He'd been working in this business long enough that you never knew where a new lead might spring from and if Emily West was that lead, who was he to put it on the back burner.
Mike's fingers feverishly typed away looking into all the Emily Wests that might have been living in or near Los Angeles or Palm Springs between 1976 and 2000. It was a common enough name that he shouldn't have been surprised when 600 results came up. He quickly began filtering the list. Those still living. Those that wouldn't have been the right age. The list quickly narrowed down to 100 names. He tapped a finger to his chin and came up with another filter, anyone who wasn't blond or caucasian. The list shrunk once more, 32 names were left.
His eyes scanned over the birth dates and death dates, trying to bring the list down even further when something caught his eye. An Emily West was declared legally dead in 1995. Declared dead meant that there was no body to confirm death. This had to be the one. He clicked on the name and brought up her picture, she fit Stroh's type to a T. He scrolled through and found the case file attached to her record. It was opened August 1988, went missing from USC where she was working on an MBA and was never found.
It was too right, he thought as he continued to read through the case notes. Everything about her was a perfect match to the crimes they knew, or the Chief knew, that Stroh had committed. This might have been his victim zero, which made it very important. Mike turned is attention back to the his pet project and dropped yellow pin and labeled it Emily West and stood back. There were still a few items missing, but he was already beginning to see how all of this was coming together.
"Here," Andy handed Sharon a turkey club sandwich, "You need to eat." She shook her head, her stomach was churning with anxiety and bile. It'd sat empty for hours now, and she could feel the acid irritating the lining of her stomach, this was likely to give her an ulcer.
"Eat," he lightly pushed down on her shoulder forcing her to sit behind her desk, and placed the sandwich in front of her. "I don't expect you to eat all of it, but if you could take four or five decent bites I'll get off your case for a few more hours."
She smiled, "Negotiating down already?"
"Yes, well with you everything is a negotiation," he moved to the chair across from her and pulled out a salad with chopped salmon. He didn't feel like eating either, but it was time to take his blood pressure medicine, he wasn't about to make the mistake again, and it seemed to sit better with a little food. He used to take it in the morning on an empty stomach, until he worked a case involving a renowned cardiologist at USC who said it was better to take it at night with a light snack. Something about people being more likely to have heart attacks in the morning, just as their medication is wearing off. He took the information and put it to use, but still arrested the guy for murder.
He covertly raised his eyes without moving his head to spy her taking a small bite of her sandwich.
"Anything on the video yet?" She asked, anxious for one of their many fishing lines to start paying dividends.
"Not yet. We went through all the video on the registers, but no sign of her or Stroh, or anyone else that we might recognize," he took another bite of his salad.
Sharon leaned back in her chair, disappointed, when a thought came to mind, "Did they check the pick-up area?"
"Mmm?" He looked up at her and waited for an explanation.
"Well last time I went to the store, I ordered what I wanted online and then picked it up, maybe that's what she did," Sharon replied.
"Could be," he set his salad down on her desk, pulled out his phone and called downstairs.
Cami plopped down onto the floor feeling frustrated by the briefcase, it had a lock on it that they hadn't managed to break yet. Provenza wanted to hack the thing open, but she'd interjected that Stroh could have put some failsafe mechanism that might destroy whatever was inside if they did something to it. Reluctantly he gave in knowing that she had a point and moreover was probably right, it was exactly like Stroh to do something like that.
"We'll just have to bring it back to PAB and have the nerds sort it out," he grumbled combing through the papers in the boxes they'd pulled out. Thus far they'd found nothing but tax returns going back to 1956. With the exception of the passports that they'd uncovered almost immediately he would have said the trip was a waste of time.
"What if we were meant to find those?" Paige asked as if she'd been reading his mind.
"You mean he left them there on purpose?" He continued to throw paper on the floor, vowing to go through the boxes in his own garage later.
"Yeah," she scooted off the floor, "Maybe Stroh wanted us to think that there was something of value here so we'd spend a bunch of time and resources combing through all these boxes, when really he'd already taken the important stuff out. And left us this," she waved her arms trying to find the polite word.
"Crap," he filled in for her.
"Yes, crap." She nodded.
Provenza leaned back and thought about it for a moment. They had found those passports a bit too easily for someone like Stroh and despite spending over an hour they'd come up with squat. He looked down at the briefcase, "What about that?"
"Maybe it's a red herring," she said, "Maybe he wants us to focus on it."
"Or maybe he had no idea it was still here?" He muttered.
Sharon pushed away the papers she'd been trying to help Andy decipher in frustration. Normally, she'd have no problem breaking their code. She was great at that sort of thing, it's one of the reasons she got the boys Scrabble, she wanted to teach them how fun words and letters could be. She looked down at her mug of tea, she already knew it was empty. She'd finished it fifteen minutes earlier, but some how she'd hoped magic would have filled it to the rim. Anxiously she checked her phone again. Julio was en route to Pasadena. Amy and Wes were searching an empty cabin and vast wilderness for any signs of Rusty or Sharon or Stroh. Provenza didn't have much yet either. It feel like they were striking out across the board. She looked at the watch hanging from her wrist, she'd decided that if they didn't have anything solid to go off she was going to take matters into her own hands. She pushed herself back from her desk and stood up, determined. It was time to check on Mike, and this project he was working on. The tea could wait. She needed to find her son and if her team couldn't do it then she would.
The walk from her office to RACR was short, quickened by her pace. She needed something to cling to and she needed Mike to have some answers for her. The doors quietly slide open and she saw a map of Los Angeles county on the big screen and Mike plugging away on his computer in the corner, "Mike what are you working on?"
He jumped up a little from his seat, startled by the sudden presence of someone else in the room. After Provenza left he couldn't help but to wonder about where all of these crimes were happening. "Well, I uh," he paused pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, "I've brought up a map initially it was to keep track of where Amy and Wes were," he pointed at the blinking icon in purple up in the hills outside the city, "And now Cami and Provenza," he motioned to another blinking icon in blue.
Sharon nodded, she could see that much for herself, and assumed that's what he was doing, "But what about these red dots?" She adored Mike and all the techno-brains he brought to the team, but occasionally his tendency for long winded explanations were far from helpful.
"Right," he zoomed in on the locations taking Wes and Amy's dots out of the frame, "These are—"
"The crime scenes," she quickly caught on as he had enlarged the map and she could more clearly see the names of streets and other landmarks.
"Exactly," clapping his hands together in excitement, "Now here's where it's really good." He clicked a few buttons on his computer screen and brought up a set of yellow dots. "These represent areas where Stroh's victims were taken or found."
Taking a stuttering step backwards Sharon had to brace herself against the table behind her as she watched the city light up like a twisted Christmas tree. The clusters were everywhere. USC. Downtown. Griffith Park. "It's extraordinary," she whispered in gut shaking awe of what Tao managed to put together.
Wes and Amy stood on the porch of the cabin looking down the ravine they'd just climbed up. In any other circumstance it might have been a nice place to have a picnic, relax, and enjoy nature. For now though, they waited for the rest of the team to drive up the road. The Forest Service had maps of the area and would be coordinating with LASO on searching up to a mile beyond the cabin.
Amy leaned down and gave the dog, Jax, a pat on the head. She'd thought on occasion about going into the K-9 unit when she joined the LAPD, she found she liked dogs a lot better than most people. There was something great about the way they partnered you up, getting to work with the same "partner" for years. Sadly, she couldn't afford a house and an apartment building was no place for a police dog — they had very strict rules about the home life of a working dog. In the end it worked out, her meandering road from beat cop to SIS and a plum spot in Major Crimes that just seemed to happen.
"Does Coop like dogs?" Wes asked watching how Amy's features had softened as she'd gotten closer to the dog.
"Not really," she stood up, "He likes working with the unit, but no interest in taking care of one. Strange given how badly he wants kids."
Wes was taken aback by Amy's sudden reveal of personal information, she was normally so guarded about those things. "Yeah, I hear they're a good dry run." He replied trying to keep it light.
"That's what they say," she let the comment linger, but made it obvious that the conversation was over. She stepped back inside the cabin and slipped her black gloves on. Wes got the hint and followed her back in as well. The pair started opening drawers and cabinet doors looking for anything of value. The cupboards had old canned food and jars of some weird pickled feet or some sort, Amy tried not to vomit as she put it back where she found it.
Wes opened the cabinet door near the makeshift bed and found an old dusty picture. He brought it out into the middle of the room where the light was better and stared at it. The picture was the first personal item they'd found which felt both odd and yet important at the same time.
The face was unmistakable even at such a young age, something about the eyes Wes reckoned. No matter how old you get they always look the same. "It's kinda creepy don't you think?" Wes asked as he handed Amy a picture, "Little Stroh smiling like that?"
"Yeah, what is he 5 maybe 6 years old?" She said looking at the young brown haired kid.
"Probably," he squinted at the dirty and faded picture, "Is that maybe the uncle?"
"Could be, it's hard to tell," she said bringing it closer to her face, "Maybe Mike can do some magic touch-up."
She flipped the picture over, " August 1966." She didn't think Phillip was that old. She knew of course from his files that he was born in August of 1961, but he never looked his age as an adult. "So he would have just turned 5, maybe this was taken at his birthday?"
He nodded in agreement, it was a reasonable assumption. He looked at the scene behind them, it felt familiar but he couldn't place it, "Where are they?" Wes wondered, mostly rhetorically knowing that neither one of them had a clue.
"I think those might be bars, it's really hard to tell," Amy set the picture down on the dusty table and snap a picture and sent it off to Tao. We aren't sure where this is, but it could be relevant.
Mike continued inputting additional data points into his map when he heard his phone chime. The team had been sending him pictures from the various searches, and he was feeling inundated. It was a lot of work with many minute details to comb through, without Buzz it felt like a nearly impossible task. He airdropped the picture onto his Mac and then brought it into Photoshop to enhance. While he waited for the program to run he sipped the last few drops of his cold, stale coffee praying that there was still a small amount of caffeine left.
As the program finished he pulled it up onto the large screen and poured over the scenery in the background. The plants looked liked native Californian shrubs, but the rock formations in the background looked oddly shaped. He didn't grow up in Los Angeles and while he felt pretty confident in his knowledge of the area — they'd certainly been to enough crime scenes to fill an encyclopedia of geographic body dump locations he couldn't place this spot. He got up from his chair and walked across the empty room and stared at the blown up image on the screen, racking his brain to place the exact spot—
"Oh wow, I haven't been to that place in years!" Exclaimed Casey startling the otherwise and usually unflappable Mike Tao.
He spun around quickly, his glasses falling off his face onto the floor.
"Sorry," Casey rushed to pick up his glasses, "I didn't mean to scare you."
Tao took his glasses from Casey's outstretched hands a slid them back over the bridge of his nose, "Is everything okay?" Suddenly concerned for his close friend and colleague.
"Oh, yes," she gleamed with watery eyes, "everything is good. Buzz has passed all his tests with flying colors, as usual. He's eager to get out and back here to help. That's why I'm—."
Mike wasn't much of a hugger, but he couldn't hold himself back. He lunged forward and pulled her into an embrace before she could finish her sentence. Casey was surprised and initially tensed, but then settled into the comforting touch of another. "That's wonderful news," he whispered trying to keep from tearing up. They had been running low on morale, caffeine, sleep, you name it for the last three days and this was a better jolt than any amphetamine could have provided.
They pulled apart before it turned awkward. Casey moving towards the screen, "It's so crazy that you have a picture of this up right now."
"Why is that?" He asked still puzzled about what it showed besides a child version of Stroh.
"Well while my mom and I sat there in the hospital talking to Buzz," she paused and looked up, "the doctors suggested that we talk to him and share stories, that it could help." Mike nodded, it was a common protocol. "Well anyway, when Buzz was about six and I must have been four, it was before our dad died, we used to go up here for picnics. It's a great little spot. Anyway, one time Buzz fell and hit his head, had a nice egg on his forehead for days. My mom was worried that his teacher was going to call child well-fare." She finished with a chuckle looking in the distance of the photo again, recalling fond moments together.
"This is a picnic spot in Los Angeles," Tao immediately jumped on that thread of her story. "Do you remember where?"
"Yeah, up in Griffith Park," she replied with a smile.
Tao rushed to his desk and clicked to his other screen pulling up the map he'd been working on earlier, his eyes locked on to the obvious landmark. Griffith Park was a huge hill, a visual compass point in the city, you couldn't miss it. "Could you point to it?" He asked, bringing the image to the big screen.
"Yeah, probably," she turned back to the screen perplexed by Tao's sudden change in demeanor. She'd worked in journalism long enough to know there was something going on and to just ride with it for the moment. She scanned the map briefly, "There. It's right there," she turned to face Mike, "It's the old LA Zoo," and watched as his face dropped.
AN: I've changed Stroh's age to make my story details work which has shifted a few things around in canon. There are two more chapters to come, real-life has been a challenge as I've been helping a family member with cancer and also recently lost my job, so while I remain dedicated to finishing this beast of a project I can't promise when that will be. Thanks again to those who have faithfully remained followers of this story. I know that most people only want to read fluffy Shandy pieces, but I'm glad I've taken on this case story. It's been a challenge and growing experience as a writer. It has also been healing as I re-write the end of the show on my terms.