by Michael Kingswood
Though she’d been living in San Diego for ten years and had lived less than two miles away from it for most of that time, Kim hardly ever came out to Balboa Park. But every time she did, she left asking herself why she didn’t come more often.
The entire city was beautiful, heaven on earth as far as she was concerned, with the seemingly eternal sunlight and temperatures that never got much above the mid 80s or below the low 70s. But there was something about the Park itself. The old-style architecture, the walking paths, the manicured landscaping, the historical feel of it, and for whatever reason, the press of people and tourists who flocked to see it. She couldn’t help but smile there, no matter how bad her day had been.
Which might be why you’re walking the path here again, she said to herself as she paced past the parking lot that stood before the protruding round construction of the city’s Air and Space Museum, and on toward Pan American Plaza and then the park proper beyond. It had been a hell of a week.
A hell of a month.
And mom’s call at lunchtime had just made things worse. So much worse that she had been unable to focus at all in her job as a paralegal in Benson and Wigger, the law firm she had served for the last five years in their expansive offices downtown, just a few blocks away from the park.
So she’d begged off, taken half a day of leave, and practically fled up the hill to the park, a walk she hardly ever made anymore because of the number of homeless who had taken to using the streets on the east side of downtown, away from the waterfront, as their living and bedrooms.
But she’d barely noticed it today. Barely noticed the ache in her feet from walking the nearly a mile and a hundred-some feet of elevation change from her office building to here in her business pumps. Her mind could only find one focus, the whole way up.
Stage three, mom had said. Might be operable…but the expense. Dad refused to hear of it, she said. He’d resigned himself to this being his time to go, and no one was going into debt to try to prolong his time.
Well, he is seventy-three.
Kim squashed that thought, shoving a dangling brown lock that had pulled free from a barrette and had gotten into her eye as though it were something—or some one—that was assaulting her.
Of course, it just flopped back down into her field of view again, and she scowled.
But then, she’d already been scowling, so what was the difference.
There was a stucco-beige stone bench on the edge of the sidewalk a few feet ahead on the right. She made a beeline for it, and smoothed the navy blue fabric of her suit skirt before settling down. She had a small collapsible mirror in her hand bag, and she fished it out and popped it open.
Her hair wasn’t too badly out of whack, and it just took a moment to fix.
As she was working at it, part of her shook a finger at the rest of her. Who cared what her hair looked like? With what she had just learned, it didn’t matter worth a whit, did it?
But it did. For whatever reason, by the time Kim had the stray lock tucked back into place and the mirror snapped shut, some of the weight that had been crushing down on her soul was gone. Not all of it, to be certain. But just the act of tending to that one minor bit of trivial normalness had taken her mind away.
And she felt better. A little.
She sat still, and closed her eyes. Breathing deeply, she took in the sounds of the park: the chatter of kids as they rushed ahead of their parents down the walking paths. The rumble of a passenger jet passing overhead on its descent into the airport. More softly, a trumpet from the direction of the zoo: an elephant maybe?
The faint smell of fried food, from the cafe next to the Air and Space Museum most likely, reached her nostrils, and she breathed a bit deeper, thinking of french fries and a nice, juicy hamburger, with all the fixings.
But your diet, her mind shouted at her, and Kim snorted that thought away.
When she came to the park, she normally got something to eat up at the Prado and sat at one of the many umbrella’d tables there to munch on her food and people watch. It wasn’t that much further ahead and to the right, considering the distance she’d already walked. But her stomach growled, and she realized she hadn’t even bothered to grab the lunch bag she’d stuffed into the firm’s refrigerator that morning.
Ah, to hell with her diet. With news like she’d just gotten, who cared anyway?
Resolutely, she opened her eyes and clasped her hand bag closed, then moved to stand.
She stopped halfway to her feet, when she looked down and to the right, at the bare dirt of the ground next to the bench.
There was a book lying there. But she couldn’t quite make out what…
She bent forward a little bit more, turning her body to see more clearly, and felt her left eyebrow raise.
- F. Henson. Her favorite author. And…
She blinked. Depths of Shadows. It was his latest, in hardback. She’d heard it was coming out and had put it on her list of things to go pick up, but she hadn’t gotten around to it.
It had been one hell of a month.
Stooping, she picked the book up.
The dust jacket was dusty, but it had been lying in the dirt, so… Flipping it over, she couldn’t see any signs of damage. What was it doing here?
Clearly someone must have dropped it, or forgotten it here.
She straightened up to her full height and looked about.
The parking lot over by the Air and Space Museum was about half full, and there was a slow stream of people going to and from cars over there. A couple in shorts and t-shirts who looked like tourists were walking away from the park on the opposite side of President’s Way from her. But there was no one on her side of the street, that she could see.
Kim peered left, then right, then left again.
Yep. No one about at all.
Frowning, she looked down at the book in her hands. She had the urge to just take it and go. It wasn’t like it would really be stealing, she told herself. Just her lucky day is all. And after everything that had come crashing down on her, she felt like she could use a bit of luck, right then.
“Screw it,” she said. Then she tucked the book under her arm and walked toward the cafe whose scents had called to her a moment ago.
A hamburger, then home and the good book she’d been looking forward to for weeks.
Just what the doctor ordered.
* * * * *
Home was a little one-bedroom condo in the Gasslamp district. If she’d been on the other side of the building, she would have had a decent view of Petco Park. Not enough so she could actually see the game. But the ballpark and surrounds made for a nice sight.
Alas, her place only got a view of other high-rises, and then the smaller buildings out through East Village and the hills beyond downtown into the sprawl that made up the rest of San Diego county.
It was not particularly inspiring, but still Kim liked to sit on the balcony of her seventh-floor place and look out at the world anyway.
She’d bought it back in ’12, unknowingly at the time at the absolute bottom of the San Diego housing market after the shenanigans of 2008. In the last couple years she’d thought a few times about moving to a bigger place. Then she saw the prices, and balked. Even with the gains she’d accumulated on her place, it was just too much.
Of course, she could move out of Downtown. Out to Bonita or Chula Vista to the south, or Vista up north. Both areas still got relatively decent bang for the housing buck. But that meant more than her current fifteen minute walk to work each day, so that was right out.
Still, as she switched on the lights and stepped inside her place, and beheld all 575 square feet of its glory, Kim couldn’t help but wish to be less cramped.
She made decent money as a paralegal in a big firm downtown, and had decorated her place carefully to match that. Modern stainless steel appliances and grey quartz countertops in the kitchen, with white shaker cabinets and recessed LED lights in the ceiling. Cream paint on the walls, setting off the charcoal leather couch and love seat arrayed before her TV in the living room. Out on the balcony a pair of rattan chairs with a glass-topped drink table between them, facing east.
Kim let the door swing shut behind her and breathed in the subtle pine scent of the Scentsy burner she had plugged into the wall in her entryway, and tried to feel the usual relaxation, the lifting of burden, that she always felt when she returned here, to her abode.
No such luck.
Not that she’d really expected it. Though she’d tried to set her mother’s news from her mind during her late lunch, she had only marginally succeeded. And then on the Uber ride back home, the dread and the anguish returned full force.
Now, looking around at the reproduced art on her walls, and the sterile cleanliness of her kitchen, she couldn’t feel anything but desolate.
“To hell with that,” she said through her teeth. Stalking forward into her condo more fully, she kicked off her pumps and flopped her hand bag down onto the kitchen counter. Then, eyes firmly on the sliding glass door leading to her balcony, she stalked across the living room, found book in hand.
She was going to sit down, by God, and get her mind off of things. That’s what she was going to do.
Her balcony chairs were well cushioned, and when she settled down into the one on the right, she couldn’t not let out a little sigh of relaxation as the cushion morphed to match her form and provide just enough gentle support to ease at least the muscular tension that had been haunting her the last hour or so.
Hopefully J. F. would do the same for her mind.
She hefted the hardcover and, leaning back into the chair’s deep cushions, opened to the first page.
A slip of paper, which apparently had been wedged somewhere in the middle of the book, slid out and fell into Kim’s lap.
She froze, blinking in surprise and looked down at it. It was yellow-white, unlined, and folded over itself, like a note.
Probably just a bill or something from around the house that the book’s previous owner had been using as a bookmark. Closing the book, Kim picked up the paper and flipped it open, curiosity pushing her to pry into that unknown stranger’s life before her inner voice could object.
It wasn’t a bill. The sheet was blank except for three lines, typed in a plain font in black.
“Santa Fe Station.
What in the – ?
Kim read the simple text again, her eyebrows rising in confusion as a little shiver went passing through her body. Not of fear, of intrigue.
She knew Santa Fe station. It was the rail terminal in downtown San Diego, a couple blocks in from the wharfs. She’d been there several times over the last few years, taking the Coaster up to Hollywood for a premier with a friend who worked as a Producer’s assistant, or all the way up to Monterey to see her parents. It wasn’t super big, but it was nice enough. And were there…?
The image of a collection of lockers, rentable by the hour or the day, over in the corner to the right as one entered the station’s main entrance, sprang into Kim’s mind.
There were rentable lockers there. It stood to reason; many transit terminals had them. But she’d never noticed—never had need to notice—them before.
That third line must be the code to get the locker open. Which meant whoever had owned this book last was now screwed, because he wouldn’t be able to get his stuff back.
“Sh*t,” Kim said to herself.
Maybe it was an old note. Maybe the book’s owner got whatever it was from the locker weeks ago, and had taken it home, happy and safe.
Or maybe, that annoying voice in her head said in a tone like her first grade teacher used while wagging her finger, he was going to get it today, but he lost his book and you took it.
Either way, Kim was going to have to go to Santa Fe Station and see. If it truly was an old note, no harm no foul. If it wasn’t…
“Hopefully he’s got a label or something on it, so I can find him to give it back.”
Yeah. Fat chance of that. But no way was she going to be able to sleep tonight if she didn’t find out one way or the other.
Muttering to herself, Kim rose and went back inside, then turned right to go into her bedroom.
At the very least, she was going to change into more comfortable clothes…and shoes.
* * * * *
A pair of Brooks running shoes and compression shorts and an athletic shirt later, Kim was feeling a whole lot more limber. She descended the elevator to the ground floor and exited her building, then turned left toward the west and the waterfront half a dozen blocks away.
And toward Santa Fe Station.
She thought about grabbing an Uber, then decided against it. It was getting on toward late afternoon now, and traffic in the city was beginning to pick up. It wouldn’t hit full on rush hour for another hour or so, but even still, she hated sitting in a car in traffic. Walking would be slower, but at least it would feel like uninterrupted progress.
Besides, she needed to think about what she was going to do if her hope was wrong, and whatever the book’s owner had left in that locker was still there for the taking.
She couldn’t just take whatever it was, that was for sure. A book was one thing. This was likely something much more substantial.
But how to find the owner, or if she did how to explain?
She halted before an orange hand and an electronic voice saying, “Wait. Wait,” at the intersection of fourth and Broadway, and shook her head. She didn’t need to find the owner. She could just go to lost and found in the station, and turn it in there. Or go to the cops, and let them handle it. No need to get any further involved at all.
That made her feel better, and as the crossing signal turned to walk and she started across the street, she felt her spirits buoy for the first time all day. Her pace quickened, and she was practically whistling as she hurried the last few blocks to the station.
The relief from responsibility was like a drug, it felt so good.
Santa Fe Station took up the entire block between Broadway and B Street on Kettner Blvd. It was constructed in the southwest style, with yellow-beige stucco siding and orange-red roof. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers on all sides, it seemed a diminutive throwback to a long-gone era as she walked up to it.
Inside, it was neat and clean, and well lit by lamps in the ceiling shining down onto polished tiles. The ticket window had row upon row of wooden benches in front of it, just like in the movies, and there were half a dozen people sitting in those benches, waiting for a train or for someone to pick them up. It being Southern California in September, no one had a jacket, and only one long sleeves.
No one looked over when she entered, and she was just as happy they hadn’t. She didn’t spend any time looking them over either. Just turned to the right toward the three rows of rental lockers, stacked three high, that took up space in the near corner at the end of the station’s lobby in that direction.
It had been a while since Kim had last used lockers like these. Back then you inserted your coins into a slot and pulled out a little orange-handled key, which you could then use to unlock the locker when you were ready to get your stuff.
But as she approached this cluster of lockers, Kim could tell that’s not how they operated at all. Each had keypads above their locking mechanism. Which she should have expected; hence the code in the note. The keypads were colored orange, though.
Had to keep up tradition, Kim supposed.
It didn’t take long to find the locker. There weren’t that many lockers to choose from, and well over two thirds of the available lockers were obviously unlocked and empty.
For that matter, why number it 542, and not just 27? That would make more sense. Not that it really mattered. What mattered was –
“Crap,” Kim said to herself as she stopped in front of the locker in question. It was the middle locker in its column of three, and it was shut. And clearly locked.
Could be someone else had put her stuff in this one after the book owner got his out. It could happen, right?
“Yeah right,” she said.
With no small amount of trepidation, she keyed in the code from the note.
The locker made a metallic click, then the door swung ever so slightly open.
Drawing a quick breath and forcing butterflies down in her stomach, Kim reached out and swung the locker door open the rest of the way.
There was a bag inside. Brown leather, with two leather hand-holds on either side of a zippered closure that ran all the way down either side of the bag’s body. It looked like the kind of bag a doctor would use for a house call in one of those old movies.
Curious, despite the growing certainty that she had just unknowingly screwed somebody, she inched forward and took hold of the bag, pulling it partway out of the locker.
There was no lock on the bag itself; the zipper was free to move. So she unzipped it.
Green paper in neat stacks, bound by yellow paper wraps at their center struck Kim’s eyes and she gasped, then closed the bag up tight.
Then looked left and right; surely someone must have seen –
But there was no one anywhere near her.
She looked back at the bag again and inched it back open. She must have been imagining things.
They were hundred dollar bills, stacked neatly together and wrapped in paper with $10,000 stamped on the wrappers. She did a quick count. Two. Four. Six. Eight…
There was a hundred thousand dollars there.
“What the hell is this?” she breathed, then looked around again.
Still no one. Not even a security camera that she could see.
Nervousness battled with excitement, then elation. A hundred thousand dollars! Cash! And no one would ever know she had it.
What about the guy who owned it, asked that nagging voice inside her head.
“Screw him,” she said softly. After all, he had to be up to no good. Who leaves a hundred thousand dollars in a train station locker, if he’s on the level?
By finding this money, she may have just disrupted a terrorist attack. Or a murder for hire scheme. Or a –
You’re just trying to justify taking it, said that voice again.
And she was. But damn it, this was the answer to everything. Dad’s cancer. Her own desire for a bigger place.
Moving quickly, before that nagging voice could say anything else, she zippered the bag shut, hefted it by the handles, then strode briskly out of the station, for home.
* * * * *
The voice started up three blocks after she got back onto Broadway and turned east.
And no wonder. As she approached the intersection with State Street, she saw the lofty building of the Hall of Justice to her left. The County Courthouse, she knew, lay a block behind it. And to the right, on her side of the street…The Federal Courthouse, followed by the Circuit Court. And behind them, the IRS.
She’d been in all of those courthouses hundreds of times during the course of her duties at work. She knew the people who worked there. The clerks, the bailiffs, the Sheriffs, the Marshalls. Even a few of the judges. She thought highly of them and, she hoped at least, they did the same of her.
What would they think about this, the voice asked.
The bag, not exactly light when she started carrying it, felt like a ton of bricks in her hand as she waited, feeling the displeasure of those places of justice as they stared down judging eyes at her.
It was like the windows on the buildings were scowling. Kim wanted to cringe away, but just then the walk symbol appeared.
Instead she hurried across the street, practically running to get past the courthouses and all they represented.
After a couple blocks, she slowed, and glanced back over her shoulder, almost expecting to see a stream of uniformed men charging at her, ready to pounce for what she’d done.
But there was nothing. No one but the usual suited lawyers chatting away into their cell phones as they hurried about their business.
Kim let out a quick, humorless laugh.
Of course there was nothing. There would continue to be nothing, too. There was nothing to link her to this bag and the money in it. No way anyone would think to suspect her of anything. She had the money free and clear, and with it she could make sure these weren’t Dad’s last months on the planet.
And after, if there was anything left over…she could make use of the rest herself. No one would ever need to know.
But how will you explain where you got the money for the operation, that voice asked as she began walking again, sweeping the renewed confidence that had started to grow within her aside as fresh doubts crept up.
It was a valid point. She’d have to come up with some kind of explanation as to where the money came from.
For some reason, she flashed back to Breaking Bad, to the “Help my dad” site that the main character’s kid set up for his cancer treatment, how he had used that site to funnel his drug money to himself cleanly. Maybe she could do something like –
Oh great idea, said the voice. Money laundering. Make it an even greater Federal offense, why don’t you? And do you have any idea how to really do that at all?
No, Kim had to admit to herself, she didn’t. She had no idea whatsoever.
“Well fine,” she said under her breath. “But I can figure it out. Start with small things. Pay with cash for small things. Things that are easy to explain. Then sell them. Or something.”
This was going to be more complicated than she initially thought. But she could do it.
She needed to do it.
She came up on the intersection with Eighth Street. A right turn, then a few blocks and she’d be home.
But instead of turning, she found herself stopping there at the intersection, unable to move.
You can’t keep it, said the voice inside her.
But I need it, she practically cried back at it. Dad needs it. He’ll –
Kim’s vision blurred as tears welled up, and she bit back a sob as the pain of Mom’s news—the pain she had tried and succeeded at keeping at arm’s length all day—slammed into her chest like a sledgehammer. She stumbled backwards a half step before she caught herself.
Get ahold of yourself, woman, she snarled inwardly.
But the tears came more strongly. She wiped at them with her free hand, but it didn’t do any good.
Is this how he would want to be saved, asked the voice. What would he tell you to do?
But the question lingered, and Kim knew the answer without even having to think about it. Knew exactly what he would say if he ever learned about this. Knew exactly what he would already have done if he were in her shoes.
San Diego Police Department’s Headquarters was another few blocks down Broadway directly ahead.
With another sob, she resolutely did not turn toward home.
* * * * *
The look on the face of the woman behind the bullet-proof glass of Police Headquarters’ receptionist station when Kim showed her the bag and its contents was priceless.
She directed Kim to one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the waiting area, then immediately picked up a phone to call someone higher up the chain. Kim had barely settled down onto the nearly completely un-ergonomic seat when a pair of uniformed, and very serious-looking, officers came in through the swinging double doors leading further back into Headquarters’ innards, zeroed in on her, then led her deeper into their lair.
A few twists and turns later, and she was sitting in a plain white room in a chair that was only marginally more comfortable than the one in the waiting area, in front of a simple table topped with grey formica.
Nothing happened for fifteen minutes.
Then two men in grey suits, almost like they’d purchased them off the same rack, stepped into the room to join her.
They were as different as their suits were the same. The first was older, mid-50s, white, and lean, with piercing blue eyes beneath a mop of fully-grey hair. The other was short, black, bald, and chubby, but the kind of chubby that speaks of lots of muscles underneath the fat.
The black guy was the one who took the lead.
“Miss Hawthorn,” he said, “I’m Detective Franklin.” He looked her up and down, then his eyes settled on the bag that was still clutched in her hands, on the table in front of her. Then he gestured toward the other man. “This is Agent Mackenzie. Why don’t you tell us what happened, please?”
Agent. So the white guy was a Fed. Kim zeroed in on him for a second, but found she could not meet his gaze for long. It was like he was staring deep into her soul.
Instead, she looked down at the bag, drew a deep breath, then told them everything that had happened since the park.
There was silence after she finished. When it seemed like an entire minute had passed without anyone saying anything, she looked back up to see the two men looking at each other.
It was like they were engaged in a battle of wills, or something.
But finally, after another several seconds, Mackenzie broke the silence. Letting out an explosive sigh, he threw up his arms as though in surrender, then turned to look at the wall next to him. “Dammit!” he said, sounding not angry so much as annoyed, but also…amused?
That couldn’t be right.
Detective Franklin chose that second to chuckle and shake his head. He reached out and clapped the Agent on the shoulder, saying, “Told you so, Tim.”
“Yeah, yeah,” grumped Mackenzie. His lips twisted into something that looked like it wanted to be a scowl but finally settled on a rueful grin. Shaking his head, he looked back at Franklin and made a little shrug. “A-hole.”
Franklin grinned back at him, more broadly.
Kim looked between the two of them, confusion growing more strongly within her by the second. Finally, she cleared her throat. Loudly.
Both men turned to look at her, and for a second something that almost resembled embarrassment passed across the Detective’s face. The Agent’s went back to professional calm immediately.
“I’m sorry,” Kim said. “What’s so funny about this?”
Mackenzie remained silent, but that professional facade cracked again—and why did he bother with it after having dropped it so completely a minute ago?
Franklin, though, shook his head again, and then he made a friendly smile at her. “Sorry, Miss. We had a bit of a bet going, and I just won.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mackenzie said, still trying with all his might to keep up the professional gambit for some reason or other.
“A bet?” They were taking bets about her? What in the holy hell was going on here?
The annoyance and affront that was beginning to overtake her confusion must have shown through in her tone, because Franklin raised a placating hand. “You see, Miss Hawthorn, you may have just saved the most sensitive counter-drug operation in San Diego PD and the DEA’s history.”
She blinked, annoyance fading back to confusion again. “Come again?”
Mackenzie sighed, and looked back at the bag. “We’ve been working a joint operation, with several people under deep cover. This,” he gestured at the bag, “was supposed to go to one of our undercovers for use in a big buy tomorrow. But…”
“But he lost his book, with the bag’s location and the code to the locker in it,” she finished for him.
Mackenzie nodded. “We’ve had personnel scouring every place he’d been for the last twelve hours all afternoon.”
Franklin put in, “I bet him that a citizen would solve the problem for us. He didn’t want to believe it.”
“Ok. But why didn’t you guys just go get the bag yourselves, and get it to your agent another way?”
Mackenzie shook his head. “Because we didn’t put the bag there. The money came from another party, who handles the money. We have another undercover in that organization. He recorded the bill serial numbers and put a tracker in the bag, but he wasn’t involved in placing it. No one but the person who delivered that note—and we don’t really know who that was—knew where the bag actually was.” He paused, then added, ruefully. “Until you found it.”
Recorded serial numbers? Tracker in the bag? Kim shook her head. “Guess I’m glad I didn’t keep it, then.” She laughed to show she wasn’t being serious, but both law men looked at her sternly, whatever humor they had a moment ago gone.
“Yes,” said Mackenzie. “Yes you are. These are not the kinds of people you want to be stealing from.”
Kim swallowed. Then she pushed the bag away from herself, toward them.
“Well, I’m just as happy to have it out of my hands then. Do you need me to make a statement, or – ?”
Franklin shook his head. “No we’d just as soon this didn’t have a formal record, if you understand.”
Playing a little CYA. Well, Kim supposed she couldn’t blame them for that. It was, come to think on it, a rather embarrassing screwup to make.
She nodded. “I can keep a secret.”
“Good,” said Mackenzie. He stood, and so did Franklin. Assuming that meant the meeting was over, Kim did the same.
“Seriously though,” Franklin said as he held out his hand to her. “Thanks for your help.”
They shook, and she found his grip firm but gentle. Mazkenzie’s was just firm.
“My pleasure,” she said.
After they led her out to the reception area, she watched as they strode back into the belly of the beast. Then she turned and exited the Headquarters building.
As she turned toward home, she found herself smiling. Not content, and not over the pain from earlier today by any means. But she felt satisfied. And she knew Dad would be satisfied with what she’d done, too.
She decided to call into work when she got to her condo. She had three weeks’ vacation on the books, and she planned to take it all. Tomorrow she would go back to Santa Fe Station and get on the Coaster for Monterey.
If these really were to be Dad’s last few weeks or months on the planet, she was going to spend as much time with him as she could.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: