Coop dug in the cabinet for a clean mug, filled it with cold coffee
from the morning pot, and slid it into the microwave to warm. As the
appliance hummed, he pulled aside the curtain on the kitchen window
and peered out into the early evening darkness. It was still snowing,
huge flakes dropping straight down in the uncharacteristically calm
Kansas air. Driving was going to be a bitch in the morning if it kept this
up. But there was no denying its beauty, especially the way it sent the
reds and blues and greens of the neighbors' Christmas lights fluttering
across the sky like a swarm of multi-colored fireflies.
He retrieved his coffee, took a healthy swig from the steaming cup,
and walked slowly into the den. Setting his drink on the drum table that
separated his chair from Betty's, he reached down, moved the radiant
heater to redirect its flow, and flipped the switch to HI. Old age was
catching up with him. Cold weather didn't used to bother him; now it
seemed he was constantly chilled from November to March.
He stretched, yawned and folded his lank six-foot plus frame into
the old brown recliner. A couple of pokes on the FM remote selected his
favorite easy-listening station, and soon the soft, soothing strains of an
old Montevani standard filled the room. He wrapped both hands around
the mug and sat for several minutes letting its warmth ease the chill in
his fingers. Finally he took another drink from the mug, leaned back,
and allowed the effects of the warm stimulant to permeate his body.
Several minutes passed before he opened his eyes, turned slightly in
his seat and looked across the table toward the empty chair. He could
almost see her sitting there, smiling at him with the warm, comfortable
love that had bound them for over forty years.
It had been almost eighteen months since his beloved Elizabeth
died, and most of the frustration and pain and anger had subsided, but
the aching loneliness remained. Involvement in a variety of community
services and the fellowship of close friends helped him cope, but the
most comforting activity was their daily "conversation." Sometimes it
lasted an hour or more, sometimes only five minutes, but every evening
without fail he recited to her the significant events of his day. Now it was
time for today's report, and it was more exciting than most.
"I got a call from Rich Peterson this afternoon, Betty. You know
Rich, Hon. He's the one they promoted into my job when I retired.
Good man. I like to think it was my recommendation that made him
captain. He and his wife came to a couple of our Christmas parties,
remember? She was the mousy little woman that looked like she'd cry
if you as much as frowned at her. Didn't have an ounce of personality,
as I recall.
"Well, anyway, Rich called me today and he's got a missing person
case on his hands. Not just your garden-variety runaway, either. This
is the wife of the Honorable Elmo Wells, Judge of the District Court.
And the judge told Rich he specifically wanted me to head up the
investigation. I sure as hell don't know why; I've crossed swords with
him for years and there's no love lost between us. And he knows I'm
retired. Rich even reminded him. But the judge is apparently convinced
I can find his wife if anyone can and he was adamant they get me to
work on it."
Coop had been the Wichita Police Department's youngest captain
of detectives ever and he loved his work with a passion. He had gained
an almost legendary reputation as an investigator who could solve the
insoluble. But as soon as they learned Betty's pain was due to terminal
pancreatic cancer, he took early retirement so he could devote full time
to comforting her when she was sick, celebrating with her when she
rebounded. He had never regretted his decision.
"So, anyway, Rich called to ask if I'd please give him a hand. I
wouldn't do it for Wells—I really don't like that guy—but Rich made
it sound like a personal favor. I told him I'd let him know tonight but
I'm on the fence. What do you think?"
He saw no ectoplasmic image of her face, nor did he hear her
disembodied voice whispering from the firmament, but he knew with
absolute certainty she heard him. And he was equally confident that,
having discussed the situation with her, whatever decision he made
would have her approval.
Rich rushed to the office door, hand outstretched to greet his
long-time friend. "Coop, you old son-of-a-gun. Good to see you. It's
been forever." He shook his mentor's hand, then stepped back and
made an exaggerated vertical sweep with his eyes. "You look fantastic.
Retirement must agree with you."
Without waiting for a response, he motioned for Coop to sit and
settled himself into the swivel chair.
"Have any trouble getting here this morning?"
"Not much. Our neighborhood streets are a mess but the main
roads were pretty well cleared off. Thank goodness the snow stopped
when it did, though, or we'd have been in trouble."
It seemed odd to Coop to be sitting in front of the desk he'd worked
behind for so many years. Almost twenty. He still recognized scratches
from metal evidence boxes, and individual cigarette burns from when
he was smoking. Rich had added a transparent plate glass top to restore
the smooth writing surface, and Coop was secretly pleased it didn't
obscure the evidence of his tenure.
Rich appeared a little flushed and tiny beads of perspiration dotted
his forehead. Poor guy's a bit uncomfortable with the situation, Coop
thought, smiling inwardly; almost looks guilty. Rather like a grade-school
kid caught sitting in the teacher's chair. He tried to put his
protégé at ease.
"So here I am, Cap'n Peterson. Amos Cooper reporting for duty."
Rich's smile was weak but he began to visibly relax.
"Thanks for coming in, Coop. You're a lifesaver. Judge Wells is
being a real asshole about this. Insists we put you and no one else in
charge of the case."
"Yeah, that's what you said on the phone. Like I told you then, I
don't understand why. He and I really don't like each other. He's an
arrogant SOB in person and his conceit shows even more in the way
he runs his court. I used to criticize him every chance I got, and he
retaliated publicly with some highly unflattering comments about my
character and parentage."
"I don't like him either, Coop, but he's a powerful SOB with powerful
connections. He made it clear that despite your differences he thinks
you're the best damned detective in the country. And if the Chief and
I wouldn't get you to work his wife's case, he'd see what the Mayor and
City Manager could do. Even made veiled threats about getting the two
of us fired, and he could probably do it. Besides, his court still tries a lot
of the creeps we arrest and it's to our advantage to stay on his good side
if we can. He can make life miserable for us if he wants to."
"Well, I want you to know I came as a favor to you, Rich, not
because of the judge. And despite my feelings about him, I'll try to do
you a good job. But, now, time's a-wastin'. Whatcha got?"
"Well, first of all, here's a photograph of the lady."
He passed an eight-by-ten color print across the desk. The face that
looked up at Coop was of an attractive woman whom he guessed—despite
her pure white hair—to be in her mid-forties. Somehow she
looked familiar, but he couldn't place where he might have seen her. Her
long, thin face with its prominent cheekbones reminded him a little of
a young Katherine Hepburn; maybe that was what he recognized.
A sticky note attached to the lower right corner carried handwritten
vital statistics. Height: 5 ft 4 inches. Weight: 124 pounds. Age: 54 years.
Whoops. Missed that one by ten years. Either his eye was losing its age
calibration or this lady was a master at makeup.
While Coop studied the photo, Rich opened a file folder on the
desk, pulled out a sheet of notes, and quickly scanned his eyes over the
"Here in a nutshell is what I know. At 3:18 yesterday afternoon,
Judge Elmo Wells arrived here at headquarters and insisted on seeing
Chief Miller. Tom wasn't here so the judge agreed to talk to me
instead. He came roaring in the door shouting that his wife was
missing and we were going to drop everything and find her or there'd
be hell to pay."
"Sounds like the judge we all know and love."
"Well, I finally calmed him down a little and got the basic story.
He and his wife were planning to spend Christmas with her mother in
Boston. He has a trial scheduled and probably couldn't leave until the
21st, though, and Mrs. Wells wanted some extra time to visit and shop,
so she scheduled herself on a flight leaving yesterday morning. Judge got
her to the airport about nine, watched her board the plane, and waited
around until they backed it out of the gate at 10:05.
"At 2:15 in the afternoon, his mother-in-law phoned him from
Boston to find out what was going on—they pulled him out of court to
take the call. She'd met the flight at Logan International and Marilou,
that's the judge's wife, didn't get off. Wells calmed her as best he could,
recessed the trial, and came directly here."
"Well, maybe Mrs. Wells simply got off at another city for some
reason. What were the stops between Wichita and Boston?"
"That's just it, Coop. There weren't any. It was a non-stop flight."
Coop suspected he knew the answer to the next question before he
"Could she have made arrangements to stay on board to the next
"Nope. The flight terminated in Boston and all the passengers got
off. They had the plane headed back to L.A. in an hour with only the
scheduled number of people on board."
Coop stroked his chin between his thumb and bent forefinger.
"Well, well. The lady got on but she didn't get off. Sounds like
we have a real puzzle on our hands. `The Case of the Disembodied
Passenger.' Any theories?"
"Not a one. That's what we got you on board for." Rich grinned
sheepishly. "I've got to admit I didn't resist a bit when Judge Wells
insisted on having you involved. This looks like it may be the kind of
case that earned you your reputation."
Coop smiled. "Hey, doesn't sound so bad to me. Let's face it. There
are only three basic possibilities. Either she didn't get on the airplane—despite
what the judge says; or she got on and then got right back off
here in Wichita; or she got on here and got off in Boston—despite
what her mother says. And there are only three basic questions: why
did she do it, how did she do it, and was there anyone else involved?
Settle those issues and the case is solved." His smile broadened into a
grin. "Piece of cake."
Rich chuckled briefly at his friend's facetious analysis of the situation
but quickly became serious again.
"You think she staged her own disappearance? That's certainly the
way I've been leaning."
"Well, you haven't given me any reason to suspect our lady was the
victim of foul play, and we both know most adult disappearances are
intentional and voluntary. My guess is the lady has a secret boyfriend
somewhere and the judge wouldn't give her a divorce so she just left."
Rich nodded, but then his brow furrowed.
"You've got to admit her departure was rather dramatic, though. She
could just as well have walked away from her house some time when
the judge was in court slapping another rapist on the wrist. Why such
an elaborate disappearance scheme?"
"I don't know. Maybe she just has a theatrical nature. Or maybe she
took some perverse pleasure in having the judge `lose' her, so to speak.
Nonetheless, until we get some indication otherwise, I'll continue to
believe she just took off on her own."
Even as he said the words, though, he sensed the old feeling creeping
over him. The hard-to-describe chill and tingling that started at the
nape of his neck and worked its way up over his scalp, telling him things
were not as simple as they seemed. He affectionately called the feeling
his "twitching antenna" and he had learned through long experience to
trust it implicitly. Regardless of what his mouth might be saying, his gut
knew this really wasn't simply a case of a middle-aged woman trying
to recapture her youth by disappearing into the arms of a young lover.
And if it wasn't that simple, she might be in real danger.
"But we'll never find out for sure what happened if I keep sitting
here passing the time of day with you, will we? There's lots to do. What's
"You'll be calling the shots. You don't have to get my permission,
or even my concurrence, for anything you do." He paused and grinned
wryly. "But please, please keep me well-informed about what you're
doing along the way so I don't get caught with egg on my face. Tom—Chief
Miller—has made it clear this is a top priority case and the whole
department is behind you. Anything or anybody you need, you got. Just
ask. For starters, I've assigned one of our brightest young detectives to
be your full-time assistant and liaison."
Rich poked a button on his desk intercom.
"Have Detective Carson come to my office, will you please,
He turned back to Coop.
"I've had an office set up for you to use. I'll take you there when
Carson gets here. It's not very big and certainly not fancy, but it should
be adequate as a base. If you need more space, let me know."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. I probably won't spend much time there,
There was a rap on the door, and Detective Carson's head appeared.
"Connie said you wanted me, Captain."
"Right, Carson. Come on in."
Coop had prided himself on pioneering the integration of women
into the detective squad, and giving them assignments more challenging
than playing undercover hookers. But he had never had a woman on
his squad that prepared him for Detective Carson. She was, to put it
mildly, a knockout. Petite, blond, the most brilliant blue eyes he'd ever
seen. Oh, would that he were thirty years younger. This assignment was
going to have its advantages.
Rich grinned at the look on Coop's face, and gave him a minute to
recover before making the introductions.
"Coop, this is your new assistant, Detective Victoria Carson.
Carson was first in her class at the Academy and she's already earned
a commendation for saving her previous partner's life. She can bring
you up to date on our preliminary work on the case so far. Vic, this is
Captain Amos Cooper. Coop was solving murders around here when
you weren't even a gleam in your granddaddy's eye."
Vicki flashed a huge smile.
"Don't I know it. Captain Cooper is the reason I'm a cop."
He stood and shook the hand she offered. As he expected, her grip
was firm and confident.
"Glad to meet you, Carson."
"I can't believe I'm really shaking hands with Amos Cooper. When
I was in the fourth grade, you came to our school and talked to us
about your job and I thought it was the most exciting thing I'd ever
heard. I decided right then that I was going to be a police officer when
I grew up."
Coop cleared his throat to hide his embarrassment.
"It's gratifying to know those little talks did some good. From what
Rich says you're a fine officer. Glad to have you as my partner. We've
got lots to do. And my first assignment for you is to belay the `Captain
Cooper' crap. I'm just `Coop' to the people I work with."
"And I'm Vicki."
* * *
"Not big" and "not fancy" were words Rich had used to describe
Coop's new office. Rich was a master of understatement. Coop had seen
walk-in closets that were bigger, and the smudged off-white paint was
certainly not fancy. One wall had been fitted with a large corkboard,
though. Someone remembered Coop's old habit of posting key items
related to a case so they were readily visible at all times. And the adjacent
chalkboard had been freshly washed.
A scratched and battered gray metal desk of indeterminate age sat
diagonally in one corner of the room, with barely space at the end to
reach the battered swivel chair behind. Two wooden guest chairs and
a metal three-drawer file cabinet completed the furniture. Amidst this
eclectic maze of cast-offs, the shiny new computer terminal on one
corner of the desk was almost an anachronism. As was the telephone,
a gleaming black instrument whose cord bore a tag that attested to its
Coop returned Vicki's resigned grin and shrug, and motioned her
to sit while he eased behind the desk and settled into the swivel chair.