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Authors: Jonathon King

Don't Lose Her

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Don't Lose Her

A Max Freeman Mystery

Jonathon King

For Arlene and Richard,

Who have always been there

Chapter 1

D
iane Manchester, forty-three, pregnant and, in her words, “big as a house,” shifts in her chair, uncomfortable again. It's the same courtroom chair she's had for more than a year. Recently, she had them take off the arms to accommodate her, but at eight months she feels restrained once again. She reaches down and pulls at her judicial robes and straightens a fold, while carefully controlling all emotion in her face. Is it a physical irritation making her twitch, or the images before her? Either way, she can't let it show to the others in the room.

On the bench spread out before her is the prosecution's exhibit Number Two, a sheaf of photographs showing a mass grave heating in the Colombian sun. The victims include women and children, some infants, their bodies lying awkward and twisted in the mud, mothers and babies still touching, even in death.

“Your Honor, again we object to the admittance of these horrific photographs. There is no proof my client knew anything about this atrocity in his homeland, and I emphasize that this is in his homeland, not on U.S. soil—never mind that he had no connection to those responsible for such a heinous crime.”

“I agree with your assessments regarding the atrocities, Mr. Agui­lar, but I will reserve judgment on your client's culpability,” says the judge, sliding the photographs aside and reaching down to cradle her swollen belly beneath the bench. “You may sit, Mr. Aguilar.”

Diane is looking out on an atypical scene in her courtroom. As usual, there is a team of federal prosecutors to her left, two of whom she's had before her in the past. But at the defense table are a bevy of lawyers, all appearing to be Hispanic, all finely dressed in expensive suits, all stern-faced and showing a palpable deference to their client, who sits next to the lead attorney. His chair is pushed back, his hands clasped at the middle of his thin torso, his legs crossed as if at a boring business meeting. Juan Manuel Escalante is a known drug cartel leader who was lured to Florida through a DEA scheme and subsequently arrested by the feds. He is charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to distribute illegal narcotics, conspiracy to import drugs, murder, and assault and coercion of witnesses as the titular head of his Colombian cartel.

Throughout the courtroom gallery, normally sparsely populated for the admittedly boring federal procedures usually held before her, Diane notes the presence of several members of the press along with a phalanx of lawyers whom she recognizes as international law wonks. Deep in one corner is a fellow judge, a senior who's hearing a big money, Indian nation versus casino technology-supplier case on another floor. He's probably jealous that Escalante is stealing some of his spotlight. There is no jury in the room. Any decision on the case before her is hers alone.

The extradition hearing of a celebrated drug cartel kingpin brings out a different crowd and certainly different stresses. Diane feels another crimp in her belly, looks at her watch, and addresses the attorneys: “Gentlemen, as it is approaching noon and we've had a long morning, may I suggest a lunch break unless there are any objections.”

She looks at the prosecution table.

“No objection, Your Honor,” says the head of the team.

She looks to the defense as the lead attorney begins to rise, but a voice comes from beside him.

“It has indeed been a long morning, Your Honor,” says Escalante from his sitting position. His fingers are now peaked before his chin, as if in prayer. “And in Your Honor's condition, we can certainly understand your need to gather your energies.”

It is the first time the defendant has spoken in two days, and it is unusual and against protocol for him to do so now. His eyes, as always, are hooded and lazy as if the proceedings are of little concern to him. The overall look is reptilian, as if a forked tongue could suddenly lash out from between his lips at any time. Though his voice is thick with accent, his English is meticulous. The head defense attorney looks down at his client in a mild attempt to silence him, but Escalante continues.

“We would want nothing but the best of health for Your Honor and her child.”

Diane looks down and meets Escalante's eyes: Was that arrogance on display, or a threat?
Can I hold him in contempt or should I warn his team about any further directed comment? Do I rise above it?

She slides her chair back and begins to stand.

“Thank you for your concern, Mr. Escalante,” she says, gathering the photos of the mass grave and straightening them, making sure that the images are pointing outward for all in the courtroom to see. “Fortunately,
my child
and I will be just fine.”

Following the judge's lead, the court bailiff calls out, “All rise.” The judge steps down and leaves the room through the door to her private chambers. Her longtime judicial assistant, Martin Andrews, is just inside.

“What the hell was that?” he says as he helps her out of her robe. He had been listening to the proceedings.

“Don't know, don't care.”

“Really, Judge—was that a threat?”

“I don't know, Marty. But I'm sure the U.S. Marshals Service will know about it before Escalante gets to lockup downstairs, and there'll probably be a YouTube video posted before that.”

Diane tries to downplay the line about her and her baby's health as simple grandstanding. Sure, she'd gotten threats from defendants before, a few more direct and visceral than Escalante's. Every judge got them. If you let it get to you, you'd better leave the job.

“But for my health, and that of my baby,” she says, gathering up her purse and phone from her desk, “I'm going to lunch.”

“Want company?” Andrews asked.

Diane looks askance at her friend, whom she'd brought with her from her position as a prosecutor to the federal bench.

“Do I ever?”

“No, ma'am. See you in an hour.”

Out on the street in the warm sun and fresh air of a Florida spring day, Diane stops at the pedestrian crosswalk, thinking about hot fudge sundaes and the Constitution. When the white stick figure on the pole lights up, she crosses, thinking about where to go for lunch, and the jurisdictional boundaries of extradition.

Halfway down Clematis Street from the courthouse, she cups her palm and wrist under her bulging belly and thinks of the eight-month-old baby growing inside her, and then of the photos of the mass grave: the women and children.

Stop it, Diane! Lunch is for stress release. It is not a time to think about the case, or the twists of the law, or the admissibility of evidence, or dead children. Leave it alone for an hour. Relax!

The obstetrician said the only way he was going to let her continue working was if she avoided undue stress. She needed to relax, forget the case, and do what was right for herself and her child.

She actually stops in front of the windows at the Oh My Chocolates store and sighs, but with the thought of white walnut raisin bark and alpine dark truffles in the back of her head, she moves on.

Across the street, she picks up a familiar figure, a woman dressed in a business suit but wearing running shoes. She is pushing a baby carriage quickly, in a hurry, as she always is when Diane sees her at lunchtime. Childcare down the block? Pediatrician appointment? Diane imagines what lies ahead, juggling career and motherhood.

Can she keep her judgeship? Could she stand to do without it? She and her husband, Billy, have had this discussion. He argues that he works mostly out of his home office, so he'll step up. But she knows his singular passion when he's focused on a case or a financial deal.

“You'll get up in the middle of a teleconference with Uruguay's economic minister to change a diaper?”

“Sure,” Billy said. “Depending on the strength of the odor.”

Diane smiles at the thought, shakes off the image of Billy and diapers, and keeps moving, her destination now settled. When she reaches the short block of Narcissus Avenue, she crosses and has just stepped up on the curb, heading for the awning that reads
NATURE'S WAY CAFÉ
, when the screech of tires on pavement causes her to snap her head around.

A white van jolts to a stop next to her. When a side panel door slides open, a figure leaps out, and Diane's arms are gripped by fingers that drive into her biceps, splitting the muscle there. As she's pulled into the van, she speaks aloud for the first time since telling Marty, “For my health, and that of my baby, I'm going to lunch.”

“What the hell …! Hey! My God, what the hell! Ow, ow, my baby! Help! Help!”

Chapter 2

T
here is something about dead high tide that always makes me uncomfortable, especially on a day like today, when there's barely a breeze off the ocean: a day when masses of full gray clouds hang fat out on the horizon, too far away to be threatening, but gorged with moisture and barely moving, like big slumbering dogs you know to let lay.

At a time like this, the water is hard to know. Its direction is caught at a high point, not moving east or west, just sitting like a pot close to boiling, but not quite yet. Even the waves seem to have stopped while that eternal switch from rise to ebb is caught in neutral.

I'm with Sherry on the sand in Deerfield Beach. We're sunning, although what we do on the beach couldn't really be called sunning because neither of us does, nor needs, such a thing. You'd be better off calling what we do at the beach a practice of ritual silence. Sherry reads, for about sixty minutes at a time, which is as long as she can stand to be inert, and then makes her way to the water, slips into the sea, and swims.

With skin brown as old leather without a single day in the sun, I read for hours at a time, only occasionally peering up over the top of today's book to watch the ocean or to track Sherry's progress in it.

At this moment, she is returning from her third trip into the water today, and I look up to see her in the shallows, both hands in the water, her full leg bent at the knee, her head down like a sprinter waiting for the gun to begin her race. Her shoulders are broad and muscled, her hips narrow. Her left leg is unnaturally large at the thigh, ripped with taut quads that chisel to the knee and then flow down into a cablelike calf. You could mistake her for a professional speed skater but for the odd displacement of weight, and the fact that when she rises full from the water you can see that her lower right leg is gone. Her thigh on that side seems to wobble a bit in midair without the ballast that was amputated just above the knee.

In one way, I am used to the sight because I have lived with her, loved her, and watched her recover from the loss of that leg since it happened. Yet, in a more disturbing way, I am not used to the sight, because I blame myself for the circumstances that led to it.

I watch as she hops up into ankle-deep water and then stands, catching her balance like some yoga guru doing the flying swan position or whatever the hell they call it. And then she hops, one-legged, to her beach chair. Those who notice stare, first at her and then at me as I sit on my ass.

Why the hell doesn't he help her, I imagine them thinking. But Sherry is the kind of woman who would refuse help if you offered. And that was a lesson about her I'd learned long before she ever had surgery.

“You've got to go in, Max, the water is absolutely perfect,” she says, reaching the chair, her breathing not one scintilla heavier than if she'd just dropped in from a leisurely stroll. “I'm guessing seventy-eight or seventy-nine—really warm.”

I only nod because it's the same thing she said last time, an hour ago, and the time before. Oh, I can swim, make no mistake, but mostly I prefer to do it when the only alternative is to go down with the ship. I may go in later, just to please her and prove that I am not a total lazy dog. But right now, there is a passage in this Cormac McCarthy book about lightning flashing in distant thunderclouds that has me staring out at our own horizon.

“Huh?” I say. But the need to respond is made moot by the trill of a cell phone that floats up from Sherry's beach bag. I don't react. I never bring my phone to the beach and almost consider it blasphemous to do so. But Sherry is back on duty as a detective with the Broward Sheriff's Office after months of rehabilitation and desk duty. She has proven herself physically able in myriad exercises, obstacle courses, and training scenarios.

They couldn't keep her inside anymore. Disability was not a word she would tolerate even in the paperwork they stuff into her personnel file. But active status brings responsibility, which means she is on call at all times. After the fourth ring of the cell, she reaches into the bag and answers by simply stating her last name.

“Richards.”

She listens for a beat.

Then in a perplexed and uncharacteristic tone of concern, I hear her say: “Billy?”

“Yes, of course. He's right here,” she says, and hands the cell phone to me, knitting together her sun-blonde eyebrows and shrugging her shoulders in a silent indication that something is amiss. Billy Manchester is my employer and my friend. He is a businessman-lawyer, eternally cool under pressure—someone who does not call me at odd times of the day when he knows I am not working on an investigative case for him.

“Billy?” I say into the cell with a touch of the concern in Sherry's reaction.

“Max, I need you. Diane is gone. Someone has taken her. She's gone, Max. She's been abducted. I need you.”

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