A DEADLY BLESSING
MADDIE – 1
"Maddie, do not hang up the phone."
"Travis, I'm working. I can't talk right now."
"You're always working. What's more important, our marriage or your job?"
My partner, Darius Cutter, plucked my cell phone from my hand. "Hey, dude, she'll call you later. The chief and the mayor are waiting for us." He snapped my cell shut and handed it back to me. "Let's go."
"You shouldn't have done that." Immediately, the phone vibrated in my hand. The display showed a smiling photo of my husband — a photo taken when Travis was okay and normal. A pang of sorrow stabbed my chest.
"Ignore it," Darius said, referring to the quivering phone. "Call him back when we're out of our meeting." He led the way out of the noisy detective squad room to the foyer where we'd catch the elevator.
I knew Darius was right. When the chief of police calls and orders you to a meeting with the mayor, you hustle your ass to get there. But my husband was on edge, to say the least. Guilt weighed heavily on me for putting work ahead of him, but I rationalized that Travis was a cop and knew that sometimes it was necessary. Meanwhile, I followed my partner while we traversed the Police Administration Building and then over to City Hall.
It's not every day a girl gets to meet both the chief of police and the mayor of Los Angeles. I wondered why today was my day.
We stood in the lobby where we'd been told to wait for Chief Fryer and his adjutant. I twisted my wedding ring on my finger; a sure sign I was nervous. Technically, the chief is my boss, but as one of hundreds of LAPD detectives working for him, our paths had never crossed – until now.
I noticed a sheen sprouting on Darius's forehead. That sweat on his mocha skin was the only giveaway he was stressed, too. "I don't like this," said Darius. "I expected the 'hurry up and wait' but we don't even know why we're here. I don't like going into any meeting unprepared, much less one where the chief and the mayor are running the show. Why all the mystery?"
Pulling out my lip-gloss, I coated my mouth.
"Gettin' gussied up, huh?" Darius said, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye.
"You bet. Didn't you learn anything in the Academy? Remember improvise, adapt, and overcome?"
"I've adapted enough to improvise being your partner – although I don't know if I'll ever overcome it."
"Touché," I said. Looking through the glass door, I saw the chief's navy SUV glide to the curb. "Here they come." Immediately, the two passenger doors of the chief's ride opened, with the city's number one cop stepping out of the front seat and a uniformed lieutenant exiting the rear door.
If you called central casting, you wouldn't find anyone who looked less like a chief of police than Marlon Fryer. His pasty pudgy face sat atop a Pillsbury doughboy body. His salt and pepper hair was styled in an elaborate comb-over that, in a breeze, would blow open, similar to a cellar door.
Even more surprising, the man was a dolt. The only reason he'd been appointed chief was because the Police Commission and the mayor bought into the media's infatuation with having an openly gay police chief. The general idea was that maybe a chief with an alternative lifestyle would be able to turn the department into a 'softer, more gentle' police force. After all, this was L.A., where image is everything.
The lieutenant walking with the chief was a whole different animal. His face looked like granite that'd been taken apart and put back together again. Narrowing his eyes, he scrutinized the people who scurried like a legion of ants through the lobby. Not an ounce of warmth or friendliness emanated from the man. Obviously, he'd been chosen to be the hard-assed ying to the chief's softer yang.
Darius and I introduced ourselves to both men and they led us to an elevator behind the security checkpoint. Inside the Art Deco compartment, we stood in silence, staring at the illuminated numbers as they increased during our ascent.
We exited into a small hallway that led to the offices of the mayor. Granite-Face checked in with the receptionist, and suddenly the inner office door swept open.
"Chief Fryer, thank you for coming on such short notice. I'm sure you mutilated your calendar to accommodate me." Mayor Pilar Luna displayed a mega-watt smile while flipping her long, mahogany curls over her shoulder.
Fryer actually appeared to quiver with her praise as he took her hand. Promptly, he introduced Granite-Face as Lieutenant Keever, then gestured to us. "May I present Detectives Darius Cutter and Madison Divine? Darius and Madison are the lead detectives in adult missing person cases."
The Mayor gave us the once over and shook Darius's hand first. When she latched onto mine, I was surprised by the power the petite Hispanic woman held in her grip. The mayor was a favorite of the Los Angeles press. Her dark good looks and perpetual smile drew reporters like Santa Ana winds attract arsonists.
"I'm pleased to meet you," she said, looking through me with her dark, wide eyes.
Releasing my hand, the mayor motioned for us to enter her inner sanctum. Before closing the door, she stuck her head back into the reception area.
"Crystal, unless someone is dying, don't interrupt us. And when our guest arrives, be sure to bring him in immediately."
While the mayor was distracted, I took the opportunity to look around. It was obvious the budget shortfalls plaguing the rest of the city weren't being felt here.
Terra cotta silk drapes framed a postcard-perfect view of the downtown skyline. The hardwood floor was covered with a colorful area rug. In place of the usual city-issued harsh florescent lights, a wrought iron chandelier was centered over the conference table. A smaller version hung over the mayor's rustic desk. The rest of the office was dotted with Mexican folk art.
"Won't you have a seat at the conference table?" the mayor offered. "Would anyone like something to drink? Water, coffee, soda?"
She sounded like a flight attendant.
"No thank you," we all murmured, moving toward the large table.
I caught Lieutenant Keever checking out the mayor's ass while she led us across the room. Her navy designer suit accentuated shapely legs, a tiny waist, and massive breasts no doubt created by a Beverly Hills surgeon.
I stood a little straighter and tucked a strand of my disheveled brown hair behind my ear. My jacket, black pants and sensible flat shoes were definitely not designer-made. But the mayor is never required to jump a wall chasing a suspect, and sometimes I am.
Chief Fryer hustled to pull out her chair.
What a suck up.
Once we were seated, all eyes turned to the mayor.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I called you here and what is so urgent." Pilar leaned forward. "I don't know much. There is a woman missing, and for some reason Governor Truesdale has a vested interest."
I caught a look of surprise dart across Darius's face, but he quickly recovered. I ran our most recent missing person cases through my mind and couldn't think of any that would garner the governor's attention.
The mayor continued. "The reason this meeting was called in such haste is that I'm expecting the governor any minute. He can explain the circumstances to all of us at the same time."
This keeps getting better and better, I thought. First the mayor. Then the governor. Who's next? The president?
The whole scenario was interesting. It was no secret the mayor and the governor were dating. He split his time between his personal home in Bel Air and the governor's mansion in Sacramento. It didn't surprise me that Pilar Luna wanted an explanation as to why some other woman would catch the attention of her governor boyfriend. I know if I were dating him, I'd be curious, too. But it did make me wonder how close they actually were since he hadn't already told her about the missing woman. Maybe their relationship was more for the tabloids than the real deal. Typical L.A.
A flurry of activity commenced in the outer office followed by a short rap on the mayor's door. Governor Preston Truesdale bustled into the room along with another man. Truesdale quickly introduced his chief of staff, Martin Bain, and they joined us at the large table.
Preston Truesdale's neon-blue eyes and dark good looks had served him well as an Oscar-winning actor in the 1990's. He'd used his fame to express disapproval of the policies and the state of affairs in the Golden State. The media and Tinseltown yuppies championed his platform of change, and propelled Preston into the political limelight. Now he was running California, and recent rumors hinted he might make a run for the White House.
Bain displayed a sculpted coif that balanced with his perfectly manicured fingers. He wouldn't look anyone in the eye. He reminded me of a used car salesman.
"Martin, pass out the photos," the governor directed. "This is Heather McCall," Truesdale said as photos of a young woman were placed in front of each of us. "She's twenty-eight, lives alone in Northridge and is a nanny. It appears she's missing." He paused and took a deep breath. "She's also the bone marrow donor for my daughter, Tiffany."
"Oh, Preston," Pilar whispered.
I examined the eight by ten headshot of Heather McCall. The woman was a knockout. She wasn't Latina, maybe Middle Eastern or some sort of Asian mix. Artful makeup emphasized sultry ebony eyes while thick black hair hung long and straight against a lavender sweater stretched across voluptuous breasts. Heather McCall looked nothing like any nanny I'd ever seen. Usually, in a missing persons case where the victim was a young female, I'd get a knot deep in my stomach. Although the woman in the picture looked delicate, there was something in her eyes that told me she'd seen a lot in her life.
"Governor, Maddie Divine, LAPD," I said, to remind him who I was. "Who reported her missing?"
Truesdale looked to his aide, Martin Bain.
"It was the hospital," said Bain. They had some problem with the paperwork for the transplant and tried all last week to reach Ms. McCall by telephone. They contacted me, and I tried for a day and a half without success."
"Did anyone check her apartment? Is there any evidence of foul play?" I asked.
Bain nodded. "I went over there the first day I was notified. No one responded to my knock and the Manager was nowhere to be found."
"Does Heather have a husband or boyfriend?" It's one of the first questions we ask when an adult female goes missing.
Bain shot me a dirty look while Preston shuffled through some papers. "Not that we know of," said the governor, "but you can see she's a pretty woman. I'd be surprised if she didn't have a man in her life."
"Governor, can you tell me how Heather came to be the bone marrow donor for your daughter? Is she a family friend or relative?" Darius asked.
"Actually, Detective," Bain said focusing his gaze on Darius, "we've done a ton of blood drives to, pardon the pun, pump up blood donations and raise awareness of the need for all kinds of donors. I believe Ms. McCall was found through one of the blood drives."
"What about any family?" Darius continued.
The governor closed the folder in front of him. "Honestly, I don't have much information about her. My people are working on it — mostly through medical records she submitted to donate her bone marrow to my daughter. Any information we learn will be forwarded to you." The governor shot Bain a pointed look, and Bain presented each of us his business card. We supplied him ours as well.
"Governor, any chance you can clear the way so we can get a copy of the medical paperwork faxed to us?" Darius asked, slipping Bain's card in his shirt pocket.
"Absolutely," said the governor, then his eyes hardened. "My daughter needs bone marrow and Heather McCall is the only suitable donor we've found. We've got to locate her, and we've got to do it quickly."
"Just how long do we have, governor?" Chief Fryer asked. "I mean, how long before your daughter…er…um …"
Truesdale looked at Fryer like the idiot he was.
"I think the governor would feel better to have Ms. McCall found as quickly as possible," the mayor interjected.
Bain glanced at his watch and cleared his throat. "Sir, if we're going to run to your house to see Tiffany, we need to get going. You've got to be back in Sacramento for the Capitol Building re-dedication dinner in less than four hours."
Now I know where my tax money goes, I thought. The governor jets back and forth to Sacramento a couple of times a day. No wonder the state is broke.
Preston rose from his chair and approached the mayor. "Pilar, thank you so much for arranging this meeting so quickly."
I watched while he leaned in and buzzed her with an air kiss and she responded in kind.
It wasn't lost on me the way his hand drifted to the small of the mayor's back.
Preston turned to Chief Fryer, his gaze searing. "I expect I'll get a report daily?"
"Of course, governor."
"Good. My daughter's life hinges on your efforts. Don't let me down."
Within seconds, Preston and his chief of staff were gone.
Darius leaned over and whispered in my ear. "No pressure on us, huh?"
"Yeah, right," I said. "Let's hope the nanny's got a boyfriend and is staying with him."
The mayor turned to us. "Thank you both for coming. Chief Fryer assured me he'd keep me apprised of your progress. Good luck."
Elevator silence wasn't a problem on the way back to the ground floor. The chief made it clear to us that he wanted an update on the case twice a day. "You can call my office directly. If you can't get me, speak to Lieutenant Keever."
I nodded and smiled in reply, but inside I was dreading a daily chat with Granite-Face.
On the ground floor of City Hall, the chief turned to Keever. "You notify Lieutenant Conrad," he said, referring to our boss. Then, with the intensity of a general leading a charge in a fifties war movie, he told us to 'go out there and find Heather McCall.'
On our way back to the Police Administration Building, known as PAB for short, Darius and I grabbed grande cups of caffeine from a Starbucks. We knew it might be our last break for a while. I debated about calling Travis back, but I wanted to unwind a little from the meeting before I tackled talking to him. I knew he'd be pissed that Darius had hung up on him. Lost in our own thoughts, my partner and I entered the glass-faced lobby of the modern police building.
I'm not comfortable in the angular structure that smells of new carpet and paint. The command center shines like a starlet on the red carpet, shiny and sleek, but with no fortitude. Oh, it's got the latest techno-gear, and the chief's office even features a private patio where he can hold soirees for his command staff and other political cronies.
But I mourn the old Parker Center with its centuries of stale air, dingy long hallways, and questionable elevators. The outdated and abandoned police headquarters had been all business —bad guys were quietly and unobtrusively put behind bars. No fuss, no muss.
Returning to our office, I plopped my fanny in my city-issued, predictably uncomfortable desk chair. "So partner, how do you want to divide this case?"
Before Darius answered, our immediate supervisor, Lieutenant Larry Conrad, also known as, Larry-the-Wife-Beater, marched toward us. His eyes were locked on us like we were a couple of gangsters slinging dope. I swallowed a groan as Darius sat up a little straighter.
Years ago, long before a famous football player went on trial for the murder of his wife, our boss had gotten into hot water over a fight with Mrs. Conrad. She wound up in the hospital with a pair of black eyes and couple of broken ribs. Lawrence Conrad had immediately been christened Larry-the-Wife-Beater. Rumor had it that Conrad was ordered to a closed-door session with the chief. Four months later, Larry-the-Wife-Beater was promoted to Lieutenant.
"Cutter and Divine, I want to see you in my office. Now." A florid rage radiated from our boss.
Once we were assembled in Conrad's office, he directed Darius to close the door. Then our boss pointed to two chairs against the wall and indicated we should sit. "Cutter, just what in the hell do you think you're doing?" he fumed while he paced in front of us. "Why didn't you call me and let me know you were meeting with the chief about a missing woman?"
I bit my lip to keep from grinning. If Conrad was pissed we'd met with the chief, he'd probably have a coronary knowing the mayor and the governor were there too.
"Lieutenant, when Chief Fryer's office called and ordered Maddie and me to a meeting, they said drop everything. We left directly from here to the mayor's office."
The Wife-Beater stopped pacing. "The mayor? The mayor? You attended a meeting with the chief and the mayor and didn't call me?" Conrad's voice rose like that of an outraged teenaged girl.
"Sir, I was following orders of the chief of police. I wasn't trying to hide anything from you."
I was impressed; my partner's voice was as smooth as spit-shined shoes. Conrad's face heated from scarlet to purple.
"Cutter, one of the first things they teach you in the academy is to use common sense. Any idiot would have called his immediate supervisor and let him know he was en route to a high-powered meeting."
I couldn't hold back. A girl doesn't get too many shots at her boss, and I never missed an opportunity to knock Larry-the-Wife-Beater down a notch or two. I figured he deserved it, and Mrs. Conrad would most likely agree.
"Lieutenant," I said, "Detective Cutter tried calling you, but his city-issued cell phone kept failing. Once we got to the mayor's office there was no time to call before the governor's arrival."
Darius shut his eyes and braced for the inevitable fury.
Conrad stood like a mute ventriloquist's dummy with his mouth opening and closing but no words coming out. His wild-eyed gaze ping-ponged between Darius and me.
Darius opened his eyes.
"You met with the governor?" Conrad choked out.
"Sir, we didn't know. The chief didn't know the governor was coming," said Darius. Gamely, he continued. "It was the governor who provided information on the missing woman from her medical records."
"You two have really screwed yourselves. I think you intentionally kept me from that meeting." Spittle flew from the lieutenant's mouth as he pointed his index finger at us. "I'm telling you both right now, I don't care how short-handed this unit is I will do everything in my power to move you out. Now, get to work and find that woman!"
Darius and I said nothing as we left the office and sauntered back to our desks.
"Well, I think Larry-the-Wife-Beater just experienced a major meltdown," I said.
Darius dropped in his chair and took a swig of his now-cold coffee. "Yeah, and you were the flame under his ass. You just couldn't wait to tell him Truesdale was at the meeting."
"Oh, come on Darius, you can't tell me you didn't enjoy watching him freak out. He's such a brown-noser and he's mad he missed a 'tête-à-tête' with the chief. My guess is the chief intentionally left him out of the loop."
A small smile tugged at Cutter's lips. "Maybe." He sat at his desk as I sat at mine. "But entertaining as it was to watch Larry flip out, he's gonna make us pay. You can count on that."
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish