Haven Books Fiction
First Place (Gold)
2007 USA Book News
National Best Books Finalist
A bruised sky hung over the Central Coast. Spoiling to continue its fight, a storm lurked off shore between punches, jabbing at the little town of Milford-Haven without mercy.
Senior Deputy Delmar Johnson couldn’t shake his feeling of foreboding. He’d stayed too long in his office and now it was dark. The days had grown short and winter rains again doused the Central Coast much of the day. Highway 1 stretched past the window, a slick ribbon of asphalt devoid of traffic.
Chris Christian was definitely missing. The call from Detective Rogers wasn’t a break in the case, exactly, but at least it would be a starting point. A Mr. J. Calvin of Santa Barbara had reported her missing, and had asked that Captain Sandoval assign the matter personally. Keep it quiet, he’d apparently said. He’d cooperate fully. The Captain called Rogers. Rogers wanted Del in on the interview.
It’d been only two months since Del made senior deputy, and he appreciated the vote of confidence from the Captain—if, in fact, that’s what it was. They’d been short-handed, leaving a slot open for someone who happened to be in the right place at the right time. But it was always hard to tell, when you were the new kid on the block, if a new assignment meant you were being given a chance, or being thrown to the dogs.
He’d done his one-year probation with the Sheriff’s department in San Luis Obispo County, and had spent it on patrol in all three sub-stations: Templeton to the north, Los Osos in the middle, and Arroyo Grande, which encompassed everything south to the Santa Barbara County line. Among other things, the year of patrol work meant he’d learned a lot about the area—enough to know he loved the Central Coast.
The California Department of Forestry had a new building in Milford-Haven. At first they’d been willing only to allow the use of a desk and phone. But when they’d learned of Del’s computer ex-pertise, and found out he had his own system, they’d become a lot friendlier. Now he shared space provided by the CDF and his new office suited him down to the ground.
By any standards his promotion had come quickly—quickly enough to cause some resentment. But that didn’t worry Del. His five years with the L.A.P.D. on the streets of South Central had prepared him as few officers are ever prepared. Now he’d been assigned to SPU—Special Problems Unit. It had the potential to be the ideal job. He answered only to the Captain, and was assigned to work with detectives—or anyone else—when needed. In this unit, there was no case load, per se. The idea was to keep its members free to respond as needed. So he’d earned the title Senior Deputy Johnson, more responsibility, and more freedom than he’d had in his professional life. An enormous vote of confidence. Or not.
Del considered again the particulars of the meeting with Joseph Calvin. It was to take place after-hours, when they couldn’t be observed. They were to meet at his private residence. The butler would have retired for the evening: Calvin himself would answer the door. Did this mean that a member of the white bastion of Santa Barbara society was embarrassed at being questioned by a black deputy? Del wasn’t prepared to rule out the racial persuasion, des-pite all reassurances to the contrary. He’d been told he was to arrive at 10 pm. It was time to go.
Del headed for his car. His keys jangled as they hit his taut hips, making a rhythmic music with his boots as they thudded through the corridor and down the stairs. Like a one-man percussion section echoing through the deserted building, he filled the hallways with his sound, then emptied them abruptly with a final clang of the double front doors. Making sure the building was locked, he pressed his vehicle’s keyless entry remote, its mechanical chirp still an uncommon sound on the Central Coast. Another perk of the SPU job was access to four-by-four vehicles. The Suburban coughed into activity and settled into a deep, growling purr as it gathered speed.
It sometimes seemed to Del nothing short of miraculous that such an expanse of road as Highway 1 could be as safe and clear as it was. The mean streets of his own childhood sometimes rose out of the dark to haunt him. If a car backfired, he always assumed first it was a shot, his body reflexively tensing, his senses coming to full alert. Even after twenty-six months, he had not yet unlearned those inner city reactions. Perhaps, he thought as the Suburban ate up miles, he never would. Indeed, perhaps he never should.
Del had kept his radio on low volume. Halfway to his destination, he heard, “Twenty-four-Z-four.”
“Z-four,” he answered quickly. He’d been the last to join the four-person SPU unit, and that had given him the number “four.”
“Ten-twenty-one as soon as possible.”
Ten-twenty-one meant “call home.” Twenty-four was the number for the main station at San Luis. As Del used his cell phone to place the call, he wondered who needed to speak with him with enough privacy that the radio couldn’t be used.
“Dispatch,” the sheriff’s office answered.
“This is Johnson.”
“I’ll put you through.” The night sped by outside the Suburban, and Del watched the road. Zebra was the code name for the SPU unit. Well, we are a bunch of wild animals. He chuckled to himself, and got serious as someone came back on the line.
“Johnson, this is Rogers. I’m sorry to give you such short notice, but you’re going to have to handle the Calvin interview on your own.”
“I know, irregular procedure, but we’re short-handed tonight, and we’ve got a situation over on the 101. No way I’ll get to Santa Barbara in time.”
“Should I cancel? Explain to Mr. Calvin that you could see him tomorrow?”
“No, that would only make matters worse. I don’t know what’s so urgent, but the word came down from the top that someone should speak to him tonight. Who knows, maybe he’ll be impressed by a suit ringing his doorbell at 10 pm.”
Del glanced at his sleeve. He wasn’t wearing a suit. “Anything in particular I should ask him?”
“No, you know what to do. Standard stuff—missing person report. Just keep it simple. Fill me in first thing tomorrow.”
“Will do.” Del closed his cell phone and kept his foot steady on the accelerator. Mr. Calvin was in for a little surprise this evening. Del was anxious to gauge his reaction.
The aroma of damp eucalyptus mixed with wood-burning fire wafted into the window of the truck as Del lowered the win-dow. He brushed aside the long tendrils of an enthusiastic ivy plant to find the security button outside the gates of the Calvin Estate. “Calma,” a carefully aged metal sign announced. Del had found the place easily, despite the long upward climb along the narrow road etched into the side of the mountain. Hills, they called these, but for Del the majesty of the Santa Ynez mountains would be forever undiminished. He would have preferred seeing them in the golden afternoon sunlight, but a casually dressed man driving through the main gate in a utility vehicle would stand out. Should the occasion ever arise, Del made a mental note to borrow a dif-ferent departmental car, and wear a suit.
“Yes,” squawked the speaker.
“Deputy Johnson!” replied Del, his voice crashing through the still night air. A low hum announced the smooth motion of a well-oiled gate as it swung slowly inward. Del stepped on the accelerator and climbed the final quarter mile to the estate. Old California they call this, he thought, as he pulled to a stop in front of the entrance. Built like the Santa Barbara Mission, he mused as he took in the details of the heavy carved oak front door. His hand traced the elegant lines of its cool, curled-iron handle.
The door opened abruptly, snapping Del out of his reverie. “Come in, Deputy.” Joseph Calvin paused in the doorway only long enough to let the man enter. He spun on his heel and led the way to his library. The footsteps of the two men echoed on terra cotta tile, the sounds rising through the high atrium of the central stairway. Del’s nostrils flared at the spicy scent of fresh-cut lilies that perfumed the chill air of the foyer.
“I appreciate your meeting me this late,” Joseph began. “Please have a seat.” He watched as Del eyed the glow from the huge stone fireplace, then the oversized mahogany desk and the matching chair across from it. Before sitting, Del moved it till it was situated to his own liking. Joseph sat in his leather desk chair. “I . . . I really don’t know how much I can tell you, but I want you to know I take this matter very seriously. Chris . . . Ms. Christian is a friend of mine. I’m worried about her.”
“I see.” The leather jacket Del was wearing creaked as he reached into the pocket for his notebook. He adjusted his belt, wincing as his keys and cell phone-pager connected with the carved chair. The two men sat in awkward silence for a moment, each drawing his own conclusions about the other. Del kept his face neutral, calling on his police training. Mr. Calvin’s face seemed to him not so neutral, as it was inscrutable. A hard man, Del surmised —in his own way as hard a man as any drug dealer Del had collared and cuffed.
“Well, are there questions we can get started with while we wait for Rogers?” Calvin’s expression had changed suddenly to an affable one.
“No, Detective Rogers was detained. He asked that I speak with you,” Del replied.
“On your own?”
“Yes sir, if you don’t mind.”
Joseph sat back in his deep library chair. “No, no, I just . . . I was expecting Rogers, but no matter. Where shall we start?”
“You saw Ms. Christian last, exactly when, Mr. Calvin?” Del’s pen was poised over his blank notebook, and it moved the moment Joseph spoke.
“We were together Thursday. A week ago, Thursday.” Joseph switched position in his chair and crossed his legs.
“And where did that last encounter take place, Mr. Calvin?” Del looked up from his spiral pad, catching a wistful look on Joseph’s face. The man did seem to have genuine affection for the missing woman.
“It wasn’t an encounter, Deputy. It was a date. She uh . . . we met at her place in Santa Maria. She’d invited me over—she was working late . . . I didn’t get there till about eleven. We’d both been too tired to uh . . . for any sort of entertainment that night. We’d simply gone to sleep. We both had early appointments the following morning.”
“And you left on friendly terms?” Del used the flat tones of a practiced professional, insinuating nothing into his question.
Joseph recrossed his legs and cleared his throat. “Yes, very friendly. We uh, we were intimate that morning. Although we had an interruption.”
Del looked up. “And what was that, sir?”
“A phone call.” Joseph looked out the window into the dark, his brow knitting into a deep furrow. “A phone message. She didn’t pick up. But the call altered her mood.”
Del’s mind leaped forward. “A message. So Ms. Christian has an answering device?” Is the message still there, he wondered? Does anyone else have access? Could they have erased it?
“Yes, yes, she’s a journalist, of course she has an answering machine. She never turns the blasted thing off. Drives me crazy.” Joseph’s voice dropped, choked off by the anxiety that seemed to rise by the minute.
Del edged forward in his chair. “Mr. Calvin, to your knowledge, did Ms. Christian erase that message?”
“Not while I was there.” Joseph composed himself, uncrossed his legs. “We both dressed in a hurry after that,” he continued. “She seemed distracted, rushed. I had an early meeting. We made another date—a rain check we called it . . . literally in this case. We left im-mediately. I opened her car door for her in the parking garage—and watched her drive away before doing the same myself.”
“Perhaps we should start there, sir.”
“I’m sorry, where, Deputy?”
“The last place you saw Ms. Christian. At her apartment.”
Joseph leaned forward in his high-backed desk chair. “I can’t be seen entering Ms. Christian’s residence in broad daylight!”
“It’s 10:30 pm, sir. What about right now?”