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Book Jacket

0310249589
Trade Paperback
336 pages
Oct 2004
Zondervan

The Incumbent

by Alton L. Gansky

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

There were five of us, four members of the council and me, Mayor Madison Glenn. I seldom use the name Madison except on legal documents and even then only with reluctance. My father told me it was a good name, “strong, decisive, and majestic.” It was my misfortune to be born while my father, a history professor at the University of Santa Barbara, was reading a biography on James Madison. Dad got a good read; I was stuck with the name. I’m thankful that he wasn’t reading a bio of Ulysses S. Grant. It took years of gentle nagging, but now even he calls me Maddy.

Santa Rita is the place I call home, as do roughly 125,000 other eople. A small city by most standards, it is large enough to provide everything a person needs: hospital, college, nice homes, wide streets, and an eye-popping view. Located on the ocean shore, eighty miles north of Los Angeles and just south of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita sits like a jewel against the usually brown coastal mountains. The azure Pacific waters glitter in the sunlight, cool the city in the day, and provide a warm blanket of air in the evening. Every day is picture-postcard material. To tourists Santa Rita is Eden; to the rest of us it is home.

The Chamber of Commerce promotes our town as “California’s Heaven.” On most days I agree; on others I can’t help but notice that a little hell oozes across our borders.

When I had left my office to make my way to the council chamber, the sun had already set and a slab of gray clouds had rolled in, veiling the stars and moon. An easy drizzle had begun to streak my window, sending sinuous veins of water coursing from header to sill. I hoped this was not an omen.

I’ve been the city’s mayor for two years—two challenging years. I am the town’s first elected mayor. Before the election twenty-four months ago, the mayor was selected from sitting council members, as with most cities our size. Last election, however, was different. Candidates ran at large, the first time since 1851, when our town incorporated. It was a hot race, full of contestants, each certain they were the best person for the job and that any other candidate would lead the city into utter ruin and degradation. I won. I don’t know how, but when they counted the last ballot, my name was on top. Perhaps it was because I had already served two four-year terms on the council. Or maybe it was because I was the only woman in a contest of six wanna-bes.

Two of the other candidates sat at the bench with me. Larry Wu, an accountant of Chinese descent, had come in third. He was a gracious loser and the least problematic member of the city government. Larry had spent his childhood in Texas and came to Santa Rita when his father’s firm transferred him. I’d known Larry for six years but still struggled to reconcile his Asian face with his southern accent.

Jon Adler had also fought hard for the seat. He had money and outspent me on the campaign two-to-one. A lanky attorney, he treated the campaign like the criminal cases he tried before local judges. He attacked the other candidates with the flair and joy of a hunter blasting pheasants out of the sky. He paid little attention to me, assuming I was the dark horse of the group. He shredded poor Larry.

They were able to remain on the council, since their seats were not up for election for another two years. That was two years ago. Both men were once again pressing the flesh, making promises, and leveling accusations.

The chamber was quiet and attendance sparse. When controversial matters are on the agenda, the darkly paneled halls can hold up to 250 agitated, and often loud, citizens. This night was low-key. The agenda was routine, with only one item of business that was close to contentious: an appeal for a conditional use permitfor a local church that wanted to move to a new site. Four people, three men and one woman, sat together close to the aisle. They were whispering to each other. I assumed they represented the church. Across the aisle that bisected the chamber sat Sue Holton, chairperson of the Planning Commission. She was there to speak against the appeal.

Santa Rita has only one newspaper, a daily called the Register. They had sent one reporter, who sat three rows back, head in hand. He looked ready to doze. Hard day at the computer, I assumed. I let my eyes drift to the back wall of the chamber. It faces the concrete plaza and fountain that greets any of the public who make their way to the seat of their city government. The lights of the chamber reflected off the glass, making it difficult to see outside, but I could tell the drizzle had turned to rain. I could also see a man enter the lobby. He paused and brushed the rain from his suit coat as if he could sweep the water away like dust.

I forced my thoughts to the task before me. I am punctilious when it comes to time. Any meeting that starts late is off to a bad start. We were all present and accounted for and thus there was no reason for delay. In one minute, at precisely 7:00, I would call the meeting to order. The agenda for our session was light, and with a little luck we could be done in less than sixty minutes. That was fine with me. I had a double-chocolate brownie waiting on the kitchen counter at home. It had been a demanding day. A double-chocolate brownie was my due.

On the counter before me was a small digital clock with bright red numerals: 6:59 turned to 7:00. As I raised my gavel, the man in the lobby stepped through the back doors of the chamber. In full light I could see it was Bill Webb. He took two steps and raised a hand, mouthing the words, “Hold it.” I lowered the small oak mallet.

This had better be important.

Bill Webb was our chief of police and a fixture in the city. He marched to the platform, then sprinted up the few steps to the bench. This was unusual. You don’t just dash up the steps to where the council sits—even if you’re the police chief.

He leaned over my right shoulder. “I need to speak to you.” His breath smelled of peppermint. He had quit smoking the year before and had replaced one oral fixation with another.

“I was about to start the meeting; can’t it wait?”

“No.”

“What can be so important that it can’t—”

“There’s been a crime. It involves Lisa Truccoli.”

My stomach sank. “What? How?”

“I want to talk to you. Privately. Now.”

“Of course.” I turned my attention back to the chamber. “The meeting will stand in recess for ten minutes.”

“Wait a minute,” Jon Adler said. “You can’t recess a meeting that hasn’t been called to order.”

He was being his usual tedious self. I picked up the gavel and smacked it down. “This meeting of the Santa Rita City Council is called to order.” I brought the gavel down again. “This meeting will stand in recess for ten minutes.”

“But—”

I stood and exited the chamber, Bill Webb on my heels.

The news was disturbing and Webb was blunt. We were in my office, which is just down the corridor from the chamber. The rain was falling hard, splashing against the window like pebbles.

“We got a call from one of Ms. Truccoli’s neighbors, a Mrs. Ramirez, who had returned home from grocery shopping. As she passed the Truccoli residence, she noted the door was open. She thought it odd, especially since it remained open the entire time it took for her to unload the car. When she finished carrying her purchases in, she walked over and knocked on the open door. There was no answer. She went in and found the house empty. That’s when she called us.”

“And?”

“Just what you’d expect: Dispatch sent a patrol car. The officer investigated and noticed that several things looked out of place, as if there had been a struggle.”

“But the house was empty? I mean . . .” The words remained lodged in my throat.

“No corpse was found, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

It was exactly what I meant.

He paused, as if wondering whether to let the next sentence loose. “There was, however, blood.”

The acid in my stomach roiled. “Blood?” The word came out as a choked whisper.

“Not much. Very little. Just four drops.”

I looked at Chief Webb. He was a stern man whom I had never seen smile. He was fit for a gentleman of fifty-five, with just a slight middle-age paunch over his belt. He stood four inches taller than my own five foot six, and his gray-streaked black hair was combed straight back and held in place by some ancient hair tonic. He was not the kind of man who would use gel. The skin of his face was starting to droop, as if it had grown weary of hanging on to the muscles beneath. The scowl was there. It was always there. I’m convinced he was born with that pinched look: blue eyes narrowed, mouth turned down as if he were in chronic pain. He seemed to be in a perpetual state of emotional constipation. Red highlighted the end of his nose and his cheeks, like a man well acquainted with alcohol, except I had never seen him drink.

Chief Webb and I had history. I was not on his Christmas list and he certainly wasn’t on mine.

“Four drops? You found exactly four drops of blood?”

“That’s right.”

“That seems strange.”

“It’s much stranger than you think.” He turned to the window and looked out, staring into the distance. I was just about to ask him for details when he continued. “The drops of blood weren’t discovered on the floor or furniture, like you’d expect to find after a struggle. These were on a card—a white card—and they were evenly spaced.”

“I don’t get it. Could you be less cryptic?”

That made him turn. He eyed me for a moment, as if determining whether I was capable of understanding what he was about to say. “Blood from a fight is never evenly spaced, Madam Mayor. Nor is it perfectly round, as these drops were. Blood splatters and blood streaks, but it never falls in precise drops. These were four perfectly round, evenly spaced spots of blood on a white card . . . like the four corners of a square.”

“A card? What kind of card?”

“A business card, Mayor. Your business card.”

The phone on my desk buzzed. I jumped. Webb stood like a rock. I snatched up the receiver and barked, “Hello.” Dana Thayer, the city clerk, was on the other end.

“It’s been fifteen minutes, Mayor. The council is wondering when you’ll be returning.”

I was five minutes beyond the announced recess time. I was late.

“This is going to take some time, Dana. Please inform the council that I won’t be in attendance.” I hung up before she could respond.

“This is an awkward time,” Webb said. I couldn’t tell if he was apologizing for the interruption or reveling in it.

“Larry Wu can handle the meeting. That’s what deputy mayors are for.” I paused, then added, “I suppose you have questions for me.”

He nodded. Then—I could hardly believe my eyes—he smiled.

Being mayor—even mayor of a small city like Santa Rita—has certain privileges. Technically, all the powerful people work for you. This means I can stretch the envelope of social courtesy more than most. I was sure Webb would have loved to walk me out of my office, his hand clamped on my elbow, and escort me across the back parking lot and right into the Police Station. What a sight that would have been. Even the dozing reporter from the Register would have sat up for that one. “Mayor Taken to Police Station for Questioning,” the headline would have read. That would have sold a few extra papers.

I took a seat behind my desk. “Ask your questions.” My desk is a wide, cherry wood affair given to me by my husband before his death. It dominates my small and orderly office. Any interview Chief Webb wished to conduct was going to take place on my turf, where I would gain the advantage. The desk is an extension of me, but more importantly, it is an extension of the mayor’s office. “Sit down,” I said, motioning to a burgundy leather chair opposite the desk. He remained on his feet.

“You knew Ms. Truccoli?”

“I still do know her.”

“How do you know her?”

I sighed. “You know the answer to that, Chief. She worked on my campaign.”

“This last campaign?” He slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants. Webb dressed with impeccable taste but always in gray. This night he wore a charcoal gray suit, white shirt, and steel-colored tie.

“Yes, and my second city council run. She was treasurer in the last campaign.”

“Important position.”

“California election law requires every campaign to have a treasurer and demands frequent reports from them. A good campaign must have a great treasurer.”

“So she handled the money?”

“She did.” I leaned forward. “She was exceptional, organized, focused, and a clear communicator.”

“So you had no reason to be unhappy with her?”

“None at all, and let me save you some time, Chief. The books balance perfectly. Nothing missing. Nothing extra. Are you assuming that because my business card was found in her home, I had something to do with her disappearance?”

“These are questions I have to ask, Madam Mayor.”

“She would naturally have my card; she worked on the campaign. All my key people had them. There’s nothing unusual about that.” I was getting defensive and reigned myself in.