Proof of Life
It was winter and I was swimming laps in the rain.
I have found it a privilege to swim outside in the rain, a perk you get in return for living in Los Angeles that not many appreciate. You have to like being extremely wet, and enjoy the feeling of smug superiority because the canyon air is forty degrees and you're in a relatively warm bath. You have to appreciate the subtle play of vanished circles on the water and the dance of droplets off your goggles, blurring the shapes of redtail hawks resting on a telephone pole and deer moving close to the houses.
I did not know about the girl.
I was doing the backstroke, looking up at the clouds, trying not to get pushed into the lane lines by the county lifeguard who was working out beside me, with the tapered legs and the chest of a manatee. He was gray-haired, with a stroke so smooth it never seemed to break water, as if propelled by some internal muscular power known only to yogis. In fact the lifeguard was a kind of spiritual seeker and would speak of "the breath" as if it were a living thing.
My personal meditation that day was on a briefing with the senior superintendent from the Hong Kong Police Force. It would be a lunch with twenty other folks, a long ungainly table in Distefano's, everyone trying to look spiffy and smarta total waste of time when I had to get my files in order for an upcoming ninety-day file review, an assessment of open cases as pleasant as a cross between a migraine headache and spring cleaning. When you work the kidnap squad you find a lot of casesmostly missing childrenstay open forever.
When the red hand on the workout clock brushed 6:55 a.m., I hauled out of the water and hightailed across the frigid pool deck, raindrops popping off my silicone cap. Checking the pager hooked inside the swim bag, I found it was blinking: Code 3-PCH-AB.
I stood alone in the freezing cinder-block locker room, dripping freely and staring at the numbers with a secret smile. It was a message in police code from "AB" (Detective Andrew Berringer), which usually meant not a life-and-death emergency but an emergency of the gonads, which I could feel responding as I peeled off the cold clinging bathing suit and headed for the open shower.
The two other women who had been swimming in the rain (both lawyers) came hurrying in, shivery and goose-bumped, absorbed in chatter about book clubs, children, different types of olives, someone's half-demolished kitchen, as a wild mix of botanicalsmint, eucalyptus, citrus, roseswirled in the steamy vapor and they lathered unabashedly and shaved and loofahed, while I stood under the hot pounding spray with head bowed in thanks because of this sudden unexpected gift of seeing Andrew, even more delicious if it were to take place, let's say, behind the locked rest room door in Back on the Beach, a café down on Pacific Coast Highway.
Where, I thought, the emergency was.
Good thing I had those ten extra minutes.
In the parking lot of the YMCA facility I passed the lifeguard, who carried nothing but a small satchel while my shoulder was crippled under the weight of a swim bag loaded with fins, towels, hair dryer and an enormous makeup kit. I was wearing a slim black pants suit and heels because of the luncheon with the superintendent from Hong Kong. The lifeguard wore nothing but a T-shirt and shorts.
"Come under my umbrella."
He shook his head. "How'd you like your workout, Miss FBI-FYI?"
"Make sure you get enough air." He inflated his lungs. "Air," he said.
"Air," I agreed, and got into my car to the silent buzz of the Nextel cell phone on my belt.
"Ana?" It was my supervisor, Rick Harding. "Where have you been?"
Lost in an erotic delirium, I had forgotten to check the Nextel also. Two missed messages.
"Tell me about it, the freeway was flooded, took an hour and a half to get in. We've got a kidnapping on the Westside. The police department requested our assistance. You're next up."
Next in line to be case agent. The senior in charge.
So much for ten minutes in heaven.
"What's the deal?"
"The victim is a fifteen-year-old female missing since yesterday. I'm going to the police department. The techs are on their way to the family residence."
He gave me an address on Twenty-second Street, north of Montana Avenue, the Gillette Regent Square section of trendy Santa Monica. Kind of like the tenderloin of the filet mignon.
"Is that why we're all over this?" I asked. "High-profile neighborhood?"
"It's the 'new politics,'" he replied, which meant yes.
"We're sure about the kidnap? It's not just a runaway?"
"Mom and Dad got a call early this morning."
"The girl was pleading for her life. Then they hung up."
"Works for me."
"Just get over there."
I barreled down Temescal and took a quick detour south on PCH, swinging through a puddle at the entrance to Back on the Beach. The muddy water rooster-tailed up about ten feet, completely obscuring my windshield.
Andrew was not there to witness this dramatic arrival. His burgundy unmarked Ford was parked facing the ocean, empty, doors locked. The restaurant hadn't opened yet. Patio tables were glassy and jumping with rain, and I knew if I took one step onto the bike path my black heels would instantly become stained with saturated sand. So I waited on the asphalt under the umbrella while impertinent gusts blew at my knees and under my arms, wishing I had taken the time to blow-dry my hair, which had become uncomfortably damp in the sideways mist. I began to sneeze, that smug superiority cooling down fast, as a yellow county rescue truck, red lights pulsing, came north across the beach.
Where the hell was he?
Against the unsettled ocean and the bluster of the blue-white sky, I watched as the heavy truck pitched stubbornly over rises in the sand. Its slow progress seemed to make a statement about law enforcement: We shall override.
A pitiful thing to take for comfort.
The truck stopped past the restaurant, just out of my sight. I could hear the deep idle of the engine and feedback on a police scanner. I stepped onto the bike path. A hundred yards away I could see Detective Berringer in his trademark black motorcycle jacket, kneeling beside a bicyclist wearing bright regalia who had skidded out.
He waved me back, yakking it up with some lifeguards in fluorescent rain gear who were bringing out a spine board. Claps on the back, handshakes, long-lost pals. Now the wind was wrapping around my legs, and I could look forward to clammy panty hose the rest of the day.
Finally, he jogged over, brushing off his hands.
"What are you doing?"
"Waiting for you. Hi, doll," giving me a smooch. "See that paramedic? The tall, skinny guy? That's Hank Harris!" he said wonderingly.
"You know him?"
"I know his dad!" Andrew shook his head. "When you turn fifty, things get weird. That kid's supposed to be eight years old, playing Little League!"
"You're not fifty."
I never knew anyone to add to his age, but Andrew was several years ahead of himself in an apprehension he had about "getting old," which was ridiculous. He was adorable. Not perfect-looking (nose like a stumpy old carrot, not the tightest chin), but a rough-hewn charisma you would definitely pick out at a bardark wavy hair cut short and greenish eyes that could bully or tease; a face that could be a mask of detachment, then open up like a kid who just hit a home run. I believe this was the reasonan extraordinary ease with his own emotionsthat Andrew was often picked by the department for public relations gigs. He was a seasoned street detective who apparently was not afraid to show what he felt. Therefore he would not likely be afraid of the deeply awful things that had happened to you. When Andrew gave workshops on bank security the female tellers would write down their phone numbers on deposit slips. He would call them back was my understanding.
That's how we met. Working the same bank robbery, dubbed "Mission Impossible" because the bandit came in through the roof. We don't always catch the bad guys, but we're great with the nicknames.
Andrew took the umbrella. I put my arm around his waist even though his jacket was cold and slick. We were walking as fast as possible, an inelegant pair, since I am five four and he was six one, outweighing me by a hundred pounds. He was built like a football player and cared about it. He owned a bench and read weight-lifting magazines.
"So what happened?" I asked of the bike wreck.
"I don't know why assholes go out in this weather."
"The sand is all soggy, look at this, like riding in peanut butter."
The wind picked up. We ran for it.
"Come into my office." Unlocking his car. "Normally we don't let Feds in here. But I have something special for you."
"I have to go."
"So do I."
But we paused, very close, under the umbrella.
"I'm crazy about you, you know that," he said.
"Yeah, well, you drive me crazy. Is that the same thing?"
The rain drummed on our makeshift roof. In the frank light our faces were eager, ruddy, his high round cheeks shining like a choirboy's. In those days it lifted me to be with him. It just lifted me, like a kite off the ground that wants to return to the same spot in the sky.
His eyes half closed and I rose up and he leaned down to kiss me and we did and the umbrella tipped and rain went down our necks.
"Fuck this shit," he said, fumbling for his keys.
"I have to get out of here. You know about the kidnapping?"
"Let me see. Do I work robbery/homicide, or is it Hal's Auto Body?"
I laughed. "Sometimes a toss-up, huh?"
"I've been at the house since four this morning!"
"First it was a critical missing, then they got the call around three."
"How are the parents?"
He shrugged. "Distraught. The girl never came home from school. They contacted her friends. Nothing."
"'Not like their daughter not to let them know where she was,'" I guessed.
"Not like their daughter," he agreed.
Our few words implied a complicated professional speculation about who these people were and how the girl had disappeared.
"So what were you doing there?"
"I caught the case."
"It's your case? It's my case, too!"
He snorted indulgently as he often did when I would say things that showed I was missing the precision of what was happening.
"What the hell did you think that page was all about?"
"There were . . . other possibilities."
He tried to get past a smile. Code 3-ER-AB. A supply closet in a certain hospital emergency room. Code 3-RVM-AB. The Ranch View Motel.
"I was giving you a heads-up, in case it worked out."
"I guess it did."
But I wasn't so sure.
"Get in the car, I've got more."
"Is this a good idea?"
Teasing. "To get in the car, or to work together?"
Right then I didn't like it.
"Andrew, how are we going to do this?"
"What do you mean, how?" He was hurt. "I thought it would be good for you at the Bureau. I thought you would get a kick out of it."
"I did. I do. It's very cool."
I smiled and touched his hand, pushed up his sleeve to look at his watch. A kidnapping is a federal crime. The FBI has jurisdiction over the local police. He had to know I would be his boss.
"We better get over there."
I had become aware of sirens. They might have called an ambulance for the fellow with the bike. Or maybe it was another wreck. Suddenly the light was hurting my eyes, hard off the ocean, steely blue. It was going to be one of those sickening days when the sun comes out after all.
Juliana Meyer-Murphy was in ninth grade. She came from a stable home in which the parents had been married seventeen years, neither previously divorced. There was a younger sister. The house was a two-story Spanish with cast-iron balconies and fat curves and bits of colored tile set at odd places in the stucco. There were fan palms and potted flowers and even a fountain, as if the owners were Hollywood aristocracy instead of manufacturers in the garment business. The front door was painted purple.
The tech vans pulled up to the residence at the same time Andrew and I arrived in our separate cars. A blue sky was shining through a maw in the clouds while fine spray sifted across the rooftops like million-dollar rainbow dust. I grew up in this neighborhood, but these new mini mansions could have eaten our little cottage for breakfast. Like the Meyer-Murphys', they each had at least one sport utility vehicle in the driveway and a sign for an alarm system on the lawn. A private security patrol car sat side by side in the middle of the street with a unit from the Santa Monica police.
Yet there was also a hum, a sense of ordinary family life, not so different from the days of the blow-up pool in our threadbare backyard. Kids left their trikes out. There was a handmade tree house, an American flag. The lofty pines were old, with large heavy cones. How peaceful it would be to push a baby in their fragrant shade. A child could walk to the public school, a teenage girl chill on the curb with her friends, even after dark. The cars that passed would carry TV celebrities or dot-com money or entrepreneurs; well-meaning professional folks, if somewhat disengaged.
Maybe. Let's hope. Nine times out of ten.
The FBI team assembled on the sidewalk. The full-bore response was part of the "new politics" Rick was talking about, an effort to position the LA field office as responsive to the diverse communities it servedespecially the wealthier communities, whose constituents hired lawyers to make their hurts knownas well as to reinvent our image as "good neighbor" to local law enforcement.
We were convincinga clean-cut group, sporting an assortment of windbreakers and trench coats, cropped hair, ties, khakis, neat as flight attendants, the female installers wearing ponytails and lipstick. We looked like copswhat else could we be? Poised, scanning the quiet street in every direction.