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The Incumbent Copyright © 2004 by Alton L. Gansky
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Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Gansky, Alton. The incumbent / Alton Gansky. p. cm. ISBN 0-310-24958-9 (softcover) 1. Political campaigns - Fiction. 2. Female friendship - Fiction. 3. Missing persons - Fiction. 4. Women mayors - Fiction. 5. California - Fiction. 6. Abduction - Fiction. I. Title. PS3557.A5195I53 2004 813'.54 - dc22 2004012892
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1 c h a p t e r
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 UlyssesS. 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 people. 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 permit for 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?"
"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.