Brittany Fortunato was not happy.
“Has anyone seen Charlie?” she asked.
No one had.
Charlie Bright, the recording secretary of the Woodland Park Improvement Association, had not missed a meeting in ten years. Tonight might be the exception.
The Association met on the second Tuesday of every month in the Media Center at the Roosevelt Elementary School in Ferndale, a city that lay beyond Eight Mile Road north of Detroit. Like many neighborhood associations, it had a small number of officers—a president, vice-president, and treasurer, in addition to the secretary—and a dedicated core of a dozen or so residents who attended every meeting.
Typically, the president would call the meeting to order shortly after seven. They would work through their agenda, and the evening would end with chatting, good-natured ribbing, and the newest gossip over plates of cookies and cups of coffee from the local Biggby Coffee.
Often they invited a guest to speak about issues of interest to the city’s residents. Tonight’s guest was the police chief of Ferndale, Nick Russo. The topic was local crime statistics.
Ferndale was exceptionally safe, especially considering its proximity to the larger metropolis of Detroit. So Russo saw his primary task tonight as calming nerves and assuring the residents that things were under control. A big, muscular man, he made an impressive sight in his blue full-dress uniform, complete with cap under his arm as he stood talking with attendees.
He seemed unruffled and relaxed.
Not so Brittany, the Association vice-president. The more people who said they didn’t know Charlie Bright’s whereabouts, the more agitated Brittany became.
“Brittany,” the Association president said at last, “what’s going on?”
The president’s name was Elspeth Cunningham, and she tried but failed to keep the disapproval out of her voice. Brittany was a troublemaker while trying to appear reasonable and friendly.
What’s her problem now? Elspeth wondered.
“Charlie isn’t here yet,” Brittany said. “We can’t start without him.”
Elspeth shot a look at the clock on the wall. Quarter after seven. “Odd,” she agreed. “He’s never late.”
“Right?” Brittany said. “I talked to him this morning, he said he’d see me here. And we have to get started. I promised the chief we’d be done by nine.”
“I’m yours as long as you need me,” Russo said.
“But we can’t start without Charlie,” Brittany said again. “Who’s gonna take the minutes?”
“I will,” said a man seated at one of the kid-sized library tables, eager for the meeting to begin so he could get home in time to watch Rachel Maddow.
The Association officers looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay,” Elspeth said. “Let’s get started.”
She called the meeting to order.
They adjourned at eight-thirty on the dot. Charlie Bright never showed.
“Now I’m really worried,” Brittany said as they stood around the refreshment table. “This is totally unlike him.”
“Maybe an emergency called him away,” Elspeth offered.
“Charlie never misses a meeting,” Brittany said. “Something’s not right. I’m sure of it.”
They all exchanged worried looks—Brittany’s concern was contagious—and everyone’s glance settled on Chief Russo.
“If you want,” he said, “I can get somebody over to his house, make sure he’s okay.”
“Would you?” Brittany asked. The others’ heads bobbed in agreement.
“Not a problem,” said Russo. He pulled out his cell phone and turned away while he called the Ferndale Police Department dispatcher.
“I hope he’s all right,” someone said.
Russo disconnected and turned back to the group. “A unit’ll swing by his house.”
With the group slightly calmed, Elspeth unwrapped the tray of cookies and invited them all to dig in.
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