In Sickness and in Health
After being partners and trusting each other with their lives every single day for several years, Hunter and McCall are the best of friends. It seems only natural that they would turn to each other during a crisis, even when they are both romantically involved with other people. But when McCall becomes engaged to be married at the same time Hunter is diagnosed with cancer, she is forced to choose between the family she has dreamed of and being there for her best friend in what could be his last days. What choice will she make, and how does that choice affect their relationship when Hunter is healthy again?
"Wha's that?" Mitch mumbles half asleep, stretching his arm over McCall.
"Mmm? I don't…my beeper." McCall rolls over and roots around the top of the nightstand for her beeper. She finds it. "It's my beeper," she sighs while stifling a yawn.
Mitch lifts himself up onto his elbows to check the time on his alarm clock. Crashing back to the mattress with a thud, he groans into his pillow, "Tell Hunter to get a life. It's gaw damn four in the morning."
Still looking at the number glowing green on her beeper, she says skeptically, "I don't think it's Hunter, I don't recognize this number." She has to roll over the other direction and lean across Mitch to grab the phone, the oversized sleeve of his tee-shirt she is wearing brushing his chin. She quickly dials, and the phone is answered on the first ring.
"Hope Mitch let you go to sleep early, because this is your four am wake up call." It is Hunter, after all. Mitch sighs in aggravation, able to hear Hunter's voice on the line, and squints at McCall.
Sitting up and turning away from him, McCall sighs, too. "What's going on?"
"Three bodies found behind a strip club on Hollywood Boulevard. Get dressed, I'll pick you up in ten."
"I, uh…I'm not…"
"You're at Mitch's, I know, I'll pick you up there in ten minutes. It's on my way."
"Where are you, anyway?"
"Rachel's. Now get dressed."
Hunter pulls into Mitch's driveway exactly ten minutes later. She has never been able to figure out how he does this. It's as if the universe aligns itself just to ensure that he arrives precisely when he says he will. She has had no choice but to put on the tight white jeans, lavender sleeveless sweater and sandals she had worn over to Mitch's house last night. She's going to have to get her LAPD jacket out of her car to keep warm in the chilly morning air, especially since this sounds like an outdoor crime scene. She plans to spend as little time as possible inside the strip club, already wearing yesterday's underwear she would prefer to not add the smell of stale cigarette smoke to the mix. She'll let Hunter do those interviews, he will enjoy the view better, anyway. Slipping into the not-made-for-petite-females police issue jacket, she dips into Hunter's passenger seat.
"So how long have you been shacking up with this wimp?" asks Hunter, pulling out of the driveway before she even gets her seatbelt buckled. McCall notices that his attire looks as wrinkled and unprofessional as hers.
"I'm not shacking up. We have been seeing each other exclusively for five months. Some nights I choose to sleep at his place."
"I could be asking you the same question. I didn't realize things had progressed with Rachel." It was a weeknight, and Hunter rarely has dates that lead to sleepovers during the week. He takes his job way too seriously.
"Things have progressed." He says matter-of-factly, preoccupied with merging onto the highway.
"So you like her?"
"If I didn't like her things would not have progressed."
"Oh, c'mon, talk to me!"
"Why are you so chatty this early? You're never chatty before coffee. Mr. Wimp must be pretty good." He quickly leans against his door, pulling his arm away from her, trying to dodge her swats.
Blushing, she continues to press him, "It's just…it's just you haven't had a relationship in a while. I'm curious what's different about her."
He looks over at her for a second, then back to the road ahead. Shrugging, he replies, "She's nice. Sweet." He risks a sideways glance at McCall to see if that answer is enough to please her curiosity, but she's still looking at him waiting for more. Taking a deep breath, he continues, "She's the kind of person that does nice things for people just to make them happy. I like being around her, makes me feel like being a better person myself."
"I do nice things for you."
With a mischievous grin and a low chuckle, he replies, "Not as nice as her." This time he's not quick enough and McCall lands a playful punch squarely on his bicep.
They drive up to the strip club, with a swarm of people and at least twelve cop cars around it. He laughs, "Saved by the blue and red lights." But McCall has already turned her focus to the scene in front of them.
The crowd of officers leads them around to the dumpsters on a narrow alley behind the strip club, which McCall notes as a rundown stucco building that had not seen a fresh coat of paint since it was built in the late seventies. There is little to no lighting in the alley, even the primitive light fixture over the rear access door of the building is burned out. The first responders have set up mobile lights, which create strips of light between elongated shadows. The alley is narrow, barely enough room for a mid-size car to drive through between the building and the dumpsters. A concrete block wall separates the alley from a three-story apartment building.
For once, Hunter and McCall beat the medical examiner and his team to the scene. The bodies of three adult men are still visible, haphazardly wedged between the two grimy, lime green dumpsters. Hunter asks around for the first responder at the scene and is pointed in the direction of Officer Barry, who is speaking to a young couple looking like they would prefer to be anywhere but here.
"We, uh, yeah, we just, ya know," the man talking to Officer Barry stutters as they approach, "we uh came out here to, ya know, like…get it on…like. And, uh, my girl here just tripped right over that foot there. That one, ri' there." He points toward the bodies while shuffling from one foot to the other, unable to stand still. "Couldn't see anythin', ya know. It's so dark. Thas why we came back 'ere in first place."
McCall steps away from the couple looking at the apartment building behind the wall. Hunter leans down from behind her, until he's just inches from her ear, "A little high on something, are we?"
"You think?" McCall scoffs, craning her neck to peek around Hunter and take in the couple one more time. "Every woman's dream come true, a quickie up against malaria central over here."
Pointing to the apartments she changes the subject back to the task at hand, "I think we need to start there, maybe someone saw or heard something. Seems more likely than anyone coming and going from this fine establishment."
"The bodies were obviously just dumped here." Looking around making note of his surroundings, Hunter says almost to himself, "The only information we can hope for is a description of the vehicle that dumped them."
By the time the ME arrives, the bodies carted off, and the owners and managers of the strip club have been interviewed it is barely seven am. First impressions from the ME are that the three men had suffered blunt-force trauma to their heads and upper bodies less than twelve hours ago. Forensics confirmed Hunter's assessment that the killings were done elsewhere.
As McCall had suggested, they start their investigation by going door to door at the apartment complex behind the strip club looking for any witnesses. They had grabbed breakfast at a nearby diner, wasting time until it was a reasonable hour to start knocking on doors, and swapping notes from the crime scene. They only uncover one witness - a bartender, barely old enough to drink himself, who had just gotten home from work when he thought he heard men arguing and possibly saw a dark colored van driving away a few minutes later. But then, of the eleven doors they knocked on only three were answered.
"There's a good chance some of these units are empty." McCall is grasping at straws, scratching her forehead in frustration. The parking lot for the apartment building is largely vacant, the cracked and crumbling asphalt lot reflecting the sunlight into her eyes.
"More likely the occupants are either too drugged to wake up or too scared to answer the door." Hunter responds, equally frustrated, glancing back at the units with the best view of the alley.
"So what we have right now is three John Doe's killed yesterday evening and found in an alley at two am, an unknown crime scene, some men arguing sometime between midnight and midnight-thirty and a generic dark van that may or may not have anything to do with the John Does?"
Removing his sunglasses and rubbing his eyes, he sighs, "That about sums it up."
"Great. I have a headache already."
"Let's get outta here."
Back at their desks, Captain Devane approaches them for an update. "Don't you two look like death warmed over?"
"Well, that's what you get when you pull me out of bed in the middle of the night." McCall responds with a smirk as she fishes through the myriad of notes and reports strewn across her desk.
"Got anything new?"
Finally finding what she is looking for, she answers the captain. "We just got the fingerprint analysis on the victims and only one was in the system — a Travis Davies. He was picked up a few months ago for public intoxication, twenty-one years old, home address looks like an upscale neighborhood in Long Beach. I'm guessing it's his parent's house. I am going to go home and change clothes, and then go talk Davies' parents. Maybe they know the other two victims. In the meantime I've alerted missing persons."
"Was there a car registered in his name?" asks Devane.
"No. If he has a vehicle, it may be in his parent's name. I will find that out."
"No," McCall answers sounding defeated. "Hunter is going back to the strip club to try to talk to some of the staff that was working last night. He'll also check the apartments again, see if he can find anyone else that may have heard or seen anything. You know, what I keep coming back to is that all three men were clean cut, well dressed — not what we would ordinarily expect to find dead in an alley in that neighborhood."
"Ok, well, keep me updated."
"Will do," says Hunter as he stands up gathering his things to leave. Nodding at McCall, "See ya later."
McCall feels like a new woman after finally showering and donning clean clothes. Having to tell parents that their child, no matter how old that child is, is dead is by far the worst part of her job. She's been there — on the receiving end of a cop showing up on your doorstep to tell you that a piece of yourself is gone forever. She picks out her black suit from her closet, the one normally reserved for funerals and court appearances. Sometimes the two events are not really all that dissimilar. She does not normally get to dress specifically for this occasion. Usually, she dresses in the early morning unaware that she will be the barer of such grave news that day. Taking one last look in the mirror, she rushes out the door to head to Long Beach.
The street Travis Davies reportedly lived on looks as though it could be in a movie as the epitome of wealthy suburban life. Tree-lined with manicured lawns and picturesque homes, McCall wonders what it must have been like to grow up privileged. She pulls up to the address she had scribbled on a scrap of paper and takes in the expansive white house before her, with it's two-story porch supported by grand columns and an ornate chandelier hanging above the double front doors. The rocking chairs on one side of the porch, framed by potted plants and overflowing flowers in shades of red and pink, give an impression of quaintness amongst the grandeur. She quietly shuts her car door and slowly makes her way up the walkway, rehearsing what she plans to say.
A neatly dressed, middle-aged woman opens the door and smiles warmly at McCall, "Hello. May I help you?"
"Are you Mrs. Davies?" McCall asks.
"Yes, I am." The woman's smile wanes as she looks at McCall curiously.
"My name is Sergeant Dee Dee McCall, I'm with the Los Angeles police department. Do you have a son named Travis?"
"Yes, Sergeant, is something wrong?"
"Can I come in and speak with you for few minutes?"
Mrs. Davies ushers McCall into a bright, but formally furnished sitting room just inside the front door. As McCall takes a seat on a blue velvet sofa she asks her if her husband or any other children are home. The woman assures her that she is alone.
"I am so sorry to tell you this, but your son, Travis, was found dead early this morning." McCall says speaking slowly and tentatively.
It takes a few moments for the woman to absorb what she has just heard. She continues to stare at McCall as if waiting for her to continue with more information. Eventually, she begins to sob and McCall sits patiently until the victim's mother calms down enough to speak.
"How? I mean, how did it happen?" she asks McCall.
"We are not sure yet. He was found with two other men behind a strip club, but it appears he was killed somewhere else."
"Killed? You mean he was murdered?"
"Yes, ma'am. But we do not have much information. I was hoping you could answer some questions for me that might help us find out how this happened."
"But…but how did he …?" she brakes off, unable to continue.
"We are not sure of that yet, either. An autopsy is being done now. Do you know of anyone that might want to hurt him? Anyone your son didn't get along with?"
"No, of course not! My son was a good boy." Again, Mrs. Davies begins to cry and McCall waits for her calm down.
"The two other men found with your son, we have not been able to identify them yet. Can you tell me maybe who his close friends are or maybe his roommate?" McCall asks the woman. She has polaroid pictures of both men, but prefers to not add to the woman's discomfort by showing her their bloody and fractured faces.
The woman looks down at her hands before nodding yes. "Travis is in a fraternity at UCLA. He and a friend from high school, Kevin, uh, I can't think of his last name, but anyway, they were pledging this fraternity together." She suddenly walks over to a cabinet in the corner of the room and pulls out a photo album. "Shaddler, Kevin Shaddler, that's it. Here is a picture of them together from a fraternity event a few months ago." There in the picture is one of the other victims.
"Thank you, Mrs. Davies, this is very helpful." McCall hands the photo back to her. "Just one more question for you. Does your son have a car?"
Mrs. Davies nods her head, but does not look away from the photo of Travis and Kevin. "He is…" She stops and lets out a small whimper. "He was driving my old BMW. We let him take it when he started college."
"Again, I am so sorry to have to bring you this news. I will need the name and address of the fraternity, if you have it. Do you want to call someone? Your husband maybe? I can stay with you until he gets home."
"No, no that won't be necessary." The older woman finally looks up at McCall as she answers, tears streaming down her cheeks.
After getting the information she needs from Travis's mother, McCall radios Hunter from her car updating him on the information she learned. They agree to meet at the fraternity house before trying to locate Kevin Shaddler's family.
They arrive at the fraternity house just seconds apart and walk up to the house together. A man wearing a cast on his right arm answers the front door. He looks more like a freshman in high school than a college student, and his slightly disheveled appearance and dark rings under his eyes give the impression that he has not slept in days. His demeanor suddenly becomes nervous when Hunter and McCall introduce themselves, and they exchange knowing looks making sure the other noticed this change, too.
"Is the president of the fraternity, or some kind of house dad available to speak with us?" Hunter asks the nervous frat guy.
"Um," he looks behind him nervously, "no, I don't think they are here."
"Well, do you mind if we come in and ask a few questions to anyone who is here?"
"Oh, uh, yeah, I guess," he says and moves back to let Hunter and McCall inside. "I'm just a pledge, but I can get someone else to come talk to you."
"Just a pledge? What does that mean?" Hunter asks.
"I am not a member yet. There's like this test period to make sure I fit in."
"Oh, ok. And your name is?"
"Jonathon. Ok, Jonathon, you go get someone who might know something about what goes on around here." He turns to leave, but Hunter continues, "And, Jonathon, you don't seem to be a very popular guy."
"Your cast. You only have three signatures on it. Doesn't seem like you have too many friends."
Jonathon looks at his cast, confused, as if the cast is going to explain it to him. "Oh, um, I just got it last night."
"Oh," Hunter responds, waiting for the injured kid to walk away before turning to McCall. "Broke his arm last night, did he?"
"That's real interesting, isn't it?" she whispers.
"Officers, welcome! I'm Levi Jenson, VP of Membership, how can I help you?" A boisterous man wearing an UCLA hoodie, with the pink collar of his button-down shirt popped up from underneath it, approaches them. A few other fraternity members slowly trickle into the large entryway of the frat house behind him.
"It's 'sergeant' and we would like to ask you a couple questions about Travis Davies and Kevin Shaddler." McCall responds, taking a small step toward the vice president asserting herself ahead of Hunter.
"Okay, sure. Why?"
"Because they were found dead early this morning."
"Oh, wow, I, um, wow, that's crazy," Levi answers as a few more men slowly make their way in to the room.
"Do you know anything about their whereabouts last night?"
"No. Last night you say? No, I have no idea."
"How about you, Levi?" Hunter interjects. "What were you doing last night?"
"I was at the library. Studying," says Levi.
"Yeah, sure. Had an exam this morning," says Levi with a smirk.
Before Hunter can respond with his Hunter-esque 'uh huh,' McCall continues on with another question. "There was a third man found with Mr. Davies and Mr. Shaddler. Do you recognize him?" McCall pulls the pictures out of her purse and hands Levi the one of the last remaining John Doe.
Levi looks suddenly contrite as he glances at the picture. He has to look away and clear his throat before speaking, "That's, uh, that's Skip."
He hands the picture back to McCall without looking at it again, and clears his throat again. "So what happened to them?"
"That's why we are here. Perhaps you can tell us?" McCall responds.
"Why would I know?" He asks defensively.
"You said his name is Skip?" Hunter asks, causing Levi to jump as if he'd forgotten Hunter was still there.
"Well, yeah, we call him…I guess we called him Skip. It was a joke. He is the only Hispanic in the fraternity, so we called him 'Skip' like, you know, sounding like a typical white preppy dude. His real name is Oscar Lopez."
"Were any of these men pledges?" McCall asks.
"So, uh, no. No they weren't pledges."
"Funny, I swore Travis' mother said he and Kevin were pledging the fraternity. That's what that means, doesn't it? If they were pledging the fraternity, then they were pledges?"
"Oh, you know what, they were pledges. That's right. My mistake."
"Just Travis and Kevin? Or Skip, too?"
"I would have to check the membership rolls."
"But you said you are Vice President of Membership? Isn't that what you said? But you don't remember who's a pledge and who's a member?" asks Hunter.
"I, I just got confused."
Right then the door to the stairway opens and man with scrapes and bruises covering his face emerges. When he sees the crowd of people around the two detectives, he quickly turns and runs back up the stairs.
"What was that?" Hunter asks pointing to the door.
"What was what? I didn't see anything," Levi answers feigning innocence.
"Right," Hunter responds, looking around the group of men surrounding them. Slowly the gaggle starts breaking up.
McCall hands Levi her card and tells him to call her if he thinks of anything that might help with the investigation, and she and Hunter walk out of the house.
"There is something going on here. These guys had something to do with these murders, I know it," Hunter says quietly as McCall walks along side of him to their cars.
"Yeah, we are going to have to talk to the two guys with injuries. But you know they are going to be pressed to keep quiet."
"Hey, take a look over there in the back of the parking lot," McCall says pointing beyond their parked cars.
"A blue Suburban?"
"Could look like a dark-colored van to a tired bartender in the middle of the night."
Looking around to see if there is anyone else in the parking lot, which there is not, Hunter takes off toward the vehicle. "Let's check it out."
They walk around the Chevrolet Suburban, checking the doors, which are all locked, and peeking in the windows.
"Nothing," McCall says, checking her watch. "Alright, well, let's go talk to Kevin Shaddler's parents and then figure out who Oscar Lopez is. And I guess I'm going to have to cancel my plans tonight."
"Two nights in a row?" Hunter teases her.
"Yes, two nights in a row. Why do you care?"
"Getting awfully serious."
"Why, yes, it is." She smiles up at him. "And you don't have plans with Rachel tonight?"
"I'll see you Casa Shaddler," Hunter replies without looking at her and gets into his car.
"I'll take that as a yes," McCall says aloud as she turns toward her own vehicle.
The next morning they are still without the autopsy reports and with very little new information discovered from the Shaddler's or Oscar Lopez's background information, they are slowly and quietly working their way through their messages and paperwork.
"So when do I get to meet Rachel?" McCall asks, glancing up from her typewriter.
"You met her," responds Hunter without looking up.
"No, pointing at me while I'm on the phone saying 'by the way that's my partner — now let's get outta here before she hangs up' is not an introduction."
Hunter laughs while shuffling through a stack of messages. "It was only our second date, I didn't want her to be subjected to the McCall inquisition."
"McCall inquisition?!" McCall's voice does the high-pitched squeak it always does when she's exasperated. "What do you mean 'McCall inquisition?' I'm always nice to your dates." He looks up at her this time with a 'you gotta be kidding' look on his face. "What? All I want to do is get to know them. Is that so bad? To want to be friends with your girlfriends?"
"Friends? It's more like marking your territory."
"I do not mark my territory. Believe me, you are not territory I want to mark. They can have you. But speaking of marking territory," she points at him with a playful grin, "Mitch told me what you said the first time he met you."
"I have no idea what you're referring to."
"I quote, 'If you hurt her, even a little a bit, she will kick your ass. And when she's done, I'll finish the job.'" Again, he laughs. "Uh huh, sounds familiar, doesn't it?"
She starts picking at a white carnation in her vase of flowers sitting on her desk between them. This vase is always full of a variety of flowers in shades of pinks, purples and yellows with an occasional orange around Halloween and Thanksgiving, but the color of choice since Mitch arrived on the scene has veered towards white. He wonders if she's even aware that her day dreaming of wedding dresses is affecting her flower selections.
Picking her words carefully, and keeping her focus on the carnation, she asks, "So what if I invited you and Rachel over for dinner with Mitch and me this weekend? Just, you know, a casual little dinner?"
Hunter sighs and gives her another 'you gotta be kidding look.' "Dinner with you and Mitch?"
"What? You like Mitch. You said so yourself."
"No, I believe what I said is that I like Mitch for you. I don't get the whole literary thing he does."
"History. He's a history professor, not literature."
"You weren't complaining when he took you to the UCLA football game a couple of weeks ago…"
Realizing he is not going to get out of this, he gives in, "Ok, what time do you want us to come over Saturday?"
"Seven o'clock," she responds and he has an urge to slap the satisfied grin right off her face.
...to be continued...