They call me a “celebrity detective.” I’ve known many stars, even had romances with a few. But before today I’d never crossed paths with Aiyana Fleet, the Princess of Pop. Twenty years ago, Aiyana was one of the biggest recording artists alive. Today, at forty, she still performs to sold-out audiences across the globe. This was despite her long ago being put under a conservatorship over mental health concerns.
The July twilight was thickening. I drove past the gate of Aiyana’s Hidden Hills mansion in a ’98 Blazer, a far cry from my usual Challenger. My department issue Sig was at my side and I had a .38 on an ankle holster.
An Italian kid in silk workout clothes appeared. “Detective Zolochevskaya?” This was Angelo Davoli, Aiyana’s boyfriend.
“Call me Zolo.”
In the living room, Aiyana was sprawled out on a plush couch like Cleopatra. In her teenage prime, Aiyana had a jailbait image with a corporate polish. Above her head was a framed Rolling Stone cover from September of 2000. On it she was dressed like a sexy Catholic schoolgirl.
“I’ll be in the gym, boo.” Angelo left us.
“Champagne, Mr. Zolo?” She stretched out like a cat.
“You know my drink.” Aiyana must have learned this from Ana Safarian, the reality TV and social media megastar who arranged this meeting. Ana and I share a history. She’s one of those former romances I mentioned. “Veuve, if you have it.”
She poured me a glass in a crystal flute. Her dark eye makeup looked garish. “Can you get me out of the conservatorship?”
Problems in my life were piling up these days. I needed money. Some extra-sensitive details on my last investigation went to hell and the top LAPD brass, the Higher Ups, wanted my head. Joe Ancell, my partner in RHD, was cooperating with Internal Affairs Group on an investigation against me. I’d been hiding for three days.
“I would need to know more.”
“My annual hearing’s coming up.”
Once a year, a probate court formally reviews the status of a conservatorship. Only once. If those heading a conservatorship convince the judge its continuation is justified, it goes on another year. A person in Aiyana’s position has no recourse but to wait and hope for a favorable outcome at their next annual hearing.
“What really got that put in place?” I asked.
“I suffer from bipolar disorder. Twelve years ago, I had just gotten over my first marriage. I wasn’t taking my medication. I acted out, often with armies of paparazzi recording my every move. I’m not proud of my behavior.” The person heading Aiyana’s conservatorship was her father, Jamie Fleet. “Do you believe in God, detective?”
Normally I would have said no. But God and spirituality were complicated subjects for me these days. “My partner Joe is a Buddhist. He meditates every day, does yoga, the whole nine. He’s been turning me on to meditation.”
“Well, I’ve been doing everything the conservatorship recommends for years now, even going to church. For a while I actually prayed, wondering if God could get me out of it if I begged enough. Nothing works.”
I thought about my daughter Melyda. Three months ago, I split up with her mother Veronica, my second wife. “I understand acting out, but why did you drive so fast on the freeway with your baby in your lap? What were you thinking?”
“I was getting chased by paparazzi. I was thinking about escape. You know that’s how Princess Diana was killed, right? By the media.” She waited. “Still, I’ve taken responsibility for everything. But nothing changes. If I show even minor frustration my dad threatens to send me back to a facility. They put me away for three months last year. Kept me doped up. The facility had a one-star rating on Yelp.”
I wanted to tell her she didn’t need any gunk under her eyes. “If you’re really doing everything right, why do you believe the conservatorship continues? Why is your father doing this?”
“Money, of course. He and his partners have been using my career as an ATM.” With seven No. 1 singles, six No. 1 albums, and 190 million records sold worldwide, Aiyana was ranked by Billboard as the sixth biggest selling artist of the first decade of this century. Her net worth was estimated at sixty million. “I’m obligated to follow the direction of my father, court appointed fiduciaries, medical consultants and attorneys, all who stop getting paid if the conservatorship ends. I pay my lawyer fourteen grand a month and I never chose him.”
“Doesn’t your father have to account for every dollar to the court?”
“Yes, but the court’s in on the scam. My dad worked the whole scheme out with the court in the first place. He personally drafted the rules I have to follow. It’s a play both sides act out every year in order to keep my life away from me.”
A notoriously dedicated band of Aiyana’s fans were known as the Free Aiyana movement. They appeared at all her court dates. The movement had long been promoting a conspiracy about Jamie Fleet being the puppet master responsible for his daughter’s troubles. I wondered if Aiyana was really telling the truth, or just regurgitating the wild fantasies of her followers.
“Fixing this means things could get heavy with your father.”
“I don’t care,” she said.
I thought it over. “Alright, I’ll help you. Let’s talk price.” I had already clarified with Ana how much we would need to be talking about before I took the meeting.
“Would two million work? I just wrapped a six-month residency at Planet Hollywood in Vegas. I can access that much when I’m freed.”
“How soon is the hearing?”
Two million might save my ass. “I’ll do it for that much, yes.”
“Let me worry about that.”
She waited. “Ana said I should trust you.”
“Where can I find your father?”
She gave me an address.
“Ana also told me you were going through a separation. I’m sorry.”
“I’m hoping to not let it ruin my relationship with my daughter.”
“I bet you’re a great father.” Her eyes welled up.
I wished I really was. “Are you okay?”
“I’m just thinking about killing myself again.”
I waited. It seemed like she could be performing. She was good at that.
“This isn’t me trying to be dramatic. I can’t take being held captive any longer.” A tear fell down her cheek. “Take me with you.”
“Show me adventure. Give me a taste of my coming freedom.”
I reached out and wiped her tear away. “I’ve got business besides you.”
“Even better. Take me on a ride along, detective.”
“I’m on leave from work this week and trying to keep a low profile. Also…” Her boyfriend slammed weights down the hall. The sound was drifting our way.
“Angelo does what I tell him.”
“Yes. You can come with me.”
The Griffith Observatory was closed but tonight the lot was open. At the entrance an LAPD black and white was posted. I drove in and parked.
Aiyana sat in the back. She’d wiped off all her dark eye makeup. Her father was on a business trip to San Diego and wouldn’t be back to his home in Mid-City until tomorrow morning. Bracing him would have to wait until then.
Phil Penzler’s white ‘84 Deville pulled into the lot. Phil was my training officer when I first joined the department. Now he worked security for a tech mogul and acted as an intermediary between the Higher Ups and those they did sensitive business with. For both jobs he was paid handsomely.
He stepped out of the Caddy. “Why is some famous singer in your car?”
As I expected, they had eyes on me. “I wouldn’t have pegged you as a fan.”
“You should have fled the country.”
“You know that’s not my style.” I looked around. “Where is he?”
Phil sent a text. “On his way.”
A black Explorer pulled in. Deputy Chief Bowles stepped out in a Kings hat and a Members Only jacket. “I’m listening.”
“I clipped two of your top earners. I want to buy my way off of your shit list.”
My last investigation was the high profile shooting of a man who was blackmailing two dirty special teams detectives. The detectives, Tanaka and Watanabe, killed the blackmailer in a gun battle. A civilian teenager named Denise Rivera witnessed the whole thing. Through Phil, the Higher Ups ordered me to clip Denise, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, I clipped Tanaka and Watanabe. Both kicked up major cash to the Higher Ups.
“Buy yourself out for how much?”
“Next week. Will that buy me a pass for not murdering a teenage girl?”
“We’ll take two, on one condition.”
“You have to retire.”
I waited for him to say he was joking. “Excuse me?”
“Just walk away.”
“I’ve got the best clearance in RHD. No other man is close.”
“Other earners can’t be allowed to think it’s okay to just go against orders. If the rules aren’t followed, everything falls apart.”
I rolled my eyes.
“We can’t just shut down this IAD investigation that your own partner is cooperating with. We can’t risk the scandal it’s heading toward if you stay active. Take off your badge. Keep the truth buried.”
I took a deep breath. “All right. Yes.”
Bowles and Phil drove off. I got back in the Blazer with Aiyana.
My phone rang. It was Joe. I knew he was ready to continue with our spiritual conversation. This would be an odd talk to have in front of a woman I hardly knew, but I already felt like there was a bond between us.
“Pete?” I had him on speaker.
“I reached a breakthrough this week.”
“Your fervor is admirable,” Joe said. “But beware of moving too fast. People practice meditation for their whole lives. You’ve barely spent a month.”
Aiyana listened as we discussed On Having No Head, a book about Zen meditation by an author named Douglas Harding. Joe recommended it before I got in this mess. I’d incorporated the book’s teachings into my practice and seen success.
Joe asked, “Where are you right now?”
“Taking personal time.”
“But where are you?”
“I’m on the phone, telling you about my progress.” After giving this answer, I felt disappointed in myself. I could tell Joe was disappointed as well.
He waited. “Just don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself,” he said.
The Quiet Tip was an after-hours club in East Hollywood run by an Armenian Power shot caller named Davros Donabedian. I flashed my shield and told the doorman I knew his boss. Davros was a friend. A girl led us to a private room where I ordered a bottle of Moet. “No charge,” she said and closed the curtain behind her.
“So you’re a cat person.” In the Blazer, Aiyana saw the two bags of cat food I’d bought at the Hollywood Namaste Mart this afternoon.
“What’s your cat’s name?”
“Winston, as in Churchill.” I’d gotten Winston from Cat Corral, the rescue where Denise Rivera worked. Churchill was my hero and the man who first inspired me to become a cop. Aiyana didn’t recognize the name. “He actually belongs to my daughter Melyda. Do you like cats?”
She nodded and smiled. “I have two. Both girls.”
“What are their names?”
“Pudding and Jane. Both were rescues.”
I poured two glasses and raised mine. “To your coming freedom.”
“Chris Brown never took me to a place like this.” She sighed. Aiyana was on the long list of women who’d gotten the shit beaten out of them by Chris Brown, who was one of her exes. He was one of the high-profile relationships she’d been in during her meltdown. “I was so stupid then. So was Chris and he still is. Unlike me, he’s violent. But no one’s ever placed him in a conservatorship. Why is he free to beat up whatever woman he wants?” In front of us on the wall, there was a detailed mural of the Javakheti Mountains in Armenia. “How come they give you special treatment here?”
“The owner gives me helpful information. Usually it leads to the arrests of his business competitors. He likes showing his appreciation for our arrangement. In the morning, before we pay your dad a visit, I’ve got to drop off Winston’s food.”
“I’ll get to meet your daughter?”
She squeezed my hand. We drank the wine slowly. I told her more about Melyda and she told me about her sons.
In the morning we had breakfast from Chipmunk, a trendy restaurant in Silver Lake. I thought Aiyana might like it. We ate in the Blazer. After, I drove to my old home, a house on a hill on Marathon. Veronica and Melyda lived there alone now. I parked in the driveway and walked to the door with Aiyana. My key still worked.
Inside, Melyda was on the couch. She’d been crying.
She jumped up and ran to me. I dropped the bags of food and embraced her. She cried into my shoulder. I reminded her to breathe.
“What’s wrong?” I asked again.
I was shocked. “When?”
I’d only just delivered Winston to her last week. “How?”
“But Winston’s an inside cat.”
“Efren left the back door open.”
“Who is Efren?”
“Mommy’s new friend. He was outside smoking cigarettes.”
Veronica and I had arranged for her to be in the other part of the house so she and I would not have to see each other. “Is Efren here now?”
Upstairs in the bedroom, Veronica and Efren were in bed, watching TV.
“Pete, what the fuck?”
I pointed at Efren.
His mouth gaped open.
He didn’t respond. I looked at her.
“You hate me this much?” Throughout our marriage Veronica knew about my affinity for cats, but never let me keep one in the house. She didn’t like them. What was I thinking, marrying a woman who didn’t like cats?
“Everything isn’t about you,” Veronica said.
“What happened to Winston’s body?”
“We called a place that does pet cremations. I told Melyda to give me his favorite toy so he could leave with it. She chose his chili pepper. It was her first pet, but she’ll be alright. She’ll have others.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Efren said. “But it’s not anyone’s fault.”
I hit him in the nose and again in the jaw. His jaw came loose when I connected. I threw him at the glass door. He fell through to the balcony.
I walked back downstairs.
Melyda cried. She’d seen so much fighting this year. Aiyana rubbed her back in consolation. Veronica cursed down at me.
“I’m sorry to scare you, baby. But I don’t like it when people are mean to cats.”
Melyda said, “Winston must have been so afraid at the end.”
I kissed the top of her head and fought back my own tears.
“Will Veronica call the cops?”
“She knows I’m too protected in the department. Maybe she’ll squeeze me to pay for lover boy’s jaw, but that’ll be it.”
Jamie Fleet lived in a mansion on Country Club Drive. Aiyana spoke to the guard at the gate while I played her new driver. The goof just waved us through. I parked. Aiyana got us in with her key.
Jamie read the Wall Street Journal by the pool. Beside him a teenage girl sunbathed. “What is this?” he said.
I flashed my shield. “Get rid of the girl.”
“What if I don’t, officer?” He sounded cocky.
His tone offended me. “This’ll be hard on you either way.”
“Go inside,” he told her.
The girl obeyed.
“At the Friday hearing, Aiyana’s going to be freed. You’ll make it happen.”
“Why would I do that?”
I stomped down hard on his balls. He screamed and rolled out of his chair. I looked at Aiyana. She smiled. Jamie projectile puked. His vomit hit the pool.
“I want my life back,” Aiyana said as her father writhed on his knees. “I want my sons back. I want my money back. I won’t let another year of this stand.”
Jamie looked up. Vomit trickled down his chin. “You’d be nothing without me.”
“My success came from my hard work.”
“Which I fostered!”
“Tell me that the conservatorship ends this week.” I said. “Explain how you’ll make it happen and make me believe you.”
He tried to run for it. I knocked him down and smashed his face into the ground. I drew my .38 and pressed it into the base of his skull.
“I can’t end it,” he said. “At one point, I had the power. Not anymore.”
I pulled the gun away. He sat up, bleeding from his nose.
“The probate Judge. Venturo. He’s taken over.”
I never had any personal dealings with Judge Miguel Venturo, but I knew his reputation. He was dirty to the core and powerful. “Taken over how?”
“For years he requested to have Aiyana’s case transferred to his court. When that finally happened, which was five years ago, he revealed that he knew everything and that he would be taking a majority share of her earnings from then on. He keeps me comfortable, as well as everyone else that’s involved. If I don’t keep Aiyana looking unstable so he can keep getting paid, who knows what he’ll do?”
“I’ll make him change his mind.”
Jamie stood and looked at his daughter. “This judge, I’ve been under his control for a long time. You can’t tell this guy no.”
“It’s still your fault. All of it.”
“After this Friday, I don’t want to know if you exist or not. Come near me or my sons again and I’ll have you killed.”
“Trust her on that, Mr. Fleet,” I said. “I’ll do the job myself.”
The big man didn’t think anyone had the stones to come for him. His security was a joke. I crawled over the back fence of his mansion and walked along the edge of his pool toward the back entrance. At the back door, I bent my elbow, smashed in a glass panel, and unlocked it. In the kitchen, a man appeared. He was a roided-out Hawaiian with a ponytail. A bulge under his jacket told me he was carrying. He reached.
I reached faster and fired three times into his chest. He fell back. Somewhere in the house, a dog barked. I fired a fourth shot into his head. With a gloved hand I picked up the Glock .380 he’d been after.
Venturo appeared. He was slow, chubby and bearded. He wore a fluffy white bathrobe and carried a margarita. He saw me, then the dead Hawaiian. I flashed my shield. He acted unfazed.
“Detective Zolo. RHD.” My .38 was in his face.
“A detective this late? Usually that’s only to sign off on a warrant.”
“Aiyana Fleet hired me.”
“Does this look like bullshit?”
He looked down at the body again. “I’ll cut you in. It’s a gold mine, especially over time. Easiest money you’ll ever make.”
“What, you’ve got ethics?”
I’d always been willing to make hard choices for the greater good, like Churchill partnering with Stalin to defeat Hitler. The good you do in the long is what counts. My grandfather fled Stalinist Russia for California so I could have this life. He taught my father and I to embrace all the opportunities America afforded me, and to rise. I took his advice, and rose to far greater heights than my father would have dreamed. But along the way my outlook became twisted. Venturo thought I was like him. In some ways he was right. I didn’t like admitting that to myself.
“Either you make a recording admitting your part in the scam, a recording I’ll send to the press if you don’t free Aiyana this Friday, or I’ll clip you and take my chances with the next judge,” I said.
His bathrobe slipped open. His dick was Guinness-record small. He covered his shame. “I’ll do it. There’s no need for the recording.”
I took out my phone and placed it on the marble kitchen counter. “If you want to live, start talking.” I hit record.
The big man started crying. His blatant insecurity rose to the surface. Maybe he’d been thinking about making some changes too. Maybe he was hoping for a wake-up call. He wiped away snot. “Can I have a drink first?”
“You want one?”
“Got any champagne?”
He opened a 1918 Dom Perignon. He drank first, then me.
“Talk,” I said.
A big crowd was gathered. The Free Aiyana movement. It was Friday morning at the downtown courthouse. They held up signs and played Aiyana’s old hits. I wanted to get out and show my support, but there were too many cameras. I parked in the red across the street and kept checking my phone. I waited.
Then TMZ ran a headline: AIYANA FLEET FREED!
I clicked the link. According to Judge Miguel Venturo’s ruling, Aiyana now exhibited enough mental stability to be let out of her conservatorship. As of today’s hearing, she would regain full control of her life.
More media vans raced up. Makeup caked journalists and their camera crews jumped out. The doors to the courthouse opened. Aiyana appeared with Angelo behind her. Bodyguards flanked them both. Dozens of cameras rolled and flashed. Someone handed Aiyana a microphone.
“Thank you, thank you to all my fans!” The crowd roared. “It’s been a long and challenging road, but all of you never gave up on me, and I love you for it!”
I whistled and clapped.
“The Buddhism is the most unusual part of you.”
“Most people are full of contradictions.”
“Staying true to oneself has always been the core message of my music.”
“I’m ending another marriage, plus I’ve got all the other troubles you saw. I need to embrace all the self-improvement I can.”
“Be careful about shaving your head.”
We both laughed.
After we checked into the Chateau Marmont we made love and drank bottles of Pol Roger. Aiyana took breaks for phone interviews about the surprise ruling and I took breaks to meditate. I felt happier than I’d been in a long time.
After five days, Phil called me.
“They got the money,” he said.
“I meant to deliver it in person, but I’m busy.”
“I’ll bet you are.”
“I’m not going to retire.”
Phil put his hand on his phone and talked to someone on his end. “That’s not the deal you made.”
“Are they taking my two million or not?”
“I made everything right. They’ve got no business asking me to quit. Tomorrow I return to regular rotation with my partner. I’m going to keep closing cases. Pass it along.”
I hung up.
Later, Melyda called.
“I still miss Winston.”
“I think you should wait a few months, then I’ll help you find another cat to adopt. How about that, sweetie?”
“It won’t be the same.”
“You’re right. It won’t. But a lot of cats out there need a good person like you to rescue them and someday you’ll love them too.”
I left the hotel to speak with a family of West Hollywood jewelers I knew from a recent case. When I returned, Aiyana was asleep. Her face softly glowed from the moonlight. Her phone was on the bedside table. She’d been listening to the audiobook of a Churchill biography I’d recommended. She took off her sleep mask.
I got down on one knee. She sat up.
“I was a stranger but you let me free you. I want to always look out for you. You were perfect with Melyda. You’d be a better mother for her than her real one. I want her to meet Pudding and Jane and love them like they were her own cats.” She opened the box and looked at the ring. “Marry me.”
“Yes,” she said.
I sat down in my cubicle beside Joe.
“Welcome back.” He spotted my ring. “That what I think it is?”
“Who’s the lucky lady?”
“You’re talking to L.A.’s ‘celebrity detective.’ I can’t announce that until proper arrangements are made with the publicist.” Aiyana was preparing the announcement with her team. We planned on telling Melyda together, after my shift.
“I thought you and Veronica were just separated?”
“We’re expediting the divorce.”
Aiyana gave me some extra money on top of the two million to pass to Veronica so she would keep quiet about the beating and agree to end our marriage with minimal drama. Becoming Aiyana Fleet’s new fiancé would save me from the Higher Ups. Coming after me now would mean too much media scrutiny for their comfort.
But IAG and Joe wouldn’t care about media scrutiny. During my time off, I watched for IAG tails. I never spotted any but I could have missed them. I didn’t know if an arrest was coming. I didn’t know what all they had.
Later, an anonymous tip led to the discovery of a body at the L.A. River. Judge Miguel Venturo personally asked our Captain if Joe and I could be assigned. Our Captain agreed. Venturo had a connection to the victim.
“Much of my practice remains a mystery,” I said to Joe on our way to the scene. We were in his Prius. His dream catcher hung from the rear-view. “But the path I’m on feels correct. That’s what my instincts tell me.”
“You’re doing your best,” he said.
At the river, we walked under the tape. The body was in a foul-smelling trash heap. There were three bullet holes in the chest and a fourth in his head. Joe found his I.D. and read the name: Benny Nakamura.
Last week, after I killed Benny, I dumped him here. I didn’t realize how long he would go unseen. Yesterday I paid a CI to call in the tip this morning. Venturo and I worked all this out after I finished his recording, which I still had saved on a memory stick and locked in a safe deposit box.
“Why do you suppose Judge Venturo needs bodyguards?” Joe asked me.
I shrugged. “Judges make enemies.”
Venturo knew a true solve would shed light on his past corruption, so he requested me, his best option to run interference. Since a true solve could also put me in jail, I agreed, even though I would be sabotaging my near-perfect clearance rate.
“Have you been following the news about Aiyana Fleet?” Joe asked. “Her fans seem silly, but they’ve got interesting theories.”
The teenage girl at Jamie Fleet’s described me accurately to the media. The story was circulating online. Joe was going to shit a brick when he found out Aiyana was my new fiancé, but he would still have no proof, just more suspicion.
“I’m familiar with the movement,” I said.
“Venturo was the judge in Aiyana’s case.” Joe watched for my reaction.
A bright future was attainable. I just had to fight for it. Starting over again wouldn’t be easy. But an important element of a successful meditation practice, after you break concentration, is to begin again without judging yourself too harshly. I focused on Aiyana and Melyda. Men could always remake themselves in America.
“Let’s pursue any path,” I said. “I’m open to them all, partner.”
— Andrew Miller was born in Ohio. He lives in Pasadena, California with his girlfriend Genevieve and their two cats, John Wayne and Calamity Jane. He is an author, screenwriter and essayist. His novella Lady Tomahawk appears in the anthology L.A. Stories, from Uncle B. Publications. His short stories have appeared in Close To The Bone, Pulp Modern, Switchblade, Broadswords and Blasters, and on Medium.com. His film work includes the music documentary Soul Of Lincoln Heights. He is a member of the Independent Fiction Alliance, a network of authors, publishers and editors committed to combating censorship and promoting freedom of expression. His website is https://www.andrewmillerauthor.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyMiller1313.