The Laurel Terrace Apartments on the 1500 block of North Laurel Avenue in Hollywood was a 1960’s low-slung building with the requisite palm trees, up-lighting and aqua blue courtyard pool, surrounded by one and two bedroom apartments. Rhea turned into the underground parking. She parked in her spot, walked up a ramp to the courtyard, past the kidney-shaped pool and went to apartment 114. There was a note on the door, folded in half: “Dear Ms. Porter, your rent is past due.” She tore it off and went inside.
Rhea had lucked out with this apartment. It was a decent sized one bedroom with shag carpeting and a big picture window that looked out onto that kidney-shaped swimming pool. She’d first moved in sixteen years ago. It was rent-controlled, so even now, at $1675 it was cheap. Affordable for a single woman on a veteran cop salary. But she’d sent her mom most of her paycheck over the past fifteen years and with the added expense of sex with several young dudes every month and her recent suspension, her cash flow was seriously suffering. For the first time since she’d been off the streets, she felt that familiar pang of panic about having a safe place to sleep.
She poured some leftover coffee over ice and laced it with milk and a few of the packets of Stevia George had given her. She brushed her panic away. If she lost her apartment, she was pretty sure Strickland would take her in again. But it wouldn’t come to that, she told herself. She had a new job to tide her over until… But was it enough?
She sat at her stained formica counter. She looked at her food notes. She tried to concentrate on chorizo and champurrado and San Miguel. She tried to write more. But she couldn’t. Thoughts of dead girls crowded her brain. She shoved the “rent past due” note aside and got down to her real work:
This is what she knew: she knew that there were three dead girls in a dive bar on the border of Boyle Heights. She knew they were Mexican. She knew they were illegals – either smuggled or trafficked. She knew they would not be ID’d, that the department would not pursue it and that their cremated remains would be held for three years then buried in a mass grave in a south east patch of Evergreen Cemetary in Boyle Heights with all the other un-named un-claimed remains that died that year. The grave would be marked “2019”.
Unless… She could ID them. Because in her gut Rhea also knew they were somehow connected to the disappearance of her five- year-old sister twenty-two years ago from a cafe two doors down from Boom Boom Carneceria. She knew she needed to get her ass back down to Ensenada.
Rhea looked at the pictures on her phone of the dead girls. She looked at the picture she’d taken of Hays’s rustic Mexican desk. She googled pictures of furniture from Baja Mexico. There were hundreds of places with tons of desks all over both the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico. She’d expected that – the desk wasn’t in any way unusual. The good news was she could place it in any one of three Ensenada stores that featured rustic items: Fausto Polanco, Sterling and Muebles La Mision. It was a start. She still had a few contacts down there and now she had the time. All she needed was money.
She figured she needed about two hundred and fifty for gas, round trip. Maybe another two hundred for a motel and essentials. She was about eighty bucks short on her rent. So total, she needed just over five hundred.
She went back to her food notes: “dollar tacos. Blue corn. Creamy.” She closed her eyes. She thought, then wrote:
“I sidled up to him in Barragan’s back room, smelling his chorizo with cacique and chipotle cream. Tucked into a mini corn tortilla, at a buck a pop – it was a two-bit writer’s dream. “Give me a bite.” I told him as I downed a swig of my San Miguel, “And I’ll give you a bite of my chicharrones on a pillow of black beans…” She wrote about skin and hands and mouths and juice, toying with it, changing a few words here and there, changing punctuation. She wondered if it was good enough. What if Valdez hated it? What if he fired her before she made a dime?
She was hungry. Again. Still. She opened her bag of Fritos. She took it to her window. As she munched, she looked out. She caught a glimpse of a coyote skulking just outside the courtyard on the far side of the pool.
She slipped out of her apartment and quietly walked toward the pool. She leaned against a palm tree, eating the Fritos, looking for the coyote. She tugged at her T-shirt, pulling the V neck down to flick off bits of salt and crumbs. She looked back up, startled to see Strickland, standing a few yards away from her, looking at her chest where her tugging had highlighted her cleavage. Even in the dim light, she could feel him blush.
What the fuck? she thought as the heat of realization rippled through her. He wanted her? It threw her for a minute. It was weird. I mean, good lord, he’d scraped her off the sidewalk more than once. Pulled her out of a dozen dark nights. Wiped her flu snot. Wiped her ass when when they’d both eaten some bad Chicken Mole on the Day of the Dead. Sure, if she thought about it, he was kind of hot in a James Comey way but he was a second father to her. More than that, he was nice. She didn’t know what to do with this. Neither did he. He looked away. He started to walk away, toward his apartment across the pool from hers. She wasn’t going to let her moment of power go.
“Did you find that bartender? Myrna?” She called after him.
He stopped; shook his head, “Not yet.”
“I’ve got three furniture joints in Ensenada that that desk in Hays’s warehouse could’ve come from.” She told him.
Strickland nodded; kept walking. He was embarrassed and needed to get away from her.
“Weird that Hays is a furniture importer, yeah?”
“Maybe.” he cautioned. “But there’s a hundred in LA, Rhea.” he added, resuming his retreat. She was losing him; losing her window of power.
She followed him. She wouldn’t let up. “There is only one who also owns a bar with three dead Mexican girls in it, at least one of whom has a tie to Boom Boom.”
He kept walking.
“I’m as good as Dawson–”
“Yes.” Strickland acknowledged.
“If I was a man, I’d never have been punished.”
“That has nothing to do with it. Nothing.” Strickland tried to claw back some control.
“Let me back, Strickland.” She whispered into his back.
He was a few feet from his door. She begged, “Please.” He slowed.
“I’m sorry, OK? What I did.” She told him, wanting him to understand, at least a little.
“Look, it’s how I deal, Strickland. That’s all. It’s just how I deal.” she offered. “And the kid was eighteen.”
He reached his door. He opened it. He turned to her, softening a little. She stepped toward him.
“How do you deal?”
He looked at her, hard. He’d known her so long. He’d seen her scared and he’d seen her brave. He’d seen her fight, learn, cry. He’d seen her chase down a lead with no sleep for three days straight. He’d seen her give up. He’d seen her start over. He’d seen her kill. He’d seen her hate. Lord knows he’d seen her eat. But looking at her now, he wondered if she’d ever really seen him.
“I garden.” he answered, a little burned she didn’t remember; she’d seen his garden a thousand times. She’d lived in it.
She realized her mistake. She started to speak. He finished,
“Fix it, Rhea. Fix yourself then come back.” He went inside and shut the door. She heard the deadbolt click shut. His light went on and his shades stayed half-down.
Rhea stood there a moment. Rebuffed, again. What the fuck? “Fix herself?” She took off her shoes. She took off her skirt. She lifted her T-shirt up over her head, baring her breasts. She dropped the t-shirt on the ground. All she had on was a pair of men’s boxers. She slipped those off, paused for moment, facing Strickland’s blinds, then dove into the pool.
Inside apartment #122, Strickland looked out the side of his front blind and watched Rhea swim under the water – rippling, shimmering. Wet. He watched her break the surface. He watched her imperfect beauty glistening in reflected pool light.
He poured himself a short iced tea and laced it with Makers Mark. He hated her right now.
Rhea tread water, watching Strickland’s window. She could feel something besides the water – a vibe. It wasn’t a good one. She swam to the steps, got out, pulled her clothes on over her wet body and hurried to her apartment.
Once inside, she wrapped herself in a towel and sat at the little table by the front window. She looked across at Strickland’s apartment. All his blinds were closed. She knew he was pissed. That wasn’t good. She was messing up right and left; miss-judging, lashing out, blowing every chance she had. Literally. God she hated self-reflection. She needed chili cheese fries. They had some good ones at that Tommy’s on Hollywood and Bronson.