A little after nine that night Rhea followed Sheena along the top of the cement embankment of the LA River. Daylight was nearly gone; shadows were long. As they neared the Chavez Bridge, Sheena pointed down, to a clump of debris under the bridge.
“Stay here.” Rhea told Sheena as she scrambled down the bank where it trickled under the Chavez bridge. She walked a few yards to the remains of a homeless camp: a moldy sleeping bag, some squishy old sweat pants, three empty Cheetos bags and an empty can of diet Coke and Progresso Lite Pot Pie soup.
A sudden whoosh of air brushed down on her. She thought nothing of it – LA was a city of Santa Anas – she was used to sudden gusts. But the tail end of the second gust carried on it a faint smell. She knew it well. She looked around for a body but she knew it would be a little farther away. She took another whiff then looked up the opposite embankment toward the street above. A Chavez street bridge crossed over it. The young woman photographer was walking over it. Then she stopped. Through an opening between balustrades, Rhea could see the woman was barefoot. Was she homeless? Rhea wondered, though she seemed too clean. Plus she carried an old 35mm camera and an air of cool. Then she stopped. She looked down. At Rhea. Her expectant look pulled Rhea in like a memory.
“Find anything?” Sheena’s voice broke the spell.
Rhea turned. Sheena was about to skitter down the embankment.
“Stay there!” Rhea called up to her. Rhea glanced back up at the woman on the bridge. She was moving on, crossing to the side Sheena was on. Rhea decided the woman was just another hipster photog, looking for a moody downtown LA pic.
Rhea went back to Sheena. “You have somewhere you can stay for a few nights?” she asked her.
“What is it?”
“Probably just a dead dog or racoon. I’ll get animal control to pick it up in the morning. Is there somewhere you can-”
“I can crash downtown–”
“Try the shelter on San Pedro–”
Sheena shook her head. Hard.
“They’ve got better security now–” Rhea half-heartedly tried to convince her but Sheena wasn’t having it. Rhea understood – it would take an army of security and the compassion of masses to stem the violence and troubles of the homeless in LA. Rhea dug around in her pockets and gave Sheena almost seventeen dollars.
“Get some food. And be careful–”
Sheena took the money. Suddenly she grabbed Rhea and hugged her close. “You too.” she cautioned then hurried across the street and headed downtown.
Rhea walked across the Chavez Bridge. Below her was the homeless camp. Behind her was the city skyline. A few yards from the boulevard on the northeast side of the bridge was a sagging, shuttered old bar called Domingos. She went around to the back. She checked in trash cans and knee high weeds, sniffing and honing in on a spot behind an old tire. There it was: a rotting dead possum. She backed away then turned around. She was facing the back of the bar. She sniffed; smelled something. She walked to the bolted back door and put her nose to the edge of it. She sniffed. She went around to the front. That door was jammed tight with twenty years of grime and a ten dollar lock. Deciding the smell gave her cause, she jimmied it open. Air that held the whiff of charred beans kissed her as it escaped the place. She went inside.
Her eyes adjusted to a hazy darkness. The significant light of an LA night bled through three small curtained windows. She saw a bar against one wall, a pool table in the middle of the small room and a closed door in the back. A page of smoke slid out from under it. The door was locked. Three kicks knocked it open. Smoke veiled the room. Rhea walked through it. A blackened stove stood against against a burned wall, splattered with the scorched remains of a pot of beans that had exploded.
Rhea slid a finger through a layer of soot that covered everything. It was pitted by drops of water from the ceiling sprinklers that had put out the fire. But they hadn’t put it out fast enough. There was a spent extinguisher on the floor, still in the hand of a dead girl lying there. Rhea braced herself against the smell and bent over her. The girl looked Mexican. Her other arm reached out to two more dead Mexican girls, huddled together by the bolted back door. The girls from Chinatown. Their arms were around each other. Their eyes were open. Their bodies were splattered with extinguisher foam. They’re nostrils were blackened with smoke. The youngest one was still warm. Rhea checked for a pulse.
She pressed the sides of the girl’s mouth open. Her blue lips puckered like a snap dragon. The air above her shimmered and rippled then fluttered away, as though she’d exhaled one last dream.
Rhea jumped, a little freaked by the other-worldliness of it.
Back outside on the cement bank across the river from Domingos, the photographer dropped to one knee, steadied her lens and snapped off a half dozen pictures of the shimmer as it rose up into the night sky just above Domingos.
In the blackened kitchen, Rhea checked again for a pulse on the little girl. Nothing. The girl was dead. Rhea took out her phone and snapped a few pics of the dead girls. Then she called the boss.