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sex | An LA Crime Story

Joe’s

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At ten after eight under a dusk-blue Ensenada sky, thirty-eight-year-old Rhea Porter navigated her 
ninety-three LeBaron around the potholes on the east end of Avenida Placido. She found a space 
outside Boom Boom Carneceria, parked, popped the last warm bite of a citrus glazed papaya concho 
into her mouth and chased it with a swig of thermos coffee. She got out, locked her car and 
headed toward Joe’s café, two doors down. Between Boom Boom and Joe’s, she passed six little kids 
begging for money. She looked away.

Outside Joe’s, she took a breath, opened the door and stepped inside. It wasn’t a cafe anymore.
Gone were the little tables where a child sitting alone for a moment—near the door left ajar—could
slip outside, chasing after a bluebird. Both gone forever. Now there was a makeshift stage in the center
of the lightless room. On it, eight stone-faced half-naked women swayed to Dylan’s “Mr. Jones”.
Smelling of Bal de Versailles, lemongrass and cooze, their scent was sweeter than the stagnant breaths
haloing the dozen male customers scattered around the room, watching them.

Man she wanted to leave. She needed to calm herself down; she needed to stop thinking of that blue 
bird day long ago. She forced her mind to think of a palatable alternative, a story she could use later, 
for work – she owed an LA rag 400 words on men and food. The first few came: “Eight fat whores 
looking for cash. Twelve losers looking for love. Me, I was looking for something to eat, then I saw 
him… ”

There he was, behind the bar that spanned the back wall: a small, graceful man she had once
known. He had to be in his sixties now. He looked good, despite everything. When she was a girl, he’d
taught her about the joys of rellanos fried in chili butter, the pungence of fresh hoja santa, the particular
tang of lemons grown near the sea. He’d revealed a world to her – and though 22 years later she could
smell the soul of a good tikka masala and she knew which Kimchee could best make a summer night
burn, any other joy in life eluded her.

After awhile he looked up and saw her – the lone white American in the place. It took him a
moment, then a smile accordioned his eyes. She shoved off the wall and headed toward him. She
passed a skinny jackass who thought licking his lips at her was appealing. In her mind, she turned his
dark vibe into a lie for the alternate, usable, story: “He was young and lean – with a promise in his eyes
– of warm summer skin and juicy chili-fries.”  

She reached the bar. And the bartender. Christ she was nervous. So was he. “Hello Joe.” she stuck
out her hand. He took it, studying her almost familiar face.“Rhea.” It really was her. He held on. “You
look—

” “Tired. Yeah.” She cut him off. She knew what she looked like. 

“No…” He let go of her hand.

Yes, she was different. Worn. Troubled. But no, not tired– 

She looked around at the stale incarnation of the once charming cafe. “I hate what you’ve done with
the place.”

He laughed, “There’s more money in–” his waving gesture referenced the room – the
“booze and sex”. But there was something else. Another reason he’d given up the sunny cafe. Here
there were “No kids allowed.”

They both let it go. Too hard to talk about. He kept it safe, “Get you a beer?”

She shook her head, “I have a long drive back to LA. Just came for the day.” She stumbled on, not wanting to explain but
needing to, “I saw officer Nala; he’s still working– Detective Nala now–” She could feel his sudden
hope; couldn’t stop it fast enough before he asked,

“Is there some news–?” “About Aggie? No.”

Rhea answered fast, “I thought maybe there was, but no.” 

She hated his hope. And she hated hers, hated that it had resurfaced and sent her again back to Baja,
chasing a whisper of news of her lost sister Aggie. For nothing. That was that. Neither wanted to think
anymore of the past, even though that’s all they had. Except…

“You still cook?” she asked.

That’s all he needed. He poured her a lime soda, “Give me a few minutes.”

He slipped through a curtain to a back room. Rhea drank. It was good. She could feel the skinny
jackass oozing toward her. Man she wanted to punch him but she didn’t. She didn’t cross those lines.
She angled away from him; willed more surrogate words for the story of which only the food part 
needed to be true: “I squeezed a lime into a cold Jarritos, took a swig then noticed, in the shadow at
the  end of the bar, was the dark lanky dream. Good God he was gorgeous, in a Day-Lewis way, with a
little more hunk but less soul. He was drinking a San Miguel.”

Jackass moved a stool closer. Determined to avoid him, she stayed focused and jotted a few of the
words down on a napkin (Jarritos. San Miguel. Dream. Soul) to remember. 

Eight long minutes later, Joe emerged from the back with a small, fat hunk of sizzling halibut, 
nestled on a pillow of tomatillo salsa, drizzled with thick crema, with a side of hot fried tortilla strips. 
Full of love. He set it down. She looked at Joe, panicky, “It’s not–?”

“Yellowtail? No.” he assured her, “No.”

Relieved, she looked down at it; gave it her full attention. T’was a thing of beauty. She swirled the
crema into the tomatillo; turning it a verdant, yummy green. She cut the fish with her fork and dug in. 
It was so good it made her laugh.

“Still the best in town.”

“Here or LA?”

“Both.” No more talking. She ate. He watched her. It was good to see her like this, like back when. 

She finished; full, for now. “Thank you Joe.” She started to get up.

“Don’t go yet–” He went back through the curtain, into the back room. 

The Jackass seized the moment and made his move. He came up behind her. As he put his empty
glass on the bar, he leaned into her, pressing against her, smelling of tobacco and wet cement. She
elbowed him but not too hard – you have to be careful with sleaze. He backed away. He wasn’t happy. 

Joe came back with a take-out carton of the salsa and two bags of hot greasy tortilla strips. She
pulled out a twenty. He wouldn’t take it.

“Please, Joe, please– C’mon Joe–” She leaned over the bar, leaned into his face and kissed his cheek, “It wasn’t your fault.” she whispered, “It was mine.” She set the money on the bar. She took the salsa and strips and left.

More words formed, “… I’ve had my share of olive-skinned hunks with sweet Pad Nah and nameless Joes, a’la Diabla.

As she walked toward the door, she felt the Jackass behind her. By the time she reached it, she felt
him breathe. She opened the door and stepped outside. 

“…many a mo`le has gotten me through a dark night and I trade it’s secrets for legal tender.”

The air was sharp with the edge it gets just before a Santa Ana has been freed. It got under her skin. 

Irritated her. Man she was tired of walking away; hurrying away. She stopped, turned, faced him and 
pulled open her jacket. He looked her up and down. She knew this could go either way. He backed 
away. For now. Rhea buttoned back up and headed for her car; her mind writing on: “Ensenada Joe
had stopped doing dinner years ago but tonight he cooked after hours for me. This is what I
remember–”

She passed the young beggars, this time she looked at them: two were sisters, holding hands. She
fished in her pockets and thrust whatever money she had left into their hands. “Go home! Vete a casa!”
she snapped. The younger girl grabbed hold of the money. “Vete a casa” Rhea said again, “Ahora. Por
favor.” She gave them a bag of strips too. She walked to her car. She got in and watched them until they
walked away, hopefully to home.

She looked back at Joe’s and saw the Jackass step outside. He had two friends with him. “Here we
go–” she thought. She started her car. They spotted her. She whipped a U and headed up the street, out
of town.

As Rhea hit the outskirts, there were three roads, leading out. One was highway 3, the main paved
road heading north to Tijuana and the US border. There would probably be someone on that road she
could flag down for help, if needed. The second was a dirt road leading to a cluster of squat faded
houses. The third was a cracked blacktop heading northeast, into the open desert.

“…Lanky Dream followed me into the warm night; an easy lust tugging the edge of his smile–”

Rhea checked her rearview; a car was approaching. The three guys were in it. Fuck it. She chose
option three and headed into the desert. They followed.

“–I invited him in.”

The road got bumpy: potholes and scrub growing through the cracks and hares hopping across the 
pavement slowed her down. A coyote howled.

“– cacique cream oozed from halibut skin, blistered with butter, cooled with lime…”

The trio gained on her. Her adrenaline soared but she kept her speed steady. Her headlights revealed
a turnout a few hundred yards ahead.

“–the tomatillo teased my mouth with a sweet tang as the dream licked it’s drops off my skin–”

She sped up and as she almost passed it, she swerved into it and spun-out, so that she faced them
when they skidded to a halt, inches from her LeBaron. One had a gun drawn, the other a knife. She was
pretty sure the skinny asshole driving had zip ties.

 “The warm flake of white meat in my mouth is where I began–”

She snatched her gun from the console and shot all three, one in the hand, one in the shoulder, one
in the eye. After the screaming, they got the hell out of there.

 “…the shared love of good food is where it ends.”

She took a minute to finish her coffee and jot down a few more words. 

“It’s everything. Joe’s cafe. Avenida Placido. Get the fish.”

Rhea started the LeBaron, feeling good. Maybe even feeling a little free. As she pulled away she
heard a little “crunch”. Damn. She got out and checked the back of the car. When she’d spun out, she’d
cracked taillight into a rock, breaking the red plastic. She’d just rolled over the bit that had fallen to the 
ground. It wasn’t too bad; an easy superglue fix once she got home. The taillight, now white, shone on 
the rock she’d hit. It was a small boulder. She’d hit it enough to move it a smidgen. Sticking out from 
under it was a slip of paper. Curious, she wedged it out. It was an old, faded receipt from a surf shop in 
Redondo Beach. She turned the receipt over.

On the back was a handwritten note, also faded, “Dear Rhea Porter, I am here. Aggie.”

After Hours

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About Seven Months Earlier

At one in the morning it’s about as dark as it gets in LA. As Rhea was cruised down Hollywood Boulevard, she slowed her LeBaron as she passed the 24-hour Tommy’s Burgers on the corner of Hollywood and Bronson. A few young men were hanging out in the parking lot. They watched her as she turned up a side street, her car disappearing from view.

On the residential block, Rhea cruised slowly, looking for a rare parking place. Spotting one outside a faded ‘70’s apartment building, she inched into it. She turned off her car and waited.

Ten minutes later, one of the guys from Tommy’s walked up the street, looking around. He looked about twenty, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He spotted Rhea’s car and approached. He tapped lightly on the passenger side window. She leaned over and rolled it down a crack.

“You got something?” he asked.

“Yeah.” she nodded. She tried not to smile too much; he was beautiful.
She waited while he pulled his vax card out of a back pocket and put it against the window. She checked it then flashed her card at him, a common formality these days. He nodded, “Cool.”

She unlocked the passenger door. He looked around, opened it and got in.
She looked him over. She could clearly see the black motorcycle logo on his dark gray T-Shirt.

“It’s too light here.” She realized.

“Yeah.” He agreed, thinking, “The alley behind the IHOP is kinda dark–”

She shook her head, “They closed it off. Construction.”

“The streets around Echo Park?” he suggested.

“There’s zero parking there.” She reminded him.

“How about your place…” He asked, casually; he’d heard from a co-worker she lived nearby.

“No.” she told him. That wasn’t going to happen. She’d made that mistake before. She started the car, “Let’s keep looking.” She maneuvered out of the spot and onto the street. She turned left on the Boulevard.

They rode for a while in silence as she drove east, into Hollywood. Both were thinking of dark places to park. They looked past straggly hipsters leaving clubs without a score; past late-shift workers waiting for a bus; past the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks. They peered up side streets and between buildings. A dog wrestled with an empty Cheetos bag. Two bus boys took a smoking break outside a Thai restaurant.

“Hey…” he said after a minute, “You know the reservoir?”

“Silverlake?” she asked.

“No.” He shook his head, “The Hollywood one.”

She thought for a second then smiled at him, “Yeah…”

She took Franklin west to Cahuenga then cruised up into the Hollywood Hills. She took a few side streets, easing up a twisty road past million-dollar houses crammed against each other like gilded sardines. The road dead-ended in a little dirt parking lot outside the chained gate of the Hollywood reservoir.

Rhea parked up against a dusty chaparral bush. It was quiet. The city lights spread out below like a blanket of stars. The sky above had none. She looked around. And though it wasn’t dark-dark – it never was in LA – they were alone. She reached onto the back seat and grabbed a small paper bag. She opened it and looked inside.

“What did you get?” he asked.

“Two chili cheese, a carne asada and a chicken.” She handed him the bag, “You pick.”

He pulled out a paper-wrapped tamale, the parchment was shiny with grease. He unwrapped it. As he broke open the pliant masa and revealed an ooze of cheese, Rhea leaned over and looked, eager for a taste. He snatched it away, teasing.

“Lean back.” He told her.

She did, watching as he slid a finger down the inside of the paper, gathering the red ancho-tinged oil. He turned to her and wiped it across her lips. She licked them.

“Good?” he asked.

She laughed, “Definitely.”

He unbuckled his seat belt. He broke a big piece off the end of the tamale then leaned over her. She opened her mouth; he eased it inside. It was good – thick and warm and flecked with smoky heat. But it was a little dry.

“It needs some sauce–” she told him, trying to swallow.

He took a Styrofoam cup out of the bag. He pried off the lid, the cup was full of a dense red chili sauce. He plunged two fingers deep into it, scooping some up. He put his fingers in her mouth. She sucked the sauce off and swallowed it.

“Better?” he asked. She nodded. Then he kissed her, tasting the sauce still on her lips. “That is good.”

“Lupita’s.” she told him, kissing him back, “On Chavez.”

“Oh yeah, I know that place, they have those fried jalapeno brownies.” He added as he broke off another hunk of tamale.

“You’re thinking of Estrella’s” She corrected him, watching him dip the hunk into the thick liquid. She opened her mouth, ready for it.

“Estrella’s is on York.” He corrected her back as he dipped again, coating the tamale.

“No that’s on Yucca. And they do Serrano brownies– Hey!” She freaked as he popped the piece in his own mouth.

“Oh wow…” The full taste of it hit him. He dipped another bit of the tamale, forgetting about her. She snatched it from him and ate it, letting some sauce dribble down her chin, down her neck. He remembered why he was there. He leaned in and began to nibble it off her skin, those soft young lips of his following a little drizzle that slid down toward her breast. He pushed her skirt up with his left hand and reached back with his right, dipping the tamale end, letting the sauce drip on her thighs. She leaned back as he kissed that sauce off too. She closed her eyes and slipped into a groove, her slow rocking moves inviting his kiss. Suddenly, she jerked up, whacking his head into the steering wheel.

“Ouch!” He yelped.

“Sorry. Some sauce just went down my–” She squirmed a little; adjusting her behind. “It’s OK now.”

He rubbed his head, a little annoyed. He shook it off and nestled his face back between her thighs. She held his head and closed her eyes, trying to lose herself; trying to fill the night. Fill time. Fill the void.

She tried hard. Too hard. She just couldn’t get there. She forced her mind to go to her happy place, to a December night when she was sixteen, sitting on her boyfriend’s lap in the front seat of his truck, sharing a bag of cinnamon sugar dusted sweet potato fries, so hungry for each other.

“Wait–!” she jerked away again, flush with an idea.

“What now?”

“Sit here. Under me.” She told him, “In the driver’s seat.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.” She added a “Please.” as she lifted herself up.

He slipped underneath her, holding her ass as he eased her down onto his lap. He slid a hand under her skirt and fed her another bite. She swallowed and grooved and tried. Man oh man she tried.

“You gotta relax.” he told her.

“Just do your job.” She snapped, losing her groove.

“I’m trying to. Relax.” He said like a mantra, “Relax…”

She breathed deep. She leaned back, leaned into it. Deeper. Deeper, then–

THWUMP! the whole car shook with a sudden impact, freaking them out.

“Jesus!” It was a coyote who’d jumped onto the hood of the car, using it as a booster to then jump over the reservoir fence and saunter away.

“This isn’t working.” Rhea concluded.

“No kidding.” he agreed. Rhea lifted herself up. He moved back to the passenger seat and zipped up.

“I can drop you off on Vine.” Rhea offered.

“That’s OK. I’ll Uber.” he said as he opened the car door. He turned back to her and held out his hand.

“What?” she asked, knowing what he wanted.

“It’s forty.”

“I don’t think so.”

He kept his hand out. She found twenty bucks in a pocket and offered it to him. “Here. Totally not worth it but–”

As he took the money, he reached over and grabbed the bag of tamales.

“Those are mine—!” she tried to grab them back but he held on. The bag tore, three tamales spilled out. They both scrambled for them. Rhea got one. He got two. And the cup of sauce.

She grabbed his hand, “At least give me the sauce.”

“No way.”

“Wait–!” she pleaded. Man she wanted that sauce. “I got the carne asada one. That sauce goes best with the carne–”

He shut the door and walked away. She started the car. As she drove out of there, she rolled down her window wanting to say something to him, wanting one more try to get that sauce. She rounded a corner, sure he’d be there but just like that coyote, he was already gone.

Hot Sauce

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The Omelette Man was Manny Valdez, an East LA native who put hot sauce on everything: eggs, donuts, french fries, ice cream – He kept little packets of the stuff in his car and his desk drawer. It’s what he first noticed about Rhea – her triple use of Tabasco, Verde and Cholula. The second thing was the way she alluded to food with sex. Valdez published a little local throwaway rag, “The Hollywood Pulse.” It was one of those freebies stacked at the grocery stores that featured blurbs on local events, local politics and food – covering stuff like the chorizo at Yucca Meats, traffic on Franklin and the craft fair at Cheramoya Elementary. His aging food reviewer was growing partial to “senior specials” which was a valid market but Valdez wanted to “tart up” the Pulse – make it more hip – to try and get in some new advertisers and more classifieds. He needed a new reviewer and he needed an angle. This Rhea chick could be it. It also looked like she was a low-rent eater. That was definitely a must.

“A cheap food writer.” He specified.

“Cheap food or cheap writer?” Rhea asked him, already let down before she even got the job.

“Both.” Valdez answered.

“How cheap?”

“Twenty five cents a word, five to seven hundred words plus thirty bucks a week for food. No single item or entree over five bucks.”

“Five bucks? Rhea challenged him, “You’re talking a short stack, or a half-side of Mee Grob or a family sized payday and a Yoo Hoo at 7-11.”

“Exactly.” Manny assured her. “And… I’m looking for an angle. I liked that sexy thing you said about the guy and the tomatillo sauce.”

“I didn’t say anything.” Rhea pulled back.

“I heard things.”

“What do you think you heard?”

“A date. A tamale. An encounter…”

Rhea’s arm shot out fast as she reached over and yanked open the right side of his jacket, “You Vice?”

“What?” he asked.

“I haven’t seen you before. Are. You. Vice?”

“No…” Valdez smiled. This was getting interesting, “A little paranoid?” he commented.

“With cause.” She acknowledged.

They were quiet for a minute. Manny spoke first, “So… are you interested?

Rhea wanted the job. It could work out to a seven hundred a month plus the 120 for food. It wasn’t much but it was something. Still, “I’m not sure I’ll be any good.” She worried.

“Me either.” Manny shrugged. “Let’s give it a try.”

“Two things…” Rhea hesitated, “There’s some food I just don’t like–”

“Oh crap–” Valdez thought hoping she wasn’t some bagel-scooping, anti-sugar, fake-allergy claiming nut. “Like what–?”

“Cantaloupe, turkey bacon, soy, kale, veal – on principal – and duck, except Peking.” She told him.

Valdez nodded, that wasn’t too bad. He hated turkey bacon too. “And the second thing?”

“You can’t tell me what to eat.”

“Let’s give it a shot.” Valdez agreed and stuck out his hand.

Rhea shook it.

Chili Fries

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Fifteen minutes later, Rhea drove up to Tommy’s. It was after three. Only a few of the late night boys were still out, hanging around on the corner. They were the not-so-beautiful. Thank God for that. She was determined to resist the urge and these were easier to ignore than the finer ones who got swooped up before eleven.

She pulled into the drive-through lane, behind a car full of Stoners.

The speaker squawked. “Welcometotommy’swhatchoowant?”

Stoner driver yelled back, “Two big motherfucking tacos and a, a–”

The speaker squawked, “We don’t have no tacos–”

“And a couple Chimmichangas–” Stoner carried on.

Squawker drowned him out, “This is Tommy’s, man–”

Stoner blasted on, “And some nachos and a–”

Squawker blasted back, “We don’t have that shit, man, lookit the menu-”

The three stoners stared at the backlit plastic menu for forever. No comprende. Rhea was hungry. And annoyed. She looked around and saw a white boy with long legs, sitting on the cement wall next to the drive-through, nursing a coke. He was definitely not ragged. And it looked like his jeans had a button fly – easy access. “Lordy, no–” she thought. I cannot go there. She looked back at the stoners, who were still staring at the menu, and honked. Loud. The stoners jumped and looked back at Rhea. The head Stoner yelled at her.

“Whatchoo want, baybee, Huh? How ’bout I getchoo a taco? Huh? You like a taco?”

Another stoner pulled him back in the car. Their windows were open. In the quiet late night air, Rhea heard every word, “No, man, she’s too old–”

Rhea had enough. She got out of her car, walked up to them and leaned into the driver’s window.

“Put the smoke down and look at the menu.” she ordered them. Still no comprende. She pointed to it and read, “Hamburger. Double Burger. Cheese Burger. Chili Dog. Fries. Double fries. Chili fries– and oooh! Look! there’s a burrito–” she leaned in farther and addressed the stoner who’d dissed her.

“Maybe just some plain fries for you, fat boy, you’re looking a little chunky.”

“Woo hoo hoo hoo hoo–” they started laughing. Cracking up. But did not look at the menu. Chunky boy started to unzip his fly, “I’ll show you something chunky, lady–”

Rhea pulled out her badge and slammed it against the windshield for all to see.

That really cracked them up. They laughed. Giggled. Guffawed. Higher than a kite. Rhea glanced up and saw the white boy looking at her, cooler than cool. He hesitated then came over. Shit. Rhea slipped her badge back into her pocket – she didn’t want the white boy to know she was a cop – just in case… As she straightened up, the stoners stepped on it and drove away.

“You OK?” White boy asked her, surprising her with his concern. A nice boy, huh, she thought. This was new. It turned her off a little but they were alone in the parking lot now and he was two, maybe three feet from her. Up close, he was beautiful. She could smell his skin. Irresistible. She was about to make her offer when the speaker squawked.

“Welcometotommy’swhatchoowant?” startling them.

“Jesus!” She laughed. She was nervous all of a sudden. Excited. She spoke back, “Double order of chili fries.” she turned to white boy, “You want anything? It’s on me.”

“Umm.” he said. “Just some regular fries. Thanks.”

She added an order of fries then told him, “You should get into my car. I’ll pull up to the window.” He did. Then she did. As they waited for their order, she kept looking at his forearms. They were lightly golden, kissed by the sun, well defined. And young. She wanted them holding her legs open as she swallowed a hunk of chili fries as he buried his head in her.

“You’re kind of wet.” he mentioned, looking at her hair.

“I just went swimming.”

“Nice.”

“You want to go?”

“Swimming?”

“Yeah.”

“Now?”

“After we eat. Yeah.”

“Naw.” he said. “Thanks anyway.”

He must’ve seen her badge, she thought. “I’m not gonna bust you.” she let him know.

“What?”

“I’m not vice.”

“Ah…OK.”

“So–you want to go?”

“Naw. I’m working.”

“I know. I’ll pay you.”

“For what?”

Well he was a coy one, she thought. Or maybe he was shy – new at this. Even better. It gave her a feeling of power, control. She was gonna like this. Maybe even love it.

Their order was ready. She paid then rather than pull into a parking spot and let him out, she pulled out and onto the boulevard.

“Where you going?” He asked.

At a red light she stopped and leaned over and whispered. “After we go swimming, I’m gonna eat these off of you.”

He backed away. She smiled, “It’ll be good.”

“You think I’m a whore?” he asked.

She was thrown a bit, she didn’t know what to say.

“Lady, I was killing time at Tommy’s waiting for the all-night lab on Vine to process some film I need to pick up.” He checked his watch, “It should be ready in, like, twenty minutes.”

Rhea looked straight at the road as she drove. She couldn’t look at him. She was embarrassed. And mad. He felt bad for her. He looked her over, deciding she was kind of cute.

Her left hand was on the steering wheel; her right hand was on her thigh. He reached over and took her hand.

She freaked. “What’re you doing?”

“Holding your hand.”

She pulled it away. Affection sooo wasn’t her thing.

They were stopped at a red light. She reached across him and opened his door, pointing up the street, “Vine’s half a block up–”

“Ok then. I’ll see you around.” He got out and hurried across the street, never looking back.

As she waited for the light to turn green, Rhea tore open her bag of chili cheese fries and started eating.

Night Flight

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After twenty-year-old Travis Del Rio got out of Rhea’s car he hurried across Vine to an alley a half-block up from Fountain. Three doors down, he pushed a button next to a steel door with a camera above it. Someone buzzed him in.

Inside the cavernous photo studio and lab, Travis went to the counter. A woman looked up. “Ah.” She said, “It’s ready.” She handed him a round tin film container about three inches in diameter. “Uncut.”

“Thanks Jess.” He told her, then left.

Back outside, on Vine, he looked around at the light traffic. He popped the tin into his pocket. When there were no cars on the block in either direction, he leapt straight up and disappeared into the night sky.

Travis loved flying at night. The skies, even over LA, weren’t very crowded between four and five. It just wasn’t an all-night town. New York was; Vegas was, Paris was but LA was a company town and that company was the film business and people had to be on set usually by five or six am. There were only a few flying about now, getting from one place to another or just digging the swoon through night air. There were a few birds and bugs out too, some of them he knew. Two night owls, Chloe and Drew, were perched on the HBO cable stretched above the little houses on Vista del Mar, looking for rats. But for the most part, he felt harmoniously alone. It was basically a forty second flight from Vine and Fountain to his boss’s house but Travis zipped on over to the Gelson’s on Franklin and Bronson. The upscale supermarket was open twenty-four hours. It also housed Victor Bene’s pastry shop. Travis bought a slice of Princess Cake, a blond brownie and an individual kiwi tart. To go.

Impossible

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Dr. Elena Gallows was fit. She had to be. Dealing with troubled cops was her specialty and though the battles were all mental, they wore hard on her body. She’d just come in from a morning kickboxing workout and was making a smoothie in the kitchenette of her office in little Tokyo, just 2 blocks from LAPD Headquarters. She was ready to take on the day, even ready to take on the surprise of Detective Rhea Porter knocking on her door. Their first and last session nearly two months ago was testy and when Rhea cut it short and left, Gallows didn’t really expect her back. She looked good, though. Calmer.

“No I don’t. I look like crap.” Rhea answered the shrink’s compliment.

“Here we go.” Gallows thought but Rhea softened.

“Sorry I didn’t make an appointment. Do you have time for me?”

Elena checked the clock. “I have twenty minutes.” she said then added. “It’s not going to be any easier.”

“I don’t care. I just need it to be fast.”

“That’s up to you.”

She gestured to a seat next to an orchid. Rhea sat. She looked at the orchid. It was fake. Gallows prided herself on being healthy – natural, yet here she was with a fake orchid. This made the doctor somehow flawed in Rhea’s eyes. It made her opinion matter less. Still, she needed the doctor on her side. She needed the doctor to tell Strickland that she was cured of her need for young men so he’d let her get back on the squad.

“Nice orchid.” Rhea smiled.

“Thank you.” Gallows responded. “Ready?”

“Ready.” she told the shrink.

“Let’s start with your sister.” Gallows dove in.

“OK.”

“Do you feel responsible?”

“Oh… we’re starting there.”

“Yep. You want fast. Let’s do it.”

“Ok…” Rhea let out a breath, “Yes.”

“You feel responsible.”

“I am responsible.”

“So you seek out men… young men… who cannot love you to punish yourself.”

“I seek out men who can fuck a lot for a long time because it stops me from thinking about dead kids, missing kids, abducted kids, homeless kids and how there is nothing I can do to stop it.”

“You could start with yourself.”

“No comparison. He wasn’t a kid. He was legal age and I don’t do that anymore, doctor.” Rhea lied, “Not in awhile.

Gallows checked Rhea’s file. “The one you were caught with – Kevin?”

Rhea nodded and reminded her. “Eighteen. He was eighteen.”

“So Detective Sergeant Strickland recommended suspending you because…?”

“He said it looked bad. To the division.”

“The Exploited Kids Division.” Gallows said, emphasizing “kids”.

“He was eighteen.” Rhea repeated.

“And a pro.” Gallows added.

Rhea opened her hands, gesturing that either she didn’t know or it didn’t matter, then added, “That’s on him.”

Gallows let it go. She had another direction to explore: “Maybe Detective Strickland was also concerned about you.” She told Rhea.

There was no way Rhea was gonna tell a shrink who worked for the force that Strickland had a thing for her; that maybe he was jealous; that maybe he was inappropriately using authority to punish her for his desire. Rhea couldn’t prove any of it and Gallows would take months delving into it. Gallows was a shrink. And shrinks loved shrinking. Better to give her less to shrink about.

“Maybe…” Rhea answered.

“Do you like being a cop?” Gallows asked, changing direction again.

“Yes.” Rhea answered.

“Why?”

“I like busting bad guys.”

“You feel like you’re making a difference?”

“No. I’ve busted forty-two preds in seventeen years. Each time I thought it was going to change things– well, at least slow down the horror. It did not make one bit of difference. Kid trafficking”, she answered, emphasizing ‘kid’, — is a booming business.”

“So… forty-two days out of seventeen years you liked your job?”

“No. I like going to work. I like chasing some bastard down. I like thinking it might be the one who took Aggie. I still like thinking I might find her.”

Gallows checked her file again, “It’s been how long–?”

“Twenty two years. She was five.” they were both quiet for awhile. “There’s a chance.” Rhea affirmed.

“OK. Look, Detective–” Gallows sounded blunt–

“I’m done with them. With younger men.” Rhea interrupted.

Gallows ignored her, “You are not only not going to get your job back any time soon, you’re going to end up in jail if you don’t stop with the boys. And you can’t stop until you stop the need to destroy yourself.”

“No–” Rhea shook her head.

“I know this is tough–”

“No no no–” Rhea went on.

“But to do that, we have to get you to a place where you can feel good about yourself and to do that–”

“Don’t say it–” Rhea kept on.

“–like I told you before, you will have to forgive yourself for what happened to your sister.”

Without hesitation, Rhea affirmed, “Not gonna happen.”

“It can be powerful. Forgiveness.”

Rhea matched her, “My power is guilt.”

Gallows looked at the clock. Time was up. She shook Rhea’s hand and held on to it as she looked her in the eye. “Fridays are good. Before nine or after four thirty. When you’re ready.” Gallows smiled then let go.

Rhea left.

Photo I.D.

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It was a green curry wan that beckoned Rhea hardest. ‘Toolong’ on Hollywood Boulevard was a tiny, cheap joint wedged between a used appliance store and Mel Pierce Camera. She had always thought they had a so-so Kee Mao but a pretty decent Pad See Ew. But she’d never tried their Wan. She found a parking spot only a half block away – a miracle in LA. As she approached, she passed by three young men hanging around outside.

“You shouldn’t eat alone.” the one with olive skin and a careless vibe whispered as she opened Toolong’s decaled door, around nine that night. She’d intended to write the sexy parts of her reviews based on memories and fiction – but this one smelled like clean cotton T shirts and summer skin. He smelled like youth. She didn’t intentionally hold the door open for an extra second but maybe she did.

She took the booth farthest from the front windows. He slipped in across from her.

“What’re we having?”

She pulled two menus from the slot behind the bottle of soy sauce and slid him one. As he looked it over, she wasn’t quite sure he could read. The waitress showed up.

“Something to drink?”

“A Tsing Dao” Rhea told her “For me and…”

He nodded, “Me too.”

“You have some ID?” The waitress asked him.

Though his ID said twenty-one, Rhea was pretty sure he was younger.

“But all we’re doing is eating.” She thought, then ordered,

“Green Curry Wan, Pad See Ew, Phad Thai and…” she looked at the kid. He smiled,

“Whatever you want.”

“Chicken Sa-Tae.” Rhea closed her menu. The waitress left.

“So…?” She asked him.

“Andy.”

“Andy. Yeah,” she thought. And my name is Beyonce. Still, the less she knew, the better. And… all they were doing was talking.

“Been in L.A. very long, Andy?” She asked as the waitress brought them their beers.

“’bout three years. I’m from St. Paul.” He answered and told her he’d left there so he wouldn’t be a burden on his mom who “Praise God” had beaten cancer but still had a lot of bills to pay. It was an OK story, good for playing the “heartstrings” card. He even wore a saint’s medal around his neck, which he fondled: Saint Nicholas. Patron saint of children.

Even if it wasn’t just a prop, Rhea didn’t want to tell him there wasn’t any God or any saint that protects kids so she let him ramble on… about video games, comic books and bands. While all she could think about was how smooth his arms were, how soft his lips as he mouthed the neck of that beer; how young his dick was, how good it would feel and how bad this could be for her… Trying to concentrate on her new job, she got out her notebook and wrote down a few words.

“What’re you doing?” He asked.

“Writing.”

“Is that your new job?”

She looked at him.

“Kevin’s a friend of mine.”

Ah. Her reputation preceded her. She wanted to ask how Kevin was – if he was still on probation. She hadn’t seen him around. Not that she was looking. But she missed him a little. She’d come close with him.

“I made more money when I knew Kevin.” Was all she said, letting Andy downsize his expectations.

“That’s ok.” he smiled. She felt that familiar, addictive throb between her legs and smiled back.

The waitress brought the food just then. As she set it down, he told her,

“We’ll get this to-go.”

Semi Dark

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The food was getting cold and they were getting hungrier as Rhea drove past the third in a row of her favorite dark parking places… but it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet and there were too many people around.

“The alley behind IHOP is pretty good–” Andy offered.

“They closed it off.” she let him know, “Construction”

“The streets around Michelortenia?”

“Zero parking.”

“Pico?”

They both shook their head.

“Your place…?” He asked, casually. Hopefully.

“No.”

Though she and Kevin had gotten busted in her car and it clearly wasn’t a good idea to fuck in it anymore and they were only about a mile from Rhea’s apartment, she sure as hell didn’t want any of these guys there. It was just too personal. And besides, Strickland was on call that night. He could be home. No way would she risk him seeing her with this kid. If anyone was going to see her going down again, so to speak, it wasn’t going to be him. In a way, she loved him. She sure as hell respected him. He’d tried so hard for so many years to be a friend to her.

SHe started to wonder what the hell she was doing. “This is a bad idea.” she told Andy and headed back toward Toolong’s. “You can have the food and I’ll give you ten bucks, but–”

He was quiet. He nodded; seemed OK with her decision.

“I just can’t risk this right now–” she tried to explain.

“That’s OK.” he agreed. “It’s still early. I’ll find another one.”

She laughed. “I’m sure you will.”

She stopped at a stop sign.

“It’s warm out.” he said. She nodded. “Yeah. Well, it’s August…”

“Yeah.” he agreed then pulled off his T shirt. She tried to keep her eyes on the road but his arms, his shoulders, his chest– the fitness of youth was something to savor.

“Thanks for the food. OK if I eat?” he said and opened a carton of Phad Thai.

“Sure.” she said and glanced over. He thrust a finger into the carton, then two – deep into it, the angle of his thrust let her know he knew what she wanted. He rubbed the nub of a prawn that stuck out, circling it. He pulled his fingers out and sucked the sauce off. “It’s still warm.”

She looked away. Kept driving. She was hot; wiped her brow.

“Want a taste?” he asked. Before she could answer he leaned across her, pressing down on her then he opened her mouth and put some noodles inside. They were thick and warm and flecked with heat; she let them slip down her throat. His fingers lingered; she sucked them. He pulled them out.

She drove up Cahuenga then down Odin to a little street below the Hollywood reservoir. It was quiet and almost dark. She parked, jammed against a clump of chaparral. He grabbed her legs and pulled her to him, kissing her neck, her shoulder, the hollow beneath her collar bone. He pulled her T shirt down with his teeth then sucked her breast as he pulled off her underwear. She grabbed his head and shoved it down, down down. He draped a string of noodles around her core.

“Jesus. They’re cold!”

He leaned in and blew warm breath on her, then sucked and ate and blew until she screamed.

“Get the fuck in me NOW.”

He reached down, unzipped with one hand, then came up to her. A second before he parted her, she shoved him away.

“No, no. No dipping.”

He grabbed her hand and put it on him. “Feel it–”

“Use your fingers–”

A little pissed, he asked, “Why?”

“Because it doesn’t count–!”

He put his face back into her. And his hands. But he wasn’t that into it anymore. She moved against him, harder and harder.

A loud sudden THWUMP! Rocked the car, scaring them. He jerked up, hitting his head. “What the fuck?!”

Rhea looked out the window and saw a coyote skulking up the street. There were coyote footprints on the hood of her car. Andy rubbed his head.

“You OK?” She asked him. He nodded then zipped back up. They were done.

Rhea grabbed a napkin out of the bag and wiped herself off. “What a waste.” She muttered.

“You can just give me forty.” He told her. “And a ride back.”

She closed the boxes of food and put them in their bag. She dug into her purse. She gave him twenty bucks. Neither said another word. She dropped him off on Cahuenga then went home.

Rhea parked in her spot in the underground garage of the Laurel apartments then hurried up the ramp and past the pool in the courtyard. She opened the door of number 114 and went inside.

She slammed the Thai Food into her microwave; nuked it then ate it with a cold Tecate by her open window. God she hated herself. She’d failed at absolutely everything in her life and now this… thirty eight years old and she still couldn’t come. She wondered why people always said “Failure wasn’t an option.” It was always an option… hence flavored coffee, anything soy, Domino’s pizza… Now here she was in the warm nicotine light of an LA summer night thinking up frothy innuendo for two bits a word and all the oyster sauce she could eat.

She opened her notepad and read the words she’d written there. “Noodles. Sticky. Young lips.”

She ate the nuked Thai food. She thought, then she wrote more on the paper pad:

“–I kissed pungent curry wan oozing from blistered chicken hunks dense with a lingering heat– And under a coyote moon with Phad Thai dripping down my thighs, good lord he made me smile – like every other time I’ve ever said ‘yes’ to a man or a meal that could set me on fire…”

She crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash. She grabbed another beer and went outside to the courtyard. It was late. All the apartments were dark. She sat in a faded plastic chair by the pool. It was quiet except for the soft constant whisper of cars driving by outside.

A moving shadow startled her as a young coyote darted from behind a trash bin. It stopped when it saw her – stared her down, unafraid. It skulked away and slipped out the open courtyard door, heading up Laurel, toward the hills. And coming from somewhere in those hills she could hear the distant sound of a pack of coyotes howl.

Rhea shivvered. She looked at her phone. Three AM. When the quiet settles into the cracks of the night and the ghosts in the air kiss your skin…

Two Bits a Word

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Rhea leaned in the doorway of Manny’s office, eating a strawberry swirl ice cream sandwich. She was watching him as he finished reading her Toolong review. She was nervous, hoping he liked it. He blushed as he got to the part where she’d written “… I licked the last bit of peanut sauce off his left ball, trying to cool us both down. The hint of sesame oil in that salty butter eased us into the eve’s last hour. As his hands slipped from my head, I left him there, sated by fat noodles of buckwheat flour.”

“Poetic.” he glanced at her, still blushing. It made her laugh.

“It’s OK?” she needed to know.

“The curry thing was five-ninety-five?” he asked.

Rhea nodded, “Sorry. I’ll try and watch that.”

“OK.” He nodded, “The rest seems OK.”

“Great.” she let out her breath. “So when do I get paid?”

“You like Mexican food–?” he changed the subject.

“Who doesn’t?”

“You like Posole?”

“Of course.”

“You tried the one at Tres Hermanos?”

“Are you kidding?”

“It’s good.”

“They buy their tortillas at Ralph’s.” she informed him.

“Don’t be a snob.”

“On a five buck limit?”

“Ok. OK…” he let it go for now then informed her, “You get paid Thursday, when it prints.”

“OK, I’ll see you Thursday–” she started to leave. He stopped her, “Did you really? In the car… or– ”

“Or?” she asked him.

“Did you make that up?”

“Yes, Manny.” she answered, “I really ate in my car.”

She again started to leave. Manny stacked her notepad pages. “I’ll type this up this time but next time use a word doc and email it to me or use your phone and message it.”

“I always use paper.”

“I am your boss you know.”

“I know.” She nodded. “I know.”

Piece of Cake

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Rhea had been using paper to take notes ever since she got her first notepad from Strickland when she was sixteen, a terrified kid looking to him for hope on the darkest night of her life.

“…write down anything you remember.” He’d told her as he wrote his phone number on the pad, “Anything at all, then call me. Anytime.”

She wished she could call him now, she thought as she snuck past his apartment. She wished she could call and tell him how sorry she was for letting him down. He’d tell her “You can do better.” She’d try not to cry. He’d put a hand on her shoulder, careful not to hold her close. Then tomorrow they’d carry on, trying to make a dent in the booming business of child exploitation… and still trying to find who kidnapped her sister 22 years ago.

The door to apartment 112 opened.

“Rent was due yesterday, Rhea.” the 60 year old apartment manager wheezed at her.

“I paid you–” she started.

“Seven hundred. You owe nine fifty.” he finished.

She dug into her purse and gave him all the cash she had: eighty four bucks. “I’ll have the rest on Thursday.”

“plus the late fee.”

“Yes, Cubby, I know.”

She opened the door to 114 and went inside. Her studio was tiny. A sofa bed slammed up against the kitchen counter and a little desk in a corner filled the room. She got a beer out of the little half-fridge and opened a bag of Maui onion potato chips. She turned on her old Sony TV to PBS. A Huell Hauser rerun was on. Porto’s Bakery. An entire show about cake. Mango cheesecake. White chocolate raspberry mousse. Kiwi meringue torte. Grand Mariner with chocolate ganache. Lemon curd pound cake. Vanilla custard cake with pineapple filling… every single one reminded her of her sister.

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