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story | 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.”

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.

Marigold Walls

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The marigold colored walls of Barragan’s main room screamed sunshine. Rhea headed for the darkness of the bar. It was a little after seven on “Dollar Taco Monday” – an easy choice for her first review. The tacos were OK – somewhere between the fresh grilled asada ones at the Saturday night Pop-ups on Yale St. and the ones at Taco Bell. And at a buck a piece she could easily meet Manny’s five dollar limit.

She sat at the end bar stool next to a long verticle window. where she had a sliver of a view of the street outside. Sunset Boulevard started in heart of Boyle Heights – as Cesar Chavez Boulevard – it danced west through the brightly colored hood that defined LA’s origins; it shot past Chinatown where its name changed to Sunset then wove through the hip haunts of Hollywood – gliding past the glitz of the strip, winding through half a dozen stately hoods dripping with the trappings of wealth glimpsed through high hedges and iron gates before it sailed down its final hill and ended at the Pacific. Quite a street. And her view of the Hollywood boys strutting down it was a treat.

“San Miguel dark, right?” The bartender smiled at her. She smiled back,

“Yeah Ernie, thanks. And five tacos. Mixed.”

He slid her the beer and wrote up her order. She took a swig. After thinking a little, she took out her phone. She opened her notepad app and wrote a few words: “Dollar tacos. Back room. Sunset Boys. San Miguel.” She looked out the window, straining to see the boys on the street. It was a good spot to check them out – and maybe she’d find one to share a few tacos with. Several potentials hustled by. But it was still light out and she could see the frays on the edges of their strut and the tired in their eyes. This glimpse of reality sometimes made her wonder what the hell she was doing. Sometimes it even made her vow to quit. She wanted someone with hope and plans and laughter and sincere lust for her. But then dusk would fall and the boys looked better and her need overcame her vow.

A waiter brought Rhea her tacos, a display of chorizo, beefy oxtail, lime chicken, herbs, beans and cacique cream encased in fried tortillas. Heaven. She looked back out the window, maybe someone to share with would walk by. A scruffy girl about sixteen came into view, carrying an overstuffed blue IKEA bag. Rhea drained half the beer in a single gulp, wrapped the tacos in a few napkins, slapped ten dollars on the counter, took the tacos and left.

Outside, Rhea looked for the girl. She hurried past a mobile covid vax truck and two food trucks parked behind it, selling fried chicken, plantains and waffles to the newly vaxxed.

Rhea spotted the girl on the corner. She approached her.

“Sheena?” Rhea said, close behind. The girl turned.

“Officer Porter!” she cried out, recognizing Rhea.

The girl seemed shaky. Are you OK?” Rhea asked her.

“Yeah. Yeah…” Sheena answered, unconvincingly then looked at the napkin-wrapped bundle Rhea was holding. “Those tacos?”

Rhea offered them to her, “One is chorizo.”

Sheena flashed a brief smile as she took four of the little tacos, leaving the chorizo one. “I’ve been looking for you. Where’ve you been?”

“Sorta on a break.” Rhea explained then asked again, “Everything OK?”

Sheena wolfed a taco. Finally she answered, “No.”

“What happened?” Rhea asked.

“Nothing happened really, it’s just… There’s this smell…”

“Where?”

“Down by camp.”

Rhea looked at Sheena’s IKEA bag, “So you’re moving?”

She nodded “Just until it goes away… ”

“It’s that bad?”

“Yeah.” Sheena confirmed.

Rhea tried to offer an explanation, “It’s probably just all the trash there. Or maybe all the piss, soaking the ground.”

“No…” Sheena said, kind of slow. Something was bothering her.

“Could be the muck in the L.A. River.” was Rhea’s next idea.

Sheena looked her in the eye, “It’s kind of a scary smell.”

Remains

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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.

“There.”

“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.

Baseball Nut

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It was Detective Sergeant Matt Strickland’s night off. He’d had Stouffer’s lasagna for dinner, with an added sprinkle of romano, grilled to bubbling in a toaster oven. He’d watered the 57 succulents he kept on the screened-in little terrace of his ground-floor one-bedroom Hollywood apartment. He’d watched the nine o’clock news then taken four herbal sleep aids. He woke up fast when his cell phone buzzed. When he heard Rhea’s familiar cadence, “Hey Strickland–” he was fully awake.

“Detective– ” he automatically responded, “Are you ok? Where are you?”

“Fine. Cesar Chavez, a half block up from Pleasant. Place called Domingos.” She said no more. She didn’t need to.

He already had one leg in his pants. He hung up, stuck his other leg in, gave his balls a sprinkle with Gold Bond, swished a mouthful of Listerine, shrugged on a worn-out short-sleeved shirt, grabbed his gun and was out the door.

Nineteen minutes later he was inside Domingos, standing next to Rhea, looking down at the three small bodies. He took out his phone and called it in. Rhea hung close, trying to hear as he asked dispatch who was available to partner.

“Who’s coming in?” she asked him after he hung up. He ignored her and looked back at the dead.

“Think they died of smoke?” Rhea asked him for an early opinion.

He knelt down and looked closely at the girls’ sooty mouths. “Probably but…” He looked around “If there was enough smoke to kill them… why wasn’t a fire called in?”

“Grease fire…?” she suggested.

He agreed with the probability. He looked around the room. There were no other exits— “Just these two doors. Locked.” He looked at her. She agreed, pointing to the kitchen door. “I busted that one down.”

“Three girls. Locked in.” he continued his early questions, adding, “Mexican?”

Rhea looked back at them. “I’d say so. They have that beauty.”

He looked around the room again; he peered into empty cupboards and into the empty pantry. Rhea spotted a dense cobweb strung from a corner of a worn counter to the wall. She blew on it. Dusty smoke scattered.

“This place has been closed for awhile.” she realized.

He nodded. “Might be a stash joint.”

“For Illegals.” She said. He nodded again, still thinking. She watched them for a minute, sad. “Some sanctuary city we are…”

He went over to the stove, he studied the burned food that had exploded against the wall. “Probably just cooking some dinner and it caught fire.”

Rhea nodded, “Still… somebody locked them in. Once we find them–”

He turned and gave her a long look. “We?”

Rhea ignored him. She looked closer at the burnt food on the wall.

“Have you even gone to therapy?” Strickland asked.

“Yes.” Rhea answered then looked away, concentrating on some sticky white blob on the counter. Strickland watched as she smelled it. She searched the room for a trash can, finding one in a corner, she looked inside. There were some plastic utensils, two empty soda cans, an empty refied bean can dusted in soot.

She went back to the blob. She looked at Strickland.

“I wouldn’t.” He told her.

She tapped it then licked her finger. She tasted and concentrated. Finally a revelation: “Baseball Nut.”

“What?” Strickland asked.

“It’s Baseball Nut ice cream. Baskin Robbins.”

“You sure?” Strickland asked.

“Yeah.” she was sure. “They only have it in the summer. It’s pretty good. Vanilla with raspberry swirl and cashews.”

Strickland paused, taking a moment to acknowledge her deduction. “I’ll be sure to tell Dawson when he gets here–”

“Dawson.” Rhea shook her head.

“Dawson is a good cop–” he tried to cut her off.

She argued, “Dawson’s wants a headline. There’s no print in dead illegals. He’ll ditch it.”

“Maybe it’s just a fire, and that’s all.” Strickland ended it for now.

Rhea looked back at the bodies on the floor; studying them. Powerless.

Outside, across the river the photographer stood on the bank, searching the skyline. Her name was Daisy Valentine. She was twenty-seven years old. Her blonde hair hung down her back. Her t-shirt said “Endeavour”. Her stance was strong and patient as her eyes searched the skyline for any more puffs of light. Her Pentax was strung around her neck. She held it in her hand, supporting the old zoom lens; The moon was full and rising. She moved her lens until it reflected a beam of moonlight then bounced it over the river bed, pooling its way across the crack in Domingos’ bolted back door.

Inside Domingos’ kitchen, that reflected moonlight found its way through that crack and crossed over the dead girls like a laser. It hit something purple on one of their bodies. It shimmered, catching Rhea’s eye. She looked closer. Transfixed. A sound caught in her throat, a cry. Strickland turned to her and looked at what she was looking at. On one of the dead girl’s wrists – barely visible but now glinting in the sliver of moonlight – was a plastic bracelet with a purple tin charm on it that advertised “Boom Boom Carneceria. Ensenada. Mexico.”

Cold Tacos

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Strickland stared at the cheap little Boom Boom charm. He knew this could mean something. It could mean everything to Rhea.

Or… “It could be nothing.” He reminded her.

“Boom Boom is two doors down from Joe’s–!” Rhea nearly yelled, hating that she was getting emotional.

“I know where it is.” Strickland broke in. “But not every kid that goes missing near Boom Boom was snatched—”

“One was.” She reminded him.

“All I am saying is, you know how this goes– we’ll follow the evidence, but–”

“You need me on this.” She interrupted, emboldened.

“As soon as Dr. Gallows clears you.”

“Eighteen, Strickland. The guy was eighteen–”

“He’d been eighteen for four days.”

“Still… Legal.” She pointed out. Not for the first time. “And this is my case.”

“It’s the Department’s.” he corrected her.

“No pay.” she bargained with him, “The department won’t have to pay me. I’ll stay on unpaid leave and just work this-” Rhea gestured toward the dead girls. He saw the urgency in her eyes and the clarity. He knew she’d be an asset to the case. He knew he probably should let her back on the squad. But she’d messed up. Finding her with some teen going down on her in the back seat of her car set a bad example. Yeah the kid was eighteen and she’d hadn’t paid him – yet – or officially broken the law but Strickland was pissed at her. And hurt. Why she chose barely legal boys was beyond him. He’d invested so much in her. He’d taught her everything he knew about life. About being a cop. He knew he didn’t have a chance of influencing her romantic or sexual choices but he sure as hell was going to make her pay for her bad judgement.

“Go home.” he told her, trying to usher her out of the room.

“I’ve stopped– I promise. OK?”

He turned away as they heard cars drive up. He walked toward the door. She followed.

“OK?”

“Go home.” He told her again as he held the door open for her to leave.

Outside, Rhea crossed over Chavez and sat on a cement bridge railing.

She watched as three of her colleagues walked into Domingos: The CSI tech, the ME and smarmy Detective Dawson. It was hard being outside. She was burning with anger. This was her case. And what if–? What if it led to what happened to her sister outside Boom Boom twenty two years ago? Maybe she should go to the chief – tell him she’d been wrongly probated– But she knew he’d only listen to Strickland. Man she was hungry. She wondered if nearby Guisados was open. She wondered what young men were hanging out at Tommy’s or Torung or Alegria, eating Dim Sum and Phad Thai and French Fries and how nice it would be to eat an onion ring off of one of them. She shook her head to get those thoughts out of it. She forced her mind back to the scene and waited. She looked over the bridge, below it the 101 and the 10 freeways converged. She watched the streaks of red tail lights pouring into LA. This was nearly the exact same spot she was at on her first night in LA., completely alone at seventeen. Twenty plus years later and here she was again, still looking for her sister. What a fucking failure.

She sniffed the air, then sniffed her clothes. She pulled the last Barragan’s taco out of her pocket. The napkins it was wrapped in were blotched with grease. She ate it. It was cold and flattened but still pretty good. She opened her phone notepad. She typed a few words: sausage, ancho, warm night, dollar.

Half an hour later, the ME gently carted three small body bags out. He glanced across the street as he closed the back of the morgue van. He saw Rhea. He raised one hand in a small, inconspicuous wave. She did the same, acknowledging the solidarity. He was the only one who contacted her after her back-seat bust by Vice nine and a half weeks ago and her subsequent temporary expulsion for “indecent behavior”.

Another twenty minutes later, Strickland and Detective Dawson left Domingos and headed four and a half blocks to Main Street Headquarters downtown.

Rhea got in her car and followed. She parked her LeBaron outside and waited for Strickland and Dawson to come out. She was impatient. She took out her phone. She went to an INFO app she used to find addresses and looked up Domingos’ address. She got the name of an owner. She looked him up. He owned a furniture warehouse on Palmetto near Fourth. Just under twelve blocks away. “Furniture. Well hmmm–” she thought. She started her car and took off, heading south, toward Fourth Street.

Inside Headquarters, on the sixth floor, Strickland was online, using department software to find who owned Domingos. He loved that the internet sped all this up. Twenty years ago, he’d have to wait for “business hours” and then call around and visit the various records departments. But back then, they almost had a handle on child exploitation, child trafficking and kid porn. They were almost closing in on it; it felt like they could see an end. But now? No way. The internet was a sickos playground and there were millions of sickos in the world.

Four minutes into his search, he had a name: Leland Hays.

Peanut Butter Cups

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Fifty-four year old Leland Hays was aging well. But then again, it was LA. In his mind, he was thirty two and after years of Juvederm injections, botox and a chin implant, he looked about forty four. Still hot enough to get cool girls. Right then on the showroom floor of his furniture warehouse, he was bending a boyish young Thai waitress over the end of an antique platform bed he’d just imported from China and slamming her from behind. Then he bent her over an Indonesian loveseat, then a Moroccan chaise until he finally came in her over an oversized ottoman sadly re-upholstered in a purple and gold polyester damask. Not his best piece. He loved antiques. Though these pieces he imported were faux-antiques, they were mostly still beautiful and people in LA paid a decent price for them.

The waitress was quiet the whole time. He liked that. He’d told her that if she was quiet, he’d give her a present. She did make some noise when she unwrapped a peanut butter cup and ate it when she was bent over the chaise but other than that, she was good. He let her pick out a small punched tin Mexican light for her apartment before kicking her out.

Rhea was parked across the street from the loading dock of the Palmetto Street warehouse. Next to it was a little green door under a nondescript sign that read: H&H Imports. She stared at the door, wondering what to do. She still had her badge. She kept it tucked in a kleenex packet in her glove box, hoping she’d be re-instated at any moment. Though she wasn’t supposed to use it, she had. Twice. Once for free valet-parking at the Grove and once for a free Metro ride to Santa Monica. Using it now could really piss Strickland off… if he found out. She figured she had about another twenty minutes to decide; she was sure he’d be over here himself with Dawson pretty soon.

The green street door opened. A young Thai woman hurried out, carrying a Mexican lamp. The woman got in her Kia and drove away. Rhea opened her glove box, unwrapped her badge and got out of her car.

Hays had decided to do some inventory. He was in his office when someone started banging on the street door. He thought maybe the girl had forgotten something. He opened his door still wearing his bathrobe. A woman cop named Porter who smelled like cilantro thrust a badge in his face and wanted to know if he owned a place called Domingos on Cesar Chavez.

He knew she knew the answer so he told her he did. “Why?” he asked her, “What’s going on?”

Before Rhea could answer, Strickland was beside her. Dawson was right behind.

“What the Hell–?” Hays asked.

“There was a fire in the kitchen at Domingos.” Strickland stepped up, shooting Rhea a look and moving in front of her.

Rhea bristled when Dawson added, “We found three bodies. Girls. Probably died trying to get out.”

“Was it bad?” Hays asked.

“Well.” Rhea commented, jostling for relevance, “There’s three dead girls in there.”

“Know anything about them?” Dawson continued, showing Hays a snap of the dead girls. Hays looked quickly and shoved it away, like he’d been dirtied.

“No. No – it’s a bar. We don’t let kids in there. Maybe they’re neighborhood kids who broke in or something and couldn’t get out–”

“Any of your employees have kids they might’ve brought there. Any of your friends?”

“No. Besides, it’s been closed for a couple weeks now–”

“Why’s that?” Strickland asked, trying to get back into it.

“The place was strictly an investment. It used to be packed. Hip types used to come in for a beer and a game of pool after doing their foodie thing on Breed Street. But ever since the city shut down all the taco pushers a year or so ago, the foodies stopped coming around. Business dried up. I opened on weekends for awhile but not recently. I was really never there and frankly, I haven’t even driven by in over a week.” He waved his hand over the warehouse, “Furniture is my main business.”

He stepped aside, allowing them a glance into the warehouse. It was cursory but something caught Rhea’s eye.

“Anyone else have access to Domingo’s, Mr. Hays? A manager, bartender, friend?” Strickland continued.

“I had a bartender but I laid her off when I closed the place. She gave her key back.” Hays told him.

“What’s her name?”

“Ahhh…” he thought for a moment, “Myrna.”

“Last name?”

Hays ran his hand through a shock of sandy blond hair plugs. “I really can’t remember.”

“Want to check your records for us? Give us a name?” Dawson asked. Hays was quiet. “No records?” Dawson pressed.

“She came in, asked for a job. She said she’d work for tips.” Hays smiled, “I’m sure she reported them all. I trust people, Detective… it’s the only way to get through life.”

“Where do you get your product from?” Rhea asked, casually.

“China, Indonesia, Thailand, a little from India, even a little from France.” Hays answered, always the salesman. “You looking for something in particular? We have good price on beds right now.”

Rhea ignored him. She pointed to a spot inside, where a rustic Mexican desk stood. “That. What’s that? Indian?”

“Ahh… Mexican.” Hays answered as Strickland looked back at Rhea. “We get a little of that but not much. Hard to compete with La Fuente and Direct From Mexico. I can give you a police discount. Five percent.”

“Thanks. Let me think about it.” Rhea said, then added “You mind if I take a quick picture?”

Hays stepped aside, gesturing for her to go ahead. As Rhea took her phone out and snapped a picture of the desk, Strickland followed her lead and asked:

“How long have you been in the furniture business, Mr. Hays?”

“Too long” Hays laughed, “A little over thirty years.”

Dawson gave Hays his card and told him to call if he remembered anything.

Hays had one last question, “Let me ask you– do you get rid of the bodies or–”

Dawson explained that they’d handle it and let him know when he could have access back to Domingos. “Might be a week. Maybe less.” He told him. Hays nodded.

As the detectives started to leave, Strickland turned back. “One last thing,” he asked, “You have insurance on the bar, right?”

Hays nodded, “As basic as it gets. I’ll be lucky if they pay for a coat of paint. Believe me, I’m the one losing out here.”

“And the dead girls.” Strickland reminded him.

A smile slid onto Hays’s face like a cat’s second eyelid. “Of course, Detective; goes without saying.” He closed the door.

Rhea held back as Strickand and Dawson walked away.

The two men reached Dawson’s car. It was parked next to Rhea’s. They waited for her to catch up.

“That wasn’t cool, Porter.” Dawson started in on her.

Rhea walked to her car, opened her car doo, paused and turned back to him,

“Say hi to Stacey for me.”

Dawson nodded.

“You’ve been together a long time, yeah?” she asked, lingering; waiting for Strickland to get closer, within earshot.

“Ten years.” Dawson admitted, curious–

“What is she now, almost twenty-six?” Rhea commented. She looked at Strickland, got in her car and drove away.

“What a piece of work.” Dawson muttered after she’d gone.

“You know her story–” Strickland started to defend her; “Sister got taken in Ensenada–”

Dawson shrugged. “Long time ago, yeah?”

Strickland nodded, “We think she was taken by some guy bringing furniture up to LA.

Dawson shrugged again; his arm gestured the myriad of warehouses, half a dozen were furniture importers. “We’ll see what we see.”

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.

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