Bella Terra Restaurant, Los Angeles…2009
Ever notice that there never seems to be a quiet moment in a restaurant? It’s just an observation. I mean I’ve never actually owned one or worked in one, but I eat in them all the time, six days out of seven since returning to bachelor status. I don’t know, maybe early mornings, before the staff arrives, or late at night when its time to lock up? Those might be good times to grab a moment’s peace? I wonder about that whenever I think about the Manzano brothers, Johnny and Angelo or when I’m remembering Lu and Jai, my favorite swishy Asians. It’s hard to believe that they’re gone. It’s harder still to believe the murder suicide theory that Oscar and his minions were trying to sell to John Q. Public. I’ve been in this business long enough to know things are rarely exactly what they appear to be, especially at first glance.
You know, another saying my old mother was fond of sharing was, “the apple’s always sweeter near the core.” It was part of her whole “patience is a virtue” lecture series. The point is I knew those two guys pretty darn well. After all, I’ve been noshing on freebies at their deli for better than twenty years. This puzzle wouldn’t be that easy to solve. From the proper angle even 2 plus 2 isn’t a sure thing. Besides, there’s no way either one of them could have murdered the other. Even a card carrying homophobe like me could see they were in love, truly in love. Those guys (that’s right I said guys) had the kind of love every girl dreams of and every fella fears. The kind that merged two lives, blended them, and transformed them, from individual to couple. Seriously, until I met Lu and Jai I can honestly say that I never really understood what it meant to be a ‘couple.’ But I digress...
Fat Johnny stirred a huge pot of Mama Manzano’s famous Sicilian marinara sauce on the front burner. It must have been near ready because he was also dipping some crusty bread into the pot and giving it a taste.
“HEY, knucklehead, whatta ya doing, you’re going to get sauce all over your suit! Mama mia, we gotta go in fifteen minutes Johnny, we’ll be late for the service,” scolded brother Angelo! Johnny looked down at his white shirt and black silk tie, checking for splash stains. There weren’t any, luckily. He turned to face his nagging older brother and pointed at his clothes with half a loaf of bread. He would have fired off a snappy reply too if not for the fact that the other half of the loaf was sticking from out of his mouth as he chewed. Instead he grunted and gave the pot another lazy stir.
“Lovely,” replied Angelo as he stormed out of the kitchen and out into the restaurant.
Johnny chuckled, stepped away fro the stove and removed the dish towel tucked into his waistband. He folded it quickly and draped it through the bar on the pizza oven door then followed his brother out of the kitchen. He didn’t want to be late to the little homo’s funeral either. I’d meet up with them there later, but first I had some unfinished business with Dr. Looney, strictly business, unfortunately.
UCLA, Molecular Sciences Building
Just being on the enemy’s campus couldn’t be wrong, could it? I mean it’s not a venal sin or anything; Judy was pretty sure about that. But, just to be on the safe side, she made a mental note to keep this visit short and remember to light a candle before Mass on Sunday. Actually, she wouldn’t have had to come here at all if not for a piece of special equipment she needed to use. Why the Bruins could afford one and Tommy Trojan couldn’t was beyond her? It wasn’t worth pondering though; those decisions were made way above her pay grade anyway. All she knew was that she needed time on the machine in order to answer a few nagging questions that involved the blue threads I had left with her a few days ago.
Apparently Doctor Looney had hastily drawn her conclusions and was feeling a little guilty. Or maybe she felt sorry for me after giving me the bum’s rush earlier today? Okay, that was probably wishful thinking on my part. Anyway, between bites of her cup-o-noodles supper she had an epiphany and presto the need for the XHR SEM at UCLA. Judy had access to a scanning electron microscope on her home turf, but the one on the Bruin campus was much sexier. It was an XHR model, an extra high resolution SEM. And Judy Looney wasn’t above using her physical attributes to worm her way into whatever lab housed that unit. Apparently I wasn’t the only fella trying to coax her back onto team hetero! So after wolfing down the last of her workaholic meal she changed into her very best pair of guy friendly jogging shorts and her favorite one size too small USC sweatshirt, minus the sports bra of course, fishing was always better when the girls swung free. Whichever lab tech was her admirer, he (or she, I shouldn’t assume) didn’t stand a chance!
“Sweet,” exclaimed Judy, spotting a space right in front of Young Hall, right next to the Molecular Sciences Building!
Down-shifting her little two seat sports car, a Mazda Miata (not her dream ride, but on her salary it would have to do), she whipped into the prized slot and screeched to a halt. The maneuver was totally unnecessary this hour of the day, but Judy loved her new toy and she took every opportunity to show off her sports car skills. If memory served she thought, Ernie Namura would be noshing on a NY style pizza right about now, and likely craving a cold one to help wash it down. She reached around and tapped her backpack with her key ring and listened for the reassuring clunk of metal to glass. Satisfied with the dull retort she locked the car with the beeper and headed toward the building entrance.
Ernie had been one of her less than stellar undergrad students a couple of years ago. But where he came up short scholastically made up for as a teacher’s pet, satisfying her Starbucks addiction every morning like clockwork, occasionally adding a cheese Danish for good measure! She wasn’t sure if it was a grade he was after or a shot at fulfilling a “hot for teacher” fantasy, but, he was a guy so she felt confident in her chances of getting onto the SEM with a little harmless flirtation. She remembered him as a total frat boy, beer (Sapporo) and pizza (Dominos) were the essence of life as far as he was concerned, typical for a thirty something techie and perennial bachelor.
Judy took the steps two at a time up to the heavy security door and entered the code Ernie had sent via text before she had left her apartment. The light on the little black box changed from red to green as it released the magnetic lock, allowing her access to the building. Entering quickly she headed down the long hall toward the radiology department. He shouldn’t be too hard to find, all she had to do was follow the pepperoni vapors wafting down the long hallway. About halfway down she heard Led Zeppelin emanating from one of the labs behind a set of swinging double doors. She knew the tune, The Immigrant Song she thought, recognizing the familiar melody. Suddenly the doors burst open and out popped Ernie Namura, his arms heavily laden with a stack of thick manila folders that he could barely see over. He was working on a half eaten slice stuffed in his mouth, chewing loudly as he rushed by her. Judy side stepped the fast moving techie, flattening herself up against the wall.
“Whoa, sorry ma'am, I didn’t see you,” apologized Ernie, the words nearly unintelligible through the mouthful of half chewed pizza.
“No worries Ernie-san, it’s me, Judy.”
Ernie stopped abruptly and turned back toward the voice. He leaned against the wall to free up his right hand and pulled the pizza out of his mouth. Swallowing hard, he choked down the wad of food clogging his airway and managed a reply.
“Oh, man, sorry Prof, I totally forgot you were coming, it’s been wicked busy here tonight,” Ernie apologized, wiping the cheese and pepperoni grease off his mouth with the sleeve of his lab coat. Judy gingerly took the half eaten slice from his hand with her thumb and forefinger and put it back into his mouth.
“That’s okay, you go drop off that stack of files and I’ll just wait for you right here in your lab. I'll break out a couple of the cold ones I brought to bribe you to look the other way while I log onto the SEM with your code. Does that work for you,” Judy asked, reaching around with both hands to tap her backpack, and giving Ernie a good look at her C size beauties as they stretched the fabric beneath the USC logo? It was like watching two bobcats fighting under a thin blanket, the poor guy was hypnotized.
“Ahhhh, yeah, sure, I’ll just be a sec, make yourself at home,” he replied as he sprinted off to wherever he was headed.
“K,” she said sweet as pie.
Judy smiled coyly and went on into the lab, this was going to be fun she thought. The instant she entered the room and the heavy doors closed behind her she felt it. The thermostat read 72 degrees yet she was chilled? An air of foreboding surrounded her, why? And a familiar clinical smell hung in the air, just like the embalming room at the County morgue where she worked while pursuing her PhD. That was weird, all she should smell is pizza she thought looking at the extra large pie from Mario’s setting on an old metal desk. It had probably been donated by old man Hughes himself before he went nuts! Weird she muttered, as she set down her backpack and walked over to Ernie’s boom box. She cranked up the music up to level six and plopped down into the swivel chair to wait for Ernie. The room exploded with noise as “Whole Lotta Love” blared out of the speakers.
Leaning back in the chair she closed her eyes, just for a minute or two she told herself. But her body was screaming for a catnap. Burning the candle at both ends was catching up with her. Her head dipped and swayed, looking as if it would just fall off of her shoulders at any moment. Each time, she jerked herself back to consciousness and each time she fought the compulsion to sleep. But after a minute, maybe less she began doze off. And with unconsciousness the foreboding feeling returned, what was that? She felt her skin crawl, as if a bedbug was dining on her naked thigh under her covers. She didn’t trust what her mind was telling her, her eyes felt heavy and she couldn’t open them no matter how hard she tried. Was she awake or dreaming? She felt awake, she felt as though she were looking around the room? She could describe in detail every stick of furniture, every piece of equipment, even every tile in the ceiling. She was losing track of time, it was irrelevant in a dream state. How long had she been here? Where the hell was Ernie anyway, and what was taking him so long? A hinge squeaked. It was the doors in front of her. She thought she saw someone standing at the doors. How could she know? She was asleep right?
“Ernie, is that you,” she wondered in silence? No reply came.
“CUT IT OUT ERNIE,” she screamed without making any noise!
Her heart raced and if you were standing over her you would see her eyes moving rapidly under closed lids. She was asleep and awake at the same time. She was also scared. A wisp of a shadow passed over her and quietly exited the room. She imagined hearing a faint sound, a low and soft chuckle. It made her smirk involuntarily, yet chilled her to the point of shivering, as if she stepped over an open grave? She remembered an old saying from childhood, “step over an open grave today and someone you know will die tonight.” It wasn’t an exact quote but it was a clear memory nonetheless. Judy’s breathing slowed and slowly she settled into a peaceful state. She was startled awake by a loud crash at the double doors as Ernie Namura returned from his errand at a sprint.
“Am I boring you Dr. Looney,” he said sarcastically as he reached for the Sapporo she had left on the table?
“What, no, no, sorry, long day after a late night, you know me the workaholic poster girl,” she answered as she got up to stretch. Ernie admired the view and took a long drink of the beer.
“Uh huh,” he replied.
Judy straightened her sweatshirt which she had twisted out of sorts while she was catnapping she guessed. She actually blushed when she caught her former student checking her out. He wasn’t shy, that was for sure, and she wondered if the beer was going to be enough of a bribe to get her onto the SEM? Raking her fingers through her hair she broke eye contact with him and wandered toward the equipment she needed.
“So, do you think I can get some time on this thing tonight? I won’t need much, maybe a couple of hours,” she asked, pretending to look over the machine but really watching Ernie for his reaction.
“Yeah, I think that can be arranged,” he replied smiling over his beer.
“Sweet! When can I get started,” she asked?
“As soon as I finish my dinner and this beer, but you have to join me, it’s rude to let someone eat alone ya know,” he answered. Judy sighed, putting herself on alert, wondering if she had miscalculated by labeling this guy tame.
“Uh, yeah, okay. Why don’t you open up my beer while I put my stuff over here near the SEM. I really appreciate this Ernie-san,” she said, quickly walking over to fetch her backpack with her samples.
“Hey, you didn’t pass anyone on the way in here did you,” she asked matter-of-factly?
“Nope, it’s you and me till dawn Dr. Looney, just the two of us,” Ernie replied with a shit eating grin.
“Swell,” Judy replied, suddenly wishing she had packed the sports bra in her bag.