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Saturday, August 25, 2012

(”nobody told me there’d be days like these”…John Lennon)

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Prologue

Los Angeles, California, 2009

What you are about to read is a testament to the proposition that life is chock full of second chances. Believe me, I should know, as I’ve personally racked up way more than my fair share of these little Godsends, "do over’s" as my little brother Chuck calls ‘em. They’re not free mind you, as there tends to be a fair amount of pain associated with any new opportunity. But, the man upstairs can be a bit of a softie sometimes, especially if your ears are on and you’re open to a little friendly advice.

Richard Wallace Roode, that’s my name, technically anyway, but most people just call me Whitey, if they know what’s good for them that is! I picked up that nickname on account of the blonde mop on the top of my pointed little head. Actually I was only toe headed as a child but the name kind of stuck with me throughout the years. Besides, when I was growing up the short version of Richard was Dick. Why you ask, good question, and one I asked many times of mom and dad for which they never gave an actual answer, unless of course you count my dad’s standard “kids should be seen and not heard” response. So Dick was a name that I dodged all thru childhood. Dick Roode, I don’t know, sounds more like a statement than a name, don’t ya think? For cripes sake, my poor knuckles were scraped raw by the fourth grade defending my good name each and every recess on blacktops and playgrounds spread over five different states (we moved around a lot on account of my Dad was a Navy Chaplin).

I was sort of a runt as a kid, and with a name like Dick, well, let’s just say you had to toughen up PDQ (pretty darn quick)! There weren’t too many choices with a name like mine; you either went with Dick and all of its less than flattering rudiments, like for instance, Dickey the squid, Dick Dick wanna lick, Dickenstein, and my personal favorite, Count Dickula. Or, you went by Richard and got tagged as a momma’s boy for life. I would have been doomed to live my life as a perennial nerd had it not been for one of the perpetual battles with little brother Chucky. Mom had dropped us at the Encino Theater one Saturday afternoon while she and dad “went shopping” (parents must think kids are stupid), and during a double feature of “Bandelero” (the requisite weekend western) and “Bullet” (who doesn’t love Steve McQueen) my Dick days ended. Chuck and I had snagged two of the coveted seats, center screen and 10 rows back. As usual, we were arguing over who would hold the large coke we shared and who got to hold the popcorn, when someone behind us hollered,

“HEY WHITEY, MOVE YOUR FAT NOGGIN YOU TOE HEADED FREAK!”

And there it was, handed to me on a silver platter, a name that every kid in town had just heard me christened with, nice! From that day forward I would be known simply as Whitey and just like that my Dick days were over! Maybe not the most prestigious of circumstances, but it was a good alternative to reform school, which is where I was headed with all the fist fighting at school. Whoever that anonymous voice was he ended my long streak of playground shiners. Just in time as far as I was concerned as it was getting pretty old holding a beef steak to my eye once a week. Not to mention monopolizing an unfair portion of the weekly grocery budget, a fact that my father shared often. So, from fifth grade on I never again used my given name, except of course when dealing with Uncle Sam’s fiscal terrorist cell, the I-R-fucking-S, assholes!

My mother thinks I’m handsome, sometimes. I’m not too tall, not too short, and heavy enough to knock most people on their butts if they came asking for it! I’m a relatively healthy, fifty-something, regular Joe in Los Angeles, California, the city of angels. It's been home for me for most of my adult life, and where still I earn a decent living as a private investigator. That’s right, a private dick, I guess nothing really changes. It’s sometimes dangerous work, but mostly routine and usually pretty honest work. It pays the bills, and it beats punching a clock in some factory, or bagging groceries at the market. The Alexandria Hotel, over near 5th and Spring St., a seen-better-days fleabag of a flophouse is where I hang my hat daily. It’s not the Ritz, but it’s close to the action and the price is right, translation, it’s CHEAP!

I was a damn good cop for better than twenty-two years in this city, a detective first grade for the last twelve. I had a gold shield and everything, no fooling! I'd earned myself a solid reputation on the streets, and paid my dues in sweat and blood, as well a broken marriage. I just enjoyed the rush that came with a job well done, and appreciated the respect of peers and superiors. Man, life was good, aces actually, right up until the day that my wife, the lovely Rhonda Roode informed me that she was changing teams. What do I mean? Well let’s just say that the monthly alimony check is made out to Ronald Roode now, nuff said! That little revelation inspired me to book a two year vacation package to God knows where via ‘AIR BOOZE’. Needless to say the department wasn’t exactly supportive in my choice of therapies. So after a long string of missed counseling sessions the LAPD and Whitey Roode divorced as well.

Now, as an educated man, I actually do have an advanced degree in criminology, you'd have thought that I'd have been able to avoid such an obvious pitfall, right? Well you’d have been wrong! What the hell, I was hurt, pissed, and feeling sorry for myself, you know the drill. My mom used to say, “don’t cry over spilled milk!” It turns out that she was right, and eventually things changed, for the better sort of. I used to beat myself up over that dark period of my life, but you know what, fuck ‘em, sometimes you just need a good cry!

So, after being encouraged to leave the employ of the LAPD, two years shy of a full pension mind you, I found myself sitting at my mother’s kitchen table late one Sunday evening. We were sipping cheap scotch together, eating fish and chips reminiscing about the good old days as she called them. When, out of the blue, she smacks me with a healthy dose of Irish wisdom in her thick Gaelic brogue. It was typical of the sort of thing you would expect to hear from anyone in my family, and it went something like this, “…sonny…life’s a bitch, and then you die…” Frankly, I decided to take it as sign that things could only get better. Good words to start over on, don’t ya think? Anyways, I’m hoping it was more than just the whiskey talking; but then again my mother has always been a bit of a drama queen!

What’s this mean to all of you? Nothing I guess, I'm just setting the mood for what you’re about to read. OK, now we’re properly introduced so let’s get to the good stuff. This case is actually pretty interesting, and it all started like this…




(”tell me why, why, why, why you cried…and why you lied, lied, lied to me”…Lennon & McCartney)




Chapter One


Little Tokyo, Los Angeles California, Monday, Feb 16, 2009…12:30pm

Her name was Sally November. At least that’s what the mailbox said. Truth be told her given name was Mei Li Teng, that’s what the INS downtown said when I checked her out on the way over here this morning. Such a beautiful name I thought, almost lyrical. You know, I’ve lived around the Asian community in this city for better than twenty years, and the practice of choosing English names for their children has always perplexed me, I don’t get it. I suppose it’s one way to fit into the neighborhood, who knows? It was a shame though; Mei Li probably fit this girl much better. Actually, this whole thing was going to be a double shame, because now I had to go back and tell her Uncle Lu that I had found his missing niece. It was going to crush him, I knew that for a fact; as I have listened to him go on and on about her for years, ever since she was a tyke.

Lu Rong, his life partner Jai Lai, and I go way back. All the way back, to when I carried a gold shield as one of LA’s finest. They were more friends than associates, I mean really, how useful are snitches named Rong and Lai anyway (pronounced ‘wrong’ and ‘lie’)? Think about it, it’ll come to you. They are a pleasant little homo couple though. They run a Jewish Delicatessen, yes, I said Jewish, in the financial district on Wilshire, you know the white collar side of town. It had a catchy little name too, “SHO-M-U-LYKE-M.”
I know what you’re thinking, cops and queers, strange bedfellows, right? Well don’t be too quick to judge. Go shake your own family tree first, you may be surprised!

Anyway, Lou had asked me to see what I could see after his niece was a no-show at LAX a while back. She was supposed to be a passenger on an inbound Boeing 747 from Taiwan, and in fact the manifest confirmed that she had boarded the plane in Taipei. But when Uncles Lu and Jay arrived to pick her up, guess what, no Mei Li? Lu and Jay had bankrolled her trip to the States where she was supposed to attend USC majoring in business administration with a minor in finance. That was six months ago and now here she was, at the Biltmore Hotel, a run down bastion of yesteryear, quite literally across the street and down the block from my own digs at the Hotel Alexandria. That doesn’t put my skills as an investigator in a very good light, but in my defense all I had was an old photograph and unconfirmed starting place to work with. For all I knew she never actually got on that plane in Taiwan. Nevertheless, here she was, and she was dead. Mondays always suck!

From the looks of things she had traded USC for the school of hard knocks, and decided to go into business for herself using her tuition money as venture capital, courtesy good old Uncle Lu. As businesses go, her choice proved to be an ominous one that included some pretty serious risks, and I’m not talking about the fiscal kind. Sally was young, twenty-five years old, or so her dossier read, and she had big dreams according to Uncle Lu. He said that she had come to the US from Taipei to pursue a career in advertising. Well, she was advertising all right, and her clientele was apparently on the dangerous side.

Her skin was olive colored, smooth and flawless, a veritable walking billboard for the cosmetics industry, the make me beautiful people. She was runway model beautiful. I shook my head with a tsk tsk tsk look on my face as I stared at her corpse. She was dressed in pair of pink silk jammies, well, the bottom part anyway. Her shoulder length hair was pulled back stylishly into a ponytail that started high on her scalp and arched downward, just skimming the nape of her neck. She was drop dead gorgeous, no pun intended, a real China doll, with a look of childlike innocence that immediately squelched any impure thoughts I might have associated with her chosen ‘profession.’ I could feel tears welling up as I studied her with the eyes of a father, an uncle, or a brother. Except for the long silk tie wrapped tightly around her neck, she appeared to be only napping, as if she’d wake up startled by my presence at any moment. But of course, she wasn’t sleeping, she was dead, and that turned my heart to mush, like it would anyone witnessing a mess like this.

“What are you doing here Whitey?” asked the uniformed officer entering the living room from the kitchen. I knelt down beside the body, ignoring him, and fussed with the pink silk tie, careful not to touch anything, using my fountain pen as a sterile probe.

“Hey! Roode! That's right, I’m talking to you jack!” the officer hissed in a low anxious tone.

I put the pen back into coat my pocket, blew the Sally a kiss and stood up.

“No need to get testy Copper, I hear you loud and clear.” I replied.

“Come on man, Lt. Celaya will be here any second!” the agitated officer pleaded.

I looked at him knowingly and gave him wink, tipping the old and weathered Fedora I always wore high up onto my forehead. I folded my arms and added, “I guess that explains the whispering,” I whispered back. I ran my tongue over my teeth to remove the remnants of breakfast, my usual Pantry special, ham and eggs with an English muffin and coffee.

“It would probably be bad if he caught me here, might look like I’m one upping him.” I said with a grin.

“You’re not on the job anymore Whitey, you can’t just barge into a crime scene like you own the place! Besides, as we all know, Celaya hates your guts! So save me a lot of paperwork and beat it before he finds you here and makes me arrest your ass…again!” I nodded, fitting my hat back into its proper place on my skull, and started to leave. Officer Cooper interjected quickly.

“Not that way Whitey, go out the back, why take chances, right?”

“Natch, thanks paley,” I replied, tapping my temple with my pointing finger.

I did an about face and passed my friend in the blue uniform on the way to the kitchen, where I would make my Batman like exit via an open window out onto the fire escape. Copper’s partner, Patrolman Lewis tapped me on the arm as I went by. “Wait a sec, what do you know about this?” he asked, knowing that I always did my homework.

“What do you know?” I replied, stopping to face him. Lewis looked at me suspiciously and then answered.

“The neighbor says she’s a working girl.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” I replied sarcastically.

“Well, the skinny is that she had some interesting playmates.”

“Do tell.” I said smugly

“Yep, more than interesting, if this fella isn’t bullshitting us that is.”

“The neighbor huh, the one next door?”

“Yeah, that’s the one, right next door. Stay clear of him, if you know what’s good for you Whitey,” advised young Officer Lewis.

“Probably good advice, thanks,” I said, turning to walk away.

“Hey man, it’s your turn, tit for tat ass-wipe, what about you, what’ve you got,” shouted the irritated patrolman. I stopped in the doorway and answered without looking back?

“Oh yeah, her name’s not Sally.” I said, walking through the kitchen quickly and out the window, onto the sunlit fire escape.

I paused there for a just second or two to get a lay of the land. I glanced over at the empty fire escape next door, and made a mental note. Sooner or later I would be worming my way into that nosey neighbor’s life as soon as the LAPD was finished with him, definitely sooner, depending on how lucky later tonight. That would have to wait until I finished telling my good friend the sad news. That part of the job is always the worst. Bringing a mean dose of reality to someone, especially a friend always sucks. I hopped down from the fire escape ladder and hit the pavement at a trot. I would stop by the Alexandria Hotel Bar for a short one before I walked the six blocks to Lu and Jai’s deli. Delivering bad news is always easier when sauced.


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